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.
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
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).
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.”
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.
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):
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.”
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:
©2013 Lisa Frederiksen