I’ll never forget the date.
It was April 16, 2013: My little brother’s birthday. I worked late shifts and was usually home around midnight. I had just come home to my one bedroom apartment and kicked back on the couch to unwind, when my phone buzzed. It was my mom.
Calls after 10PM from parents are never a good thing.
She told me that my dad was in the hospital. He had suffered a heart attack that evening. Luckily, being a nurse, my stepmom noticed the signs early and rushed him to the emergency room. They were able to put in a stent and stabilize him, and he was going to be OK.
I couldn’t bear the thought of my dad in pain.
When I was growing up and would scrape my knees or skin my elbows, my dad was always the one to let me squeeze his hand while cleaning out the cuts. The time I got broken glass lodged in my foot, he carried me into the house, so I didn’t have to walk. When I was very sick in the hospital, he held my hand every evening as the nurses came to draw blood.
He was always there when I was hurt. Now, he was the one who was suffering, and I had no idea what to do. I felt helpless.
When a parent is sick, in trouble or in pain – we experience a different sense of worry. These are the people who raised us; the people who took care of us; the people who give us advice and always have an answer to a problem. Our parents give us so much throughout their lives, and it’s confusing and troublesome when they’re the ones in need.
No matter your age, being the child of someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol is especially complicated.
Children of Addiction.
If the addiction starts before or while you are growing up, you’re emerged in chaos at a young age. You never truly understand or experience a “normal” childhood, as “normal” typically includes instability, fear, secrets, lies, and sometimes abuse. Your responsibilities usually far outweigh your friends’ chores – as you take care of your household, your siblings, and your addicted parent or parents. You’re sometimes sworn to secrecy over the pill bottle or flask you find, and your life revolves around keeping your addicted parent happy.
Growing up with an addicted parent or parents instills fear.
You may have lived in fear that your parent would come home intoxicated and angry – or that your parent may not come home at all. You may have worried that your parents would fight again, or that there wouldn’t be dinner on the table. You may have been afraid to do something for yourself, or stand up for yourself because the consequences or guilt from doing so would be devastating.
As you grew older, you may have developed low self-esteem: Constantly seeking approval from others, stemming from the lack of love and nurturing you received from your parents. You may have developed a dependent personality – or be terrified of abandonment. You cling to relationships in order to avoid the painful feelings of failed relationships or abandonment. You may have lost the ability to feel or express your feelings because you judge yourself so harshly.
Adult Children, Addicted Parent.
If your parents started using after you grew up and left home, you may face a different range of problems. As we grow older and become more aware of the issues and sufferings our family members face, it can be that much more painful.
You may be exhausted from calling out your parent on their behavior, or afraid to say anything. Maybe it’s easier to brush it under the carpet and ignore the signs that your mom is heavily medicated on Xanax and painkillers. Or easier to turn the cheek as your dad polishes off a bottle of whiskey every time you get together.
It’s difficult to see our parents in pain, and often even more difficult to try to figure out how to help. They may become angry or deny everything – making excuses, or tell you that you’ll understand when you’re older. You don’t want to cut them out from your life, because they’re your parent and you love them. But at the same time, you may not know what else to do.
It may be hard to talk about it: You don’t want your friends to know that your mom or dad is addicted to drugs or alcohol. You don’t want your parents to run into anyone you know while they’re intoxicated. And you sure don’t want the word to get out to your coworkers.
What Can You Do?
Watching a parent struggle and suffer – regardless of our age, background or maturity – can cause us to take all of the focus off of ourselves and our own lives.
No matter where or when your parent’s addiction began, you must find a way to express the grief, hurt and pain that you’ve carried around with you. You can’t control what your mother or father does about his or her addiction. You must create boundaries in your relationship, and realize that you can offer love and support – and forgive them for the symptoms of their disease.
While intellectually you may know that you aren’t responsible for their drinking or drug use – emotions can make it especially difficult to find peace and comfort of our own. The best way to deal with those emotions is to meet with others in similar situations, and get involved with support groups.
Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Co-Dependents Anonymous, and Adult Children of Alcoholics are all support groups aimed at providing coping skills and community for those with addicted loved ones – including parents.
Just because you are technically the “child” in this situation, doesn’t mean that you have to step aside and let your addicted parent call the shots. You can take control of your own life, and even reach out to addiction treatment facilities for your parents, to understand the best way to approach them about receiving treatment.
Watching a parent suffer in any form can be chaotic and upsetting, and while you may feel helpless, know that there is help – for your entire family.