“Marcy died”. I read the words my son texted me, but didn’t believe them. He must be talking about a different Marcy. One that I don’t know. The Marcy I know has been sober for more than three years, recently regained custody of her children, and was thriving in recovery. She was one of those people I knew would stay sober forever.
But I was wrong. It was the same Marcy, and she had died of a drug overdose. While I simultaneously rejected the news – this cannot be true – and felt the grief set in – I will never see her again – a familiar opportunistic monster sensed my vulnerability and sunk its claws into my gut. That ugly, crippling monster: fear. Just when I think I’ve got this covered, that I’ve gained control over the anxiety surrounding my own son’s substance use disorder, fear emerges from the darkness, where it always seems to be waiting to strike. And how does this harm me? According to Jennifer Harrington, therapist at the Process Recovery Center, in more ways than I know.
“When we live in fear, everything else shuts down and it’s just pure protection mode,” she says. “And then we can’t necessarily be open to everything else. And when it comes down to the fear involved with a loved one, there’s no room for us. There’s no room to enjoy the parts of our life that we need to enjoy to be healthy…The fear drives us and we become consumed by it”.
In the United States, 72,287 people died of drug overdoses in 2017 (most recent statistics available). That’s 198 people every day, or a loss of life equivalent to 9/11 every two weeks. Fear is warranted. But how do we keep it from controlling us?
According to Harrington, it’s all about self care. We need to experience the emotion, but not allow it to dictate us. When we eat well, sleep well, and take care of our own medical, emotional and spiritual needs, we strengthen ourselves, enabling us to support our loved ones when they need help. “Personally, I’ve started running a lot to work through that fight or flight response that fear puts us in,” Harrington says, referencing how she manages the stress caused by her brother’s active addiction and stays present for her children. This is a form of gestalt therapy, which according to Psychology Today, is a client-centered approach to psychotherapy that helps us focus on the present and understand what is really happening in our lives in the moment, rather than what we may perceive to be happening based on experience. “It’s kind of like a massage therapist working though a knot in the body so it doesn’t continue to affect other areas of the body,” Harrington explains.
“If I sit in the place of fear-based thinking, it’s almost a delusion because I don’t know what’s really happening. My mind is telling me the worst-case scenario. That’s not what’s really happening. But my body responds as if it is really happening. That’s a trauma response,” she says.
And that can make us sick. According to Gabor Mate, MD, addiction, stress, and childhood development specialist, “Our emotional functioning is not separable from our physiological functioning. The brain centers that regulate emotions are connected with the hormonal apparatus, the nervous system, the gut, the heart, and the immune organs. In fact, it’s not even that they’re connected, they’re all one system. So things that happen to people emotionally, will immediately have a physiological effect,” he says.
It’s a balancing act. We have to allow ourselves to feel the fear, otherwise it will manifest itself in unhealthy ways. Harrington recalls a time she discovered her brother was active in his addiction and living in dangerous conditions, but she was unable to help. “I pushed it down because I was on vacation with my kids and I wanted to be there for them.” But later that day, she could not enjoy a conversation with her best friend. “I got so emotional with her. She was like, ‘I don’t understand why this reaction is coming from you.’ I couldn’t identify it in the moment. It wasn’t until the next morning I realized it was because I got this news. I shoved it down, and what could have been a good conversation between her and I, was just filtered through this lens of emotion, because it’s got to come out somehow”.
Harrington adds that acceptance of our reality and our fear is not a stable concept. It ebbs and flows. “It’s a process of reaccepting over and over again. You always have hope. But you also know that there’s a worst-case scenario that you might have to prepare for someday”.
That preparation varies for everyone. Some find strength in their spirituality, others in art, caring for animals, or hiking mountains. But it’s essential to find what nourishes our souls. Harrington expresses gratitude every night before she goes to bed to transform negative thoughts into positive. “I’m grateful that I’m not having to worry about where the next meal is going to come from. I’m grateful that I’m sleeping in my own bed and not a hospital bed with my kids…Sometimes I have to do it multiple times a day just to kind of reframe,” she says.
She adds that such practices keep us in touch with ourselves. When we are in touch with our emotions and our bodies, we are able to recognize when anxiety creeps in. “I think we get so distracted by avoiding these feelings and avoiding these thoughts. Then they start running us and we’re not aware of it,” she adds.
Parents have protective instincts for their children. And although we cannot control their substance use disorder, we can control our response to it. We can ensure we are healthy and well equipped to support them – and others – when the need arises. Spiritual teacher and author, Eckhart Tolle, says of fear, “Feel it. Shine the light of awareness on it. The complete acceptance of what is, is actually the doorway through it”.