For the parents who mourn their children's choices, you will have to learn to re-direct your thoughts. Whether your kid is lost in addictions or has had self-destructive habits, you need to learn to lift yourself out of depression and anxiety.
Do you remember dreaming about your kid—even before birth? Wondering what he or she would be like? You faithfully went through all the stages of growing up with your child, tolerating tantrums, dirty diapers, spider collections, and heartaches. You did everything possible to be a good parent, attending school plays, parent-teacher conferences, play dates, and soccer matches. You spent lots of money on hobbies, activities, violin or karate lessons, the latest clothes, everything. You fell in love with this remarkable little human, knowing full well that your job one day would be to help him or her to grow wings and fly away from you.
When your child became a teen, the thought of your child going away one day didn’t seem quite so terrible. Perhaps this stage helps us to let go as our darling becomes more and more willful. I know it helped me to let go. So, what do you do when your child breaks your heart?
1. Don’t take it personally.
It’s not about you. Your child made choices, just as you did. Perhaps your child blames you, perhaps not. At any rate, you really need to remind yourself that your child made his or her own choices.
2. Connect with your spirituality.
Do you have a belief in a bigger picture? Some people connect through their religious practices. Spirituality for other is volunteerism, connecting with nature, or helping humankind in any way that they can. You get to define it. Talk to spiritual leaders or spiritual practitioners that you respect.
3. What you’re feeling is normal.
You’re grieving. People typically move through stages of grieving as they heal. So whatever emotions you’re feeling—anger, frustration, sadness, depression, guilt—it’s all normal and it’s all part of the process.
4. Detach with love.
Detaching doesn’t mean that you stop caring about your child. It means that you focus more on moving on with your life. Letting go of hopes, dreams, and expectations is painful. Yet, it's very necessary....for all of us.
5. Find peace and joy every day.
As you move on with your life, learn how to make yourself happy. Begin by appreciating the thing that bring you even a small degree of happiness each day. What made you happy in the past? Reconnect with those things.
6. Look for the positives.
One famous therapy assignment is called, “The Five Best Things About….” So, clients learn to focus on the five best things about having cancer, the five best things about having a son who is a drug addict, the five best things about having a daughter who is a lesbian, etc. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? People often give me an astonished look when I give them this writing assignment. Yet, it really does work. There are glimpses of sunshine in every storm. Learn to look for those glimpses.
Oh, and talk with a therapist if you get stuck. We're here to help, you know!
My good friend and colleague, Carolyn, died today. I’ve thought about all the things that I’ve learned from her over the years. I’m so grateful for the things that she taught me. Here are my top three things that I admire about Carolyn:
1. Our Wound is Our Gift.
Carolyn really understood that our "wound" is our gift. The greater our struggles and challenges, the more we have to give to others when we learn the lessons that those challenges provided. We become inspirations and models as well as teachers and guides. We are not here just for ourselves, but for something much greater.
She was an alcoholic who relapsed a number of times over a period of thirty years. She had a necklace made of dozens of 30-day chips from Alcoholics Anonymous. (Chips are the little circular pieces of plastic that you receive at an AA meeting when you’ve had thirty days of sobriety.) She became a drug and alcohol counselor because she REALLY understood addictions. And she helped thousands of alcoholics and addicts. She was loved by everyone. And she knew that she was no better than anyone else because of her wound.
2. A Positive Attitude is a Choice.
I really admired Carolyn’s joie de vivre. Even as she was dying, she joked and laughed with us. She knew how to handle the stress. She wasn’t about to suddenly become depressed about dying. I can’t remember a time when Carolyn wasn’t excited about life. I believe she was able to be so happy because she worked on having a positive attitude and was fully present. She didn’t have a negative story running through her mind, like, “This is just awful.” She could always put a positive spin on any event that appeared to be negative.
3. It's Not About the Money.
Even though Carolyn lived on social security, she was rich. She didn’t have money, but she was rich in friendships, rich in laughter, rich with stories, rich in experiences. She placed little value on money and lots of value on what really counts in life. We will miss her.
When you're the parent of a substance abuser, it's often difficult to decide what to do. On the one hand, you love your child (no matter how old they are) and want to do everything possible to help your child, particularly if they seem to be missing some basic life skills (such as budgeting their money or paying their bills on time). On the other hand, you don't want to enable them to continue to use drugs or drink alcohol. Addictions can be tricky. Let me give you a real-life example:
My oldest brother began to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol in high school. Marijuana came shortly after that. My parents often didn't know what to do. Naturally, they did the best that they could, but it wasn’t enough. When he was eighteen, my brother joined the Marines. Five painful years later, he was discharged. He had a habit of going AWOL and had to make up his time for doing so. When my dad was assigned by the military to work in Taiwan, they had little time to decide what to do with my twenty-something brother.
Weeks before my parents were to be transferred to Taiwan for two years, they set my adult brother up in an apartment in Denver and found a job for him working in a gas station two blocks away from his new apartment. They asked themselves, "Are we enabling him?" Two years later when they returned, my brother was nowhere to be found. The gas station owner said that he only showed up for a few weeks before he took off. We saw him a few times over the next decade. He would visit for a week or two, and then leave. We knew that he was struggling with substance abuse and alcoholism, but we didn't know that substance abuse and mental illness are often associated with each other.
When we saw him, he would talk about the voices in his head that told him what to do. Clearly he was in need of psychiatric help. But this was the 70s, and my parents weren’t very tuned in to seeking help. Jim talked about riding the rails (as a bum) all over the USA. He introduced us to some of his very interesting homeless friends, who also heard voices. He tried a few jobs over the years, but never stayed with a job. He needed to be free. And he needed to do what the voices told him to do.
Then my parents moved again and there was no way to notify Jim. So we lost touch with him for twenty-five years. Twenty-five years! When my sister located him through the Salvation Army, we were all grateful.
My brother is schizophrenic. Thank heavens he now lives with my widowed dad and they take care of each other. My parents took him in and made sure that he got enough to eat each day. He’s clearly disabled, but doing well as long as he takes his medications (which he does as a condition of living there). He no longer smokes, drinks, or uses illicit drugs. This was also a condition of living at home. And Jim was just plain tired of living the life of a homeless man. He was in sad shape when we found him—thin, toothless, and frightened.
So, what do parents do when they have an adult substance abusing child who clearly needs help? Talk to a professional….at length. You've got to figure out if your loved one is disabled or enabled. It's too difficult for a family to try to make these kind of distinctions on their own. There are often no easy answers. Boundaries and rules need to be clearly defined. Love needs to be shown. A contract needs to be made in many cases. But I’m here to tell you, there are often very happy endings. Good luck and God bless.
Did you know that people change in stages? This applies to most every type of change. Whether you are trying to improve yourself via New Year's Resolutions, give up a bad habit, or lessen the grip that addictions hold on your life. Understanding these stages will help you to ease up a bit on yourself, be less hard on yourself.
James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente developed a "Stages of Change Model" in the late 1970s and early 1980s when they were studying how smokers gave up their habits. These stages can be useful for anyone who is trying to make changes in their lives. By breaking a change down into stages, taking baby steps, it's much easier to accomplish permanent change.
Briefly, these stages are:
1. Precontemplation--At this stage the person is not yet acknowledging that a problem exists.
2. Contemplation--The person is aware that there is a problem, but is not ready or sure that they want to make changes.
3. Preparation/Determination--The person gets ready to make changes.
4. Action/Willpower--Actual changes are made in this stage.
5. Maintenance--The person maintains the changes.
6. Relapse--The person returns to old behaviors and abandons the changes. Relapse is fairly common if you're working to overcome an addiction.
You can use this model for your benefit by assessing which stage you are in. And give yourself some credit! Many people become very hard on themselves when they are not able to sustain new behaviors for long periods of time. But, consider this: the average person fails five times before making changes with New Year's resolutions!
Please remember that wherever you are, that's OK. And don't expect yourself to progress neatly from one stage to the next. Most people jump all over the place. So, it's not unusual to see a person go from contemplation to action to preparation to relapse to precontemplation. And some people never relapse. But don't be hard on yourself if you do return to old behaviors. Getting down on yourself only makes it harder to try again later.
When you think of addictions, what comes to mind? Alcohol? Drugs? Cigarettes? Certainly those are three common addictive escapes, but there are so many more. I define an addiction as a repetitive behavior that has life-damaging consequences. Therefore, even reading too much can be an addictive escape. And there are times in my life when I did read too much as a means of escaping from painful circumstances. It worked! Of course, nothing else got done while I was reading. But I was having a good time.
Other addictive escapes could be too much tv, too much internet time, too many hours playing video games, eating too much, gambling and on and on.
It has been said that most people give up what they want in the long run for what they want in the short run. In other words, we trade our long turn goals for our temporary pleasures.
Taking good care of yourself means acting in your highest interest. The main thing people worry about when I talk about taking good care of yourself losing their creature comforts. (”I’d give up anything to be healthy except my cigarettes” a client once told me.) So, we have to create creature comforts that do not have life-damaging consequences. Habit replacement is the easiest way to change unhealthy creature comforts for healthy ones.
Some people scare themselves into changing their life-damaging habits. Their doctor tells them something scary about their health. Negative consequences add up and break through their denial. Scaring yourself may be a good place to begin, but it is generally a temporary measure unless you do some habit replacement.
In creating new creature comforts that do not have life-damaging consequences, think of your five senses. What do you like?
SIGHT–Do you have a favorite photo that you enjoy looking at? Do you have a beautiful scene from a magazine or photo that pleases you? Do you rotate the pictures on your walls so that you’re continually exposed to beauty and novelty?
SOUND–What sounds do you like? I enjoy relaxing music, the sounds of nature (birds, ocean)
TASTE–There are a lot of healthy foods that are very tasty. Educate yourself on this. And be careful here. Avoid addictive substances like sugar and flour. You can use them sparingly, but know that they often lead to life-damaging circumstances. Do you enjoy the taste of Mediterranean food? Asian food?
SMELL–A nice candle, freshly cut grass, autumn leaves, spring rain, forest
TOUCH–A warm comforter, a fuzzy teddy bear, the smooth feel of a baby’s skin, the feel of a fire in the fireplace or the feel of the sun’s rays on your face; a gentle, breeze blowing through your hair.
Although this generally doesn't happen overnight, you can begin to build new habits that will eventually make it easier for you to squeeze out the old ones. They will no longer serve you. Bear in mind that doing this willingly is far more effective than doing it because you "should."
An interesting piece of research that I stumbled across also said that people are more successful in giving up tough habits (like heroin, cocaine, cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, etc.) if they also give up their small vices at the same time. If you've ever been to an AA meeting, you've probably seen the smoke-filled room and the very large pot of coffee. This research suggests that the coffee and the smokes are thrown out along with the big addiction. Good luck!