What Was Lost

The havoc addiction wreaks on the family

I had a recent conversation with my mother about the evolution of addiction treatment. She broached the topic, having just attended a training at the addiction treatment center she works for. My mom is a substance abuse counselor, and also has 30 years of sobriety through AA. She was remarking on how much things had changed since she got sober thirty years ago.
“You know, I have to remind myself to be open, that there is no ‘one way’ for someone to obtain recovery.”
I asked Mom what she meant by that. She explained:
“I got sober through AA, and I used to be judgmental about people who needed treatment. I mean, I just assumed that AA was the answer, nothing else was needed. Now I see newly sober women in my work who are taking advantage of everything that treatment has to offer. They are including their family, their kids in the process. I try to imagine what would have been different for our family if I had had that opportunity. There would have been much less damage done to my relationship with you kids.”
I was surprised to hear my mother mention "damage." I had always had the perception that once she got sober, everything felt right to her. It had seemed to me that my mom had simply moved forward, attending AA, making new friends and forgiving herself for mistakes she had made.
A divorce from my father seemed to solidify her new life apart from us and my brother, my sister and I were left to deal with the aftermath. I was thirteen, and my family had splintered apart. While Mom reveled in her newfound connection to the world, we floundered.
For the next fifteen years, we all seemed to take turns at our own breakdowns and catastrophes, somehow forging ahead with life. Alcoholism, denial and divorce had wreaked havoc on our emotional lives and it wasn’t until I was thirty years old that I sought help for myself. I had spent many years being angry at, yet yearning for, my mother. I longed for a positive relationship with her but I had been too focused on the fact that she “chose” alcohol (and then her sobriety) over my brother, my sister and me.
The stigma around women with addiction is great, and a special kind of judgement is often reserved for mothers. I realized after this conversation that while I had always been preoccupied with my own grief over the loss of my family, I had rarely considered my mothers. What must it have been like for her to lose her children? To be labeled the ‘bad guy’? Mom rarely speaks of these feelings to me. Most likely because she feels a strong sense of boundaries and of not wanting her kids to be burdened with her emotional baggage.
From my work with children and parents, I know that a huge relapse trigger is the shame and guilt people feel over the potential damage they have done to their kids. These feelings are often the reason that parents refuse to include their children in the recovery process.

"They’re too young...they don’t know the extent of my addiction” and “They’ll think I’m a bad parent; it will make things worse” are frequent statements. The look in their eyes reveals the extent of their pain. I try to gently explain that dealing with it sooner rather than later can be a remedy for a world of pain tomorrow. I am a great example of this.
Addiction wreaks havoc, not just on the afflicted person, but on their most cherished loved ones. I spent a good deal of my youth and early adulthood assuming that I had been abandoned, that my mother “chose” alcohol over me, that she had left us because we hadn’t mattered. I was bombarded with messages that affirmed this for me, and even had a few well-meaning therapists (with no understanding of addiction – and there are lots of those out there) confirm this misconception.
I have yet to meet any parent who has consciously made the “choice” between drugs and alcohol or their children.
When I think about what happened in my family, there is still so much grief. But this grief is not over the fact that we ever had to deal with addiction to begin with. I grieve more for the in-between time, the lost, floundering years. The years of messiness after my mother stopped drinking, when the rest of us fumbled along, pretending that none of it had ever happened. It was too painful to talk about and we didn’t know any better. The wounds were raw and there seemed to be nobody willing or able to guide us into our own recovery. Instead, we continued to acquire layers of pain and misunderstanding, resulting in guilt, shame, sadness and a heaviness that seemed to never go away.
My mom is right; the opportunities in treatment for the whole family will make a world of difference. If our entire family had received help instead of just my mother, things would have been very different.
Recovery should never be about one person–it’s about the collective group, the family...and even the kids.
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