Listen in as Sandy Swenson—author, advocate and mom of an addicted child—shares her story and lived experiences with host William C. Moyers. Sandy talks about how understanding the distinction between her son and the disease enabled her to love her child and help him fight the disease. She also shares the importance of self-care as a mom of an addicted child—shedding the shame, blame and guilt to heal and transition from a place of helplessness to a place of strength and hope.
0:00:15 William Moyers
Hello and welcome to Let's Talk, a series of podcasts produced by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation on the issues that matter to us as an organization and to you, our viewers. Research, prevention, addiction, treatment and recovery support. I'm your host William Moyers and today we're joined by my guest Sandy Swenson. Sandy is an author, an advocate, and most of all, a mom. Welcome, Sandy.
0:00:43 Sandy Swenson
Hi William, thank you. I'm happy to be here.
0:00:45 William Moyers
Well you and I have done a couple of events together over the years so I feel like I know you quite well now.
0:00:49 Sandy Swenson
0:00:51 William Moyers
And you have a lot of knowledge so I'd like you to share with our audience today your provocative statement on your website which says 'where love and addiction meet.'
0:00:59 Sandy Swenson
When I wrote my first book, The Joey Song, that was actually going to be the subtitle was where love and addiction meet. Because well that's where I was living. That's where I was living as a mom. Up until a few years before that I had thought I was just a regular mom trying to figure out life, with my children. And somewhere along the way I realized that I had to figure out how to be the mom of an addict. And it's such a unique and lonely place in this—this place where love and addiction meet, it is unique and painful and lonely and that is the story and that is where I come from in speaking to other parents and trying to relate with them on that, in that place. Because we do feel so alone that once we are connected with other parents in this same place we can learn and grow and move forward.
0:01:58 William Moyers
Is there room for love and addiction in the same space?
0:02:02 Sandy Swenson
0:02:01 William Moyers
Tell me more.
0:02:04 Sandy Swenson
Well at first with my child, he was in his late teens when this all started. He's now in his thirties. I was really all up in his business trying to you know fix it for him. And stalking him and you know making sure did he get to court and did he get to AA or do what he's supposed to do to be on his probation or whatever. I was all up in there trying to get things fixed for him. And during that time, I realized later that by me being—trying to be in there, trying to fix this for him, I was actually fighting my child instead of the disease. And it was really hard to love my child and have a relationship at that point because I was confused on where the child ended and the disease began.
0:03:05 William Moyers
0:03:08 Sandy Swenson
And so, once I understood that if I stepped back and gave him room to do what he needed to do, and I stepped back and did what I needed to do, we no longer had this—this battle well really he was fighting me instead of his disease and I was in the way.
0:03:28 William Moyers
0:03:29 Sandy Swenson
And then once we stepped back like that I could now love my son and I could now fight the disease of addiction.
0:03:36 William Moyers
Interesting. So you separated the two.
0:03:38 Sandy Swenson
I separated the two. And now it's possible when my child is ready, when he's found his own addiction recovery and sobriety, it's possible that he will come back to a happy and healthy mother and family relationship. Where before, it was hard to find the love. Because I was so all-consumed with fighting what felt like my child but was really the disease. So, there's no end to the love. In fact, my child knows now and I bet he didn't know back when we were you know budding heads all the time. I think I mean now that my child knows how much he is loved. And there's a great comfort in me knowing he knows that. And I might not be able to fix his disease for him but he needs a reason to quit and one of those reasons is one of those things that might give him a reason is knowing that he's loved. And sometimes that's all we can do. But you know, just love isn't bad.
0:04:52 William Moyers
So your experiences as a mom who was a mother and loved an addicted adult son, because he was an adult although he was young—those experiences all fed into this incredible meditation book that you produced a year or so ago. Or maybe it's been a couple years now called Tending Dandelions: Honest Meditations for Mothers of Addicted Children.
0:05:13 Sandy Swenson
0:05:14 William Moyers
Why did you choose dandelions and not roses or some other flower?
0:05:19 Sandy Swenson
Dandelions are underappreciated. They are everywhere. They can get lookin' quite tattered and that's where we as moms of addicted children live. Our children are looked upon as weeds. We are often looked up as weeds because we are blamed, we are judged. We are worn out. But as we go, this is our job. Once we can figure out that we need to work on our own recovery, in order for our child to have a better chance of finding a recovery of his own. Then we start to learn and we grow. And it's not a straight and always perfect path. We wilt and we go back to you know the beginning again. But little by little by little, we move forward and I like to think of it as the process of the dandelion. Which is then you know at the end of this, it has the little puffs and they scatter and go. Out and spread, each dandelion has the potential to spread so many seeds. And what I can do for my son really is to educate other people that addiction is a disease and not a disgrace. That is the best thing I can do for my son. And then to help other people. And that I think is the goal and the reason for the “tending dandelions” is for us to get to that point. Where that is where, if we put our efforts, that's how we can make a difference.
0:06:54 William Moyers
And you—your book Tending Dandelions has been published by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and we've been a publisher for a long time. Yet we haven't had a product that has caught this much attention as your meditation book did. Still there are a lot of men out there saying why did you write this for moms and not for moms and dads or for parents.
0:07:14 Sandy Swenson
Well, there's probably quite a few books out there for parents in general.
0:07:19 William Moyers
0:07:20 Sandy Swenson
I wrote this specifically—I wrote it from the heart of a loving mother. Now, it probably will speak to the hearts of many fathers. But I did not want to water it down to speak to everybody in particular. I wanted it to speak to mothers in particular. Because that's where I know that I'm coming from. And I wanted to get right down to that umbilical connection that we all feel. Now dads may feel many of those same things. But I can't speak to that, exactly. So I spoke to what I knew. I knew that my husband if he had written a book would've been a different book. 'Cause he would've been coming from a perspective and an understanding and feeling that would've been different than mine. So this isn't—this is not just for moms, but it's from a place deep in a mom's loving heart.
0:08:15 William Moyers
The timing of it was uncanny because it was published as this opioid epidemic that we know at Hazelden Betty Ford is the great common denominator. It's leveled the playing field when it comes to how we as a society see and understand addiction. Addiction does not discriminate and it can affect soccer moms from the suburbs just like it can poor kids from the inner city. And it's killing people in untold numbers. Here comes your book on meditations for moms of addicted children. And yet so many of these people have died as a result of their disease. What is the counsel you have, what is the strength that you offer to moms or dads, parents, who have lost a child or another loved-one to this illness?
0:09:00 Sandy Swenson
That’s—that’s really hard because I have not lost my child. And I still—he's still there. Struggling but he's—as long as he's walking this earth there's hope for recovery. I think for all parents with addicted children, I think the number one basis of foundation for everything, is to be able to shed the shame and the blame and the guilt. Because those things we can't move forward if we’re carrying those. And I think maybe that's even more so for somebody who's lost a child to addiction. This is a disease. It's not a disgrace. We cannot cause it. We cannot cause this. If that were so, if imperfect parenting caused addiction or relapse, every child in the world would grow up to be an addict. So, we did not cause it. If we can shed the shame and the blame and the guilt whether our child is still struggling, struggled in the past, or has lost the battle, I think we will be in a more healthy place. And when we're in a more healthy place, we can do—we're more well-equipped then to move forward and make a difference on the way the world perceives this disease.
0:10:22 William Moyers
You're out and about a lot, you do a lot of public speaking, you can go to your website and see all those places that you've spoken or will be speaking. What is the experience you have with audiences when you're speaking in a church or speaking at a—a family gathering. What do you—what do you pick up from the people you hear from?
0:10:41 Sandy Swenson
There's a lot of hunger for connection out there with other parents who are in the same position, they need support groups. People want to know what to do and they want to be around people who understand this disease. And those who don't judge them. And everybody wants the magic answer of course. But there sadly isn't a magic answer. But, that doesn't mean that we don't have power. We have a lot of power.
0:11:11 William Moyers
Well what do you mean by power?
0:11:13 Sandy Swenson
Well, addiction and our child, as a mom I've never felt so helpless. So helpless. Trying to fix this for him and love him and all the love in the world didn't make this better for him. I felt so helpless, so powerless, but then I discovered I actually do have a lot of power. And we as parents can take control of addiction by changing the way addiction is perceived. We really do have power. Because when we as parents stop hiding in shame as though addiction is a disgrace, only then will people who aren't familiar with this disease firsthand, only then will they start to believe that addiction is a disease. They're not gonna believe it if we're all hiding away in shame. So, we have the power with our voices, we have the power to change the way that addiction is perceived and that may not directly help our child. But it will indirectly and the more of us who are out there scattering those dandelion seeds doing the exact same thing, we really do have the power to change the way this disease is handled.
0:12:33 William Moyers
Do you see in the communities that you live in and carry the message to, do you hear from people, do you sense that perception is changing in our country around addiction and the stigma and the shame?
0:12:48 Sandy Swenson
Oh absolutely. I mean the difference between when I started on this journey maybe in 2006, 2007, to now is tremendous. However, having said that, that's basically compared to zero back then.
0:13:04 William Moyers
0:13:04 Sandy Swenson
So it's tremendous since then, but we have a long way to go. There's much more understanding of it amongst the people who are actually facing this. They're you know in the battle right now.
0:13:17 William Moyers
0:13:18 Sandy Swenson
Even then there's still plenty of people hiding. I don't know how much the stigma has changed outside of that. Until people have actually been pulled in, I don't know how much they're really paying attention to all the nuances of the difference between substance abuse and addiction, you know why they started and why they can't stop are two different things. You know, that it's a disease not a disgrace, I don't know that other people have come to that understanding it, but we've made a lot of progress.
0:13:53 William Moyers
We have just a couple of minutes left, tell us about your new app that you've developed and how that can be used by moms and families to find strength.
0:14:03 Sandy Swenson
Well, the app is similar to Tending Dandelions which is a small book that can fit in your pocket or what have you. The app is even smaller [chuckles] 'cause it'll be on your phone. So it's different material but it's the same daily meditations or I actually like to call them Ponderments.
0:14:21 William Moyers
Ponderments, yes. [chuckles]
0:14:23 Sandy Swenson
And uh just nuggets of strength and different stages of this whole process. And understanding the process is not just a straight line. That you know we're human and it's just as somebody who's struggling with addiction, you know some days are better than others.
0:14:40 William Moyers
What have you learned since you began this journey back in 2006? What did you learn about yourself, about this illness, about your child, and what is your experience, strength, recovery and hope going forward?
0:14:54 Sandy Swenson
Well I've learned that I am a lot stronger than I thought I was. That's for sure. And I've learned that I can love my child with both hands tied behind my back. I may not be able to actually get in there and do stuff like I did when he was little to fix his problems, but I know that I'm keeping his place warm and he knows I am and he also knows that I'm out there trying to help other people in the same journey. And even sometimes he hasn't been thrilled with that, I know that he knows why I'm doing it. And that has to speak to him. It has to be—it has to speak to him, you know.
0:15:40 William Moyers
How about your—in the last minute here—people who are watching this looking for inspiration and insight and people who are listening to this podcast today, what is your counsel or your hope for them?
0:15:58 Sandy Swenson
Well I—I hope that they can get to that place, find acceptance, accept their child where their child is. And try to make the changes where they can make the changes. And accepting what side of the line that is on. And understanding that we aren't powerless, we just may have to shift our—our power to you know it's not what we thought it was gonna look like. This love and parenting. But we can do it. We can do it just in a different way.
0:16:33 William Moyers
We can do it. We can do it just in a different way. Sandy Swenson, author, advocate and most of all, mom, thank you for joining us today and bringing your experience, strength, and hope to our viewers and our listeners today. And thanks to you, for joining us for another edition of Let's Talk, a series of podcasts on the issues that matter to Hazelden Betty Ford and to you. Join us again.