When your child struggles with addiction, which is now understood to be a chronic, often relapsing brain disease, the world flips and turns in unimaginable ways. Days and nights become excruciating as a parent’s every attempt to help, stop, hold onto, and do anything and everything to save their child seems to slam into another wall, followed by periods of brief respites – perhaps even periods of recovery – and then slam – another wall. So it is always a huge help when a parent is able to speak out about their experiences – not that all parents should by any stretch of the imagination — but rather if they can. Because their experience(s) may just be just what another parent needs to hear in order to better handle the nightmare of their child’s addiction and learn what they can effectively do to help them.
Today, I’m sharing a Q and A with Linda Dahl, author of The Bad Dream Notebook, her new novel detailing a family’s experience with a child’s addiction. She is the award-winning author of seven previous books of both fiction and non-fiction, including Loving Our Addicted Daughters Back to Life. Linda writes about challenging personalities and difficult issues, reflecting her interests in the arts and addiction and recovery. She has two children and lots of animals and lives in an old farmhouse in upstate New York, where she serves with several organizations that work to educate young people about and help them recover from drug use dependency.
Q: Tell me a bit about your latest novel, The Bad Dream Notebook.
A: It’s about several things that preoccupy and energize me. What can happen, good and bad, between a parent and child when the child becomes addicted. The healing power of compassion plus knowledge about the brain disorder of addiction. The creativity that is unleashed by facing fear and shame in all their hairy guises.
Q: What was the inspiration behind the book?
A: My family. There were four of us. Now there are three. My husband died of cancer just when my then-teenage daughter was becoming addicted to painkillers and then heroin. And although I am in longtime recovery, I missed the signs until it was –pardon the expression – smack in my face. I was as unprepared as any other parent to deal with a child’s addiction. Until I got educated about what helps and what hinders recovery, we both suffered every day. Now, one day at a time, each of us is clean and sober and thriving.
Q: Since it seems to be based largely on your life, why did you decide to write this book as a novel?
A: My previous book, Loving Our Addicted Daughters Back to Life, is a guidebook for parents and loved ones of young women struggling with addiction. It is the first book for a general audience about the wealth of scientific findings and evidence-based treatment that women need. That was inspired by our experience. Yet the story wouldn’t leave me alone. I felt that I’d written the intellectual fact-finding aspect of it, but the emotional, dramatic story was clamoring to be told.
Q: How did your communication approach with your daughter change over the course of her addiction?
A: The more I learned, the more I had to change the way we interacted. Although I knew from my own experience that shaming, begging, threatening etc., rarely if ever help a person suffering from this disease, that’s what I did with her. Active addiction is a minefield for all concerned. But as I got some clarity, I became much more matter-of-fact with her. I learned to avoid the diversionary tactics addicts use. I gave her choices, both carrot and stick. Bottom line, I asked myself if what I was doing was helping to keep her disease alive, or helping her move towards recovery. I became stricter and at the same time, more compassionate. And I never stopped telling her I loved her and hated her disease.
Q: I heard you had a somewhat serendipitous conversation with a banker that led to your daughter’s recovery. Can you tell me a bit about that?
A: So I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe in coincidences. I went to my bank to get a loan, because the fall-out from my daughter’s addiction had drained my resources, but I was determined to get her into a recovery center that worked – this time. I knew the man at the bank because he’d helped me deal with finances after my husband died. This time, as we sat on either side of his bank desk, I just opened up to him about why I needed the loan. And it turned out he had this amazing sister, a scientist and woman in recovery who’d designed a small recovery center in another state utilizing the latest gender-specific treatment that works for women. Within days, my daughter was on a plane. And it was excellent treatment with after-care at a well-run sober house. But still, she relapsed, oh I don’t know, several more times, before getting clean. Significantly, she later told me that small women-centered rehab was a turning-point, a place where she was encouraged to open up about her trauma and shame, two things that bedevil female addicts particularly. It was extremely important for her to find a way to trust and respect herself.
Q: What do you think was the turning point for your daughter? The point where she knew it was finally time for her to help herself.
A: She finally put together about eight months of recovery in another state. She had a wonderful sponsor. But she was also in a relationship. So she and the boyfriend came to visit me for a week. And she went out and scored some heroin. We found out. The boyfriend and I laid down our bottom lines – either you get rid of the dope and immediately get to a meeting and get a temporary sponsor, or he’s leaving and you will have to find another place to stay. And it worked. She was between that rock and hard place where I believe you have to get to. Where you’re finally willing. I saw tremendous change in her after that.
Q: What message(s) do you want readers to take away from The Bad Dream Notebook?
A: I want people going through what I did – and there are millions of us – to stop being so hard on themselves. Addiction is not the result of bad parents or a moral failing or a lack of willpower. When we read the science, we get that it’s a brain disorder which robs the sufferer of the ability to make rational decisions. And we have to learn that love without understanding how the disease operates is not enough. Compassion plus comprehension are vital in turning it around.
And one more thing, which may sound surprising. People who come to a 12 step meeting for the first time often say they’re amazed at all the laughter. So it is in The Bad Dream Notebook. Because laughing at life is one of the best antidotes to suffering I know.