Mothers Who Love an Addict | Alcoholic

Mothers Who Love an Addict | Alcoholic

Mothers who love an addict | alcoholic have it doubly hard in my opinion. We not only try to help the person with the drinking | drug abuse problem and/or addiction, we try to keep our non-drinking | non-drug abusing children safe in all manner of ways. We don’t want them to know what’s really going on because we don’t really know ourselves. And so we dig in, trying desperately to protect our children, and in the process, we often make a muck of it.

I know I did. I am such a mother. The havoc wrecked in my life and then by me in the lives of my daughters made most holidays – but especially Mothers Day from my perspective – something to get through because joy had long been absconded in our family. I didn’t feel I deserved their cards and gifts and unconditional love. I felt like a bad mother. I felt guilty that I could not make things better. I felt sad that they carried an unnameable sadness that wasn’t apparent on the outside, but I believed to be there on their inside, and as expressed in this anonymous letter shared with me, it was an unnameable sadness that was, in fact, likely there.

An Unsent Letter to Dad: the Impact of Secondhand Drinking on Children

But not anymore. Not any more. And it is this journey that is the subject of this post – a post I write in celebration of America’s Mother’s Day coming soon, May 12, 2013. [This post is not meant to exclude fathers or other primary care givers, by the way.]

The Tie In Between Mother’s Day and Mothers Who Love an Addict | Alcoholic

My daughters and I - in healthier times!

My daughters and I in emotionally healthier times!

Mother’s Day is now a day of celebration for me – not for me as a mother, but for my daughters and I as an emotionally healthy family. It is a celebration of what can happen when you heal the family “side” of this disease. It is our testament to the power of breaking the cycles of the family disease of addiction.

Today, Mother’s Day is the three of us catching up on our lives by Skype or in person or via separate phone calls – laughing and happy – oh so very happy with that unnameable happiness that was so long absent in our lives.

Why Things Are So Different

Back in the day, when we did not understand the brain disease of addiction, nor what happens to the brains of the family members who love someone with the disease when it’s not treated, understood or healthily discussed, our time together was a minefield. We didn’t understand secondhand drinking. One of us was usually on edge. I was usually wallowing in self-pity or ranting about the latest transgression, and the tension and fear were something you could cut with a knife.

There was always the pall of impending doom because doom was usually pending. Mind space and conversations were generally consumed with shares or tirades about what someone else was or was not doing or the good times we’d have when so and so or such and such got fixed or did this or that.

But Not anymore

For those who don’t know my story, in 2003 I finally started to unravel what happens to a family member when they are chronically faced with a loved one’s untreated, unhealthily discussed, misunderstood substance abuse and/or addiction (in my case, several decades of experience). It took many years and involved a great deal of research, intensive therapy with an addiction’s specialist, participation in a 12-step program for family members, and a lot of lot of work to RE-WIRE my brain from its grooved reactions to all emotions as if they were facts.

Individually and together, my daughters and I worked to understand the science of the brain disease of addiction – that the drinking/drug use behaviors weren’t them (our loved one), they were a symptom of their brain disease. We learned the science of what happens in the brains of family members and friends, as a result of their chronically coping with the drinking/drug use behaviors and believing those behaviors were something within their control to control. (Yikes! Talk about crazy making!!) We learned those coping skills were not us (the people who love the addict | alcoholic).

The Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking

Most importantly, we learned addiction is a family disease.

Healing from the Family Disease of Addiction

Over the years, all three of us have done a great deal of work to get the help we individually needed in order to change the conversations and thereby break the cycle. We’ve learned the power to change rests within each of us. It rests within our power to control our own brains and what we let into our minds and lives. We learned of the health impacts of secondhand drinking. We finally got the concept of “being powerless.”

Powerless Over Alcohol

We learned and then accepted that other people have brains, and we have brains. But the only brains we can control and heal (re-wire) are our own. With this awareness and understanding (and work), my daughters and I now spend our time together doing things we like to do (like scuba diving, rocking climbing and hiking) and talking about things we like to talk about – none of which has anything to do with addiction.

But the first thing we had to do in this learning /healing curve was to really understand addiction for what it is – a chronic, often relapsing brain disease.

Why is Understanding the Brain Disease of Addiction so Terribly Important to Healing the Family Disease of Addiction?

My daughters and I are obviously not alone. But the statistics of how much company we have may surprise you. One in four children is exposed to familial alcohol abuse or alcoholism before the age of 18 (and that’s just alcohol abuse | alcoholism). Just over half of  American men and women report one or more of their close relatives has a drinking problem.

Behind Every Alcoholic or Drug Addict is a Family Member or Two or Three…

So why do so many of us get so far gone before we seek help for ourselves instead of the addict | alcoholic? Consider these statistics (pulled in 2013):

Addiction = 23.2 million
Cancer = 12.5 million
HIV = 1.1 million
Diabetes = 25.8 million

It is estimated over 23 million Americans struggle with addiction, yet fewer than 10 percent are getting treatment. By comparison, cancer prevalence for all types of cancers [which is the term used by the American Cancer Society to define the number of living people who have ever had a cancer diagnosis] totals 12,549,000 – roughly half the number of people struggling with addiction. Another disease comparison is HIV. The CDC estimates more than one million people are living with HIV in the U.S.

How many of us are even aware of these numbers? How many of us are aware that addiction is now understood to be a brain disease and that treating it requires the same treatment model used to treat other diseases, such as cancer, HIV and diabetes (let alone what is the disease treatment model)?

This is not to say that any one disease is more important than another but rather to draw attention to what secrecy and shame can do to effectively treating | preventing a disease. In my opinion, the estimated 90% of those who struggle with addiction do not seek help because recovery is, for the most part, done in anonymity and that continues the secrecy and shame. And it is that secrecy and shame that oozes in and envelopes the family, pulling them into the collusion around the notion, “Addiction isn’t a problem here.”

Recovering in Anonymity – Does it Continue the Secrecy and Shame

Shatter the secrecy and shame

If we are going to stop this train-wreck, we must start talking about addiction for what it is – a disease – a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. “The Addiction Project,” created by NIAAA, NIDA, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and HBO, hosts a great deal of the new research on the brain disease of addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)’s site,”Drugs, Brains and Behaviors: The Science of Addiction,” shares similar information.

As mothers – as family members – as society as a whole – we can do this. It is time. Please – let’s change the conversation and talk about it.

To find those that are presently doing this, please visit:

Faces and Voices of Recovery

The Anonymous People

Faces of Recovery

©2013 Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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41 Responses to Mothers Who Love an Addict | Alcoholic

  1. Sandi says:

    Great article Lisa! I am so happy you & your beautiful daughters were able to break the cycle.

    A part of my journey, that I don’t often speak of, included a very scary and abusive relationship with an alcoholic husband. My children were very young…but the memories are still very real to them.

    I am so grateful I, we, do not have to live in that nightmare anymore.

    • I’m so glad you don’t either, Sandi – we just don’t understand at the time what it does to us and through us to them. I so appreciate you sharing your experience and thank you for your comment!

  2. It’s a shame that it more people don’t understand the brain chemistry behind the problem! You know I’m a big fan! So happy that your broke the cycle and share your story and bring awareness to the subject!

    • I agree, Elizabeth – I think understanding the brain chemistry was the key thing that freed all three of us of the anger, frustration, blame and shame. Finally we could understand it wasn’t them – it was their brain disease – the behaviors from which were triggered when any amount of the substance was used so all the deal making and hopes of a different outcome could be released – there would be no different outcome for them if they used, but we could change our reactions and learn how to take care of our own emotional health. I so appreciate your comment!

  3. Thanks for sharing and bringing awareness, Lisa. Bless you for being able to break the cycle.

  4. Lisa, breaking the cycle of addiction can be the most difficult thing a family can do. I am Glad that you and your daughters have been able to accomplish this feat. Happy Mother’s Day!

  5. Tom H says:

    Thank you for sharing your story about addiction, Lisa. Breaking the cycle can be one of the more difficult things a person can face. Even tougher if it is helping a loved one break the cycle

    • Thank you, Tom H. There’s a great analogy for what happens to the family members – the family side of this disease – it’s that of a frog put into a pot of cold water, placed on the stove on low heat and slowly brought to a boil. The frog does not jump out of the pot when it’s boiling because it’s acclimated to the heat along the way. (Icky analogy, I know, but that’s what it’s like.) So hopefully this post helps other family members understand it cannot, will not get better until they, the family member, takes action to take care of themselves – which, of course, is the dilemma because that feels selfish. Thanks so much for your comment!

  6. Such an important post! Many times, the burden of carrying the “secret” in the family is as much a sickness as the disease itself. Of course, it’s never really a secret. Usually, friends, neighbors, and relatives already know. I am glad your family has found joy. Your story will help many others. Happy Mother’s Day!

    • So true, Martha! When we think of how we all know someone who has some form of cancer and that the number of people living with all types of cancers is roughly half the number of those struggling with addiction – then likelyfriends, neighbors and relatives already know. Thanks so much for your comment!

  7. Happy Mother’s Day! YOur journey is helping so many others as well.

  8. You are an inspiration for others, Lisa. Thank you for sharing your story and showing our challenges don’t have to be forever and unconquerable. You are helping the many rather than the few! God bless you.

  9. Yvonne says:

    Thank you for fighting for others!!

  10. Helena says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story Lisa. Addiction and alcoholism can do so much harm to a family. I’m glad for you and your daughters that you were able to heal and move forward with your lives.

    • Thank you, Helena – it’s been a wild ride to be sure, but we’re so very fortunate to be living on the side of serenity, now. Thank you for reading and adding your comment!

  11. I’m so glad that you and your daughters were able to heal and gain understanding into your experiences. You have a powerful story and I’m sure you inspire and support many who have not quite got to opening up to healing. Thanks for sharing.

  12. I loved this article! Thank you for sharing your personal story and journey you went through. I am so happy that you and your daughters made it through and I love the pictures! 🙂

  13. Hi Lisa,

    What a wonderful story and loved seeing the cute pictures of you and your daughters. You have come a long way in this journey and that is amazing that you have found healing and recovery for your family. Have a wonderful Mother’s Day.

  14. Anita says:

    Moving that you shared your story and that you broke the cycle. Its a lots of hard work and perseverance, But its worth it! Thanks you for all the work you do.

  15. Lisa, thanks for the wonderful Mother’s day article. The letter from the girl was hard to read, but really brings the point home. With all of the brain research out there, it is hard to believe that so few people actually know what it is saying. In the grand scheme of things, not many seem to be looking at addiction any differently than they used to. Thanks for helping to spread the word!

    • I absolutely agree with you, Leslie – in the grand scheme not many are looking at addiction any differently than it’s been viewed and treated for decades. It’s great to be in the company of professionals, such as yourself, who know and are using this new brain and addiction-related research in their work and practices. In my lectures and work with addicts, alcoholics and their families, it is making a world of difference for them when they understand the science of why and how it’s a brain disease and they developed it and what it will take to heal their brains. And, oh gosh yes, I agree, the letter from the girl is gut-wrenching. Thanks so much for your comment.

  16. Shari says:

    Wow. Powerful, Lisa. I can’t say more than that. Thanks for sharing. Happy Mother’s Day.

  17. That is awesome that you have reached that emotional healing with your daughters. Brings a lump to my throat… Second chances. Thank God for them. x0x

  18. I really appreciated reading this article. Thank you so much for being vulnerable, for sharing your personal experience and for being strong and courageous. Thank you for reinforcing that this disease is REAL and necessitates the same attention and treatment as any other disease. The more people see this the more it will sink in. And hopefully more people will start fighting for and demanding equality for addicts and alcoholics and their treatment! Blessings to you and your daughters, beautiful strong women! Thank you for doing the hard work.

  19. Connie Riddick says:

    I am so pleased that there are folks like yourself sharing your wisdom of this terrible disease. I have lived with this issue with my daughter for over 10 years now. It is the hardest thing I have ever had to witness. Finally coming to realize that I cannot make this go away, I have began to move forward with the things I can do, and that is keep my faith and be a voice for others that are ashamed to discuss it with anyone. Stepping out of the darkness and working hard to be a light for those who are afraid to step out of the darkness too. It still hurts so much, but understanding more and more each day.

    • Thank you, Connie, and thank YOU for “stepping out of the darkness” to help others start to talk about all of this. FYI – there’s a new group that’s bringing the family voice to addiction conversations – – you may wish to check them out.

  20. Melanie says:

    This is a generous window into a very intense and personal struggle. Yes we do need to share and support one another. Secondhand addiction has an amazingly difficult impact on all involved. The stigma needs to dissolve and be replaced with comprehension.
    The daughter’s letter hit home repeatedly. Thank you ……. Many times over.

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