A woman in long-term recovery recently contacted me about this issue. She’d voluntarily installed a breathalizer (aka ignition interlock device) in her car and a camera so it could be verified that she was the one who blew into the breathalizer. She’d also already agreed to and had been complying with random drug tests. Yet she still was unable to get the judge to modify her custody visits to some sort of physical custody.
Would we prevent a person whose cancer is in remission from enjoying a respectful, meaningful, equal shared post-divorce relationship with their children? Would we do that with a person who is managing their HIV, heart disease or diabetes?
Of course not. But that’s because we understand those diseases. They are no longer shrouded in secrecy, misinformation and shame. Those involved in a family law proceeding (family law attorneys, judges and the clients themselves) see these individuals as separate from their disease and applaud their recovery as commendable and something to be honored and supported.
On the contrary, family law proceedings with persons in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder are often fraught with discrimination, mostly because all concerned do not understand addiction for what it is – a chronic, often relapsing, but TREATABLE, brain disease, nor do they understand addiction recovery. And so they see the person in recovery as their disease, rather than a person with a treatable disease from which they are in recovery. As such, those in family law proceedings still associate that individual’s pre-recovery, pre-treatment behaviors as intentional, rather than an outcome of the chemical and structural brain changes that are the hallmark of the brain disease of addiction.
All of this deeply hurts the children caught in the custody battle. Often the tragic outcome is the children suffer what are known as Adverse Childhood Consequences (ACEs), which in turn sets them up to suffer a host of unhealthy outcomes – including the development of a substance use or mental disorder, themselves.
What Can You Do if You Are in Long-Term Recovery Fighting for Custody
Please note the phrase, “long-term recovery.” As a mother of two daughters caught in the insanity of the untreated family disease of alcoholism and my ensuing divorce from their father in the early 1990s, I understand how terrifying it is when the parent in question is active in their addiction. [Check out my articles, Fears for Children When Divrocing an Alcoholic and Family Law Discrimination Against Recovering Alcoholics/Addicts.] So this article is addressing the person living in long-term recovery vs early recovery or active addiction. Why the distinction?
As stated, relapse is a hallmark of the disease of addiction. And because addiction is a brain disease [disease by its simplest definition is something that changes cells in a negative way; addiction changes cells in the brain – the organ that controls everthing a person thinks, feels, says and does] treatment of this disease is not done in 28 days. So this article is for the person in long-term recovery fighting for physical custody. The following suggestions can also be used by someone in early recovery to build a parenting plan that demonstrates their commitment to their addiction treatment and recovery.
Educate the Court and the Family Law Attorneys Involved
For most people, the notion that addiction is a disease, let alone a brain disease, is pretty far-fetched, which is why I love the science. Here are three sources that may help you educate the courts, family law attorneys and even your opposing party (not in a “I know it all” manner, rather, “It’s a whole new world in our understanding of the brain and the brain disease of addiction…”):
How Science Has Revolutionized the Understanding of Drug [and alcohol is considered a drug] Addiction
…Today, thanks to science, our views and our responses to addiction and other substance use disorders have changed dramatically. Groundbreaking discoveries about the brain have revolutionized our understanding of compulsive drug use, enabling us to respond effectively to the problem.
As a result of scientific research, we know that addiction is a disease that affects both the brain and behavior. We have identified many of the biological and environmental factors and are beginning to search for the genetic variations that contribute to the development and progression of the disease. Scientists use this knowledge to develop effective prevention and treatment approaches that reduce the toll drug abuse takes on individuals, families, and communities. Source: NIDA’s Drugs, Brains and Behavior: The Science of Addiction
Does relapse to drug [alcohol] abuse mean treatment has failed?
No. The chronic nature of the disease means that relapsing to drug abuse at some point is not only possible, but likely. Relapse rates (i.e., how often symptoms recur) for people with addiction and other substance use disorders are similar to relapse rates for other well-understood chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma, which also have both physiological and behavioral components. Treatment of chronic diseases involves changing deeply imbedded behaviors, and relapse does not mean treatment has failed. For a person recovering from addiction, lapsing back to drug use indicates that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted or that another treatment should be tried.28 Source: NIDA’s Drug Facts: Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction
The Addiction Project, created by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and HBO, is one of my all-time favorite sites, chock full of information about the disease, how it develops, why some develop it, relapse, treatement, co-occurring disorders, recovery and more.
Consider Using a Family Law Mediator
And not just any family law mediator, but one who understands addiction and recovery. Alona M. Gottfried, a family law mediator and attorney in Arizona, wrote an excellent article for In Recovery Magazine’s Fall 2015 issue, titled “Finding Peace Through Mediation,” which was posted online 11/06/2015. In her article, Ms. Gottfried shares the following about her own work as a family law mediator:
Parenting Plans which address addiction concerns and the potential impact on children.
Modifications or Temporary Modifications to custody orders.
Legal Separation to handle issues until one party achieves a certain level of sobriety. By legally separating, the parties can divide their assets and debts, then make arrangements for support issues and parenting time during this transition period, including concerns that their partner could drive under the influence or face other criminal charges that can have financial repercussions.
Post-nuptial agreements, which are agreements that allow them to stay married but still address treatment and recovery issues.
Reconciliation-type Forums – These types of mediations generally do not result in a binding agreement, unlike those involving legal actions. Instead, in a facilitated conversation to help make it as productive and comfortable as possible, those taking part in the process air their concerns, feel heard and understood, then create a road map for moving forward in relationships.
Fine-tune Your Long-Term Recovery Plan
Addiction is an entirely TREATABLE brain disease and recovery is entirely possible when a person treats their disease. And for this, NIDA provides another excellent resource, Principles of Effective Addiction Treatment: A Reserach-Based Guide (Third Edition). I suggest you create a document that shows what you are doing to treat your addiction and address common relapse concerns, namely:
Effective Co-occurring Disorders (aka Comorbitity) Treatment – in the event you have both an addiction and mental disorder, such as anxiety, PTSD, depression, Bipolar, it is important to treat both at the same time. Resource
Addressing Your Underlying Risk Factors – there are five key risk factors that contribute to why a person develops the disease of addiction: genetics, social environment, early use, mental illness and childhood trauma. Explain what you are doing or have done to address yours so that one does not become the trigger of a relapse. An example might be cognitive behavioral therapy to address childhood trauma around early verbal, phsycial or emotional abuse. Resource
Anti-craving Medications – the power of addiction cravings is incredible which is where anit-craving medications to treat drug addictions can help. These include methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone for opiod addiction and naltrexone, disulfiram and acamprostate for alcohol and other drug addictions. Reource
Continuing Care, aka Aftercare – treatment for addiction must follow the same 3-stage treatment model used for other chronic diseases: 1) detox/stabilization, 2) acute care/rehab and 3) long-term continuing care, aka aftercare. Stage 3 is the one most often missing – in other words, what is the plan for maintaining one’s long-term recovery? It should be written and might include several of the following: attending 12-step or other self-help meetings, using a recovery coach, using a recovery app on their cell phone, agreeing to random drug testing, installing a breathalizer and camera in one’s car, regular sessions with a therapist who specializes in addiction. For all, it should be a commitment to engaging in the now scientifically understood brain healing/wellness practices of nutrition, aerobic exercise, sleep and mindfulness practices. Make a list and be specific – include where, when and how often. Resource 1 and Resource 2.
What If – What to Do Relapse Plan – relapse doesn’t mean treatment has failed (as explained above) nor does it mean all the recovery progress the brain has experienced disappears. But it’s important to have a plan in place in the event a relapse does occur. As for resources, looking back at the ones provided above will shed light on what you will want to do in the event of a relapse. The main purpose of this effort is to show you will take action and what that action will be.
Share the Fact there are 23 Million Americans Living in Long-term Recovery
Most of society doesn’t understand this fact – people can and do recover and they can and do lead joy-filled, productive, engaged “normal” lives. Check out these websites:
For Addictional Questions and Resources
As always, please feel free to contact me directly at lisaf@BreakingTheCycles.com or browse through the “For Families” section on my website.
©2015 Lisa Frederiksen