WHEN CHRONIC SUBSTANCE ABUSE ROBS US OF THE CHILD WE ONCE KNEW
Parents of drug addicts can feel caught in a nightmare with too probable an ending. Experts tell us that drug addiction is a chronic disease that will require life-long management and that relapse is common. They tell us a drug addict doesn’t have to want help for drug rehab or addiction treatment to be effective, but no one talks much about the flipside of that equation: parents can desperately want help for an addict but that doesn’t mean drug addiction treatment will be effective for their child.
The theory of ambiguous loss — unresolvable grief over the loss of the child we once knew, while that child is still living — offers a helpful framework for understanding what parents face while they wait for an addict’s desire for drug treatment and the effectiveness of that drug treatment to coalesce. You can read more about ambiguous loss here; the article explains that when parents struggle to cope with a child in active addiction to heroin, prescription drugs, or opioids, that struggle is caused by ambiguous grief, not some weakness in the parent.
So how do we cope with the grief of a child’s addiction now that our grieving has a name?
The really cool chicks, Eleanor and Litsa, at “What’s Your Grief” suggest “it is important that you give yourself permission to grieve this loss. Acknowledge and express the pain of the loss, rather than trying to ignore or avoid the pain.” The experts at the Wendt Center agree, suggesting that we allow ourselves to take time to feel and express whatever emotions come up for us.
Knit together, this advice totals four separate suggestions, and I don’t like any of them. First, eating chocolate is the only permission I know how to give myself, but I think the kind of permission they’re talking about here is more like the “eat broccoli” type of permission. Second, feeling painful emotions sucks, so I don’t want to do it. Third, because feeling painful emotions sucks, actually setting aside and taking the time to deliberately feel pain will end up at the bottom of my to-do list. I’d rather eat chocolate. Fourth, expressing emotion is also problematic because, frankly, I exhaust family and friends when I express emotions.
Thankfully, both the Wendt Center and the WYG cool chicks emphasize the need to seek out support from other people who can relate.
Pass the tissues
For me, support groups are a gold mine of one stop shopping: first, I have to take and set aside time to go to a support group, which I think means I’ve given myself permission to go to a support group, so that checks off two of the four suggestions. Third, at support groups other people do the hard work of putting their feelings into words, and I can borrow from them to identify my own feelings. Fourth, most support groups give lots of leeway in the “expression” of feelings; they pass the tissues like civilians pass the salt. And, bonus!, they often have chocolate or are happy when I bring chocolate to share.
As parents, as we face the absence of the child we once knew, the theory of ambiguous loss gives us some explanation for what we are experiencing, and it’s an explanation that doesn’t BLAME the parents, which I personally appreciate. Ambiguous loss also emphasizes that we’re not alone, that there are proven approaches to managing our kind of grief. It gives us something TO DO: find support from others who understand, who walk our walk and cry our tears and ache in their hearts as we ache in ours.