What would you do if you discovered your adult child had a potentially terminal illness? An insidious disorder that permeates every aspect of his life: physical and mental health, family ties, friendships, work performance, romantic relationships, and finances, among others. Nothing of any significance would be left unscathed. In fact, his illness could obliterate all of these things. And left without proper treatment, it would most likely kill him.
It would be acceptable, if not expected, for you to delve into every bit of information you could find about his illness, including its effects, prognosis, and treatment options. Perhaps you would even interview experts experienced with the disorder, if you had access to them. You might talk to others who have recovered for some first-hand knowledge. Then you would probably share what you have learned with your child, and possibly recommend specialists and treatment centers that offered individualized, cutting-edge care.
If we were talking about cancer, diabetes, or lupus, your commitment to helping your son or daughter would be lauded. But what if we were talking about a substance use disorder? Now your commitment would be considered “enabling” or “codependent”.
Never work harder at your loved one’s recovery than he or she is. Trust me, I get that. It’s a statement I’ve said to myself countless times to keep my sanity in check. My child is the one in control of his addiction treatment and recovery. I cannot participate in it or control it. An attempt at that is futile and stress-inducing, to say the least. Any parent of a child with substance use disorder knows this and has most likely learned the hard way.
But should that mean that I can’t support his recovery? That I shouldn’t pass on any addiction treatment information I’ve heard that might help him? Does it mean I cannot offer a compassionate ear if my son is having a difficult day and wants to know someone has his back, even if there’s nothing else I can do for him? Some say yes, that’s exactly what it means. He needs to figure it all out himself. But why? We would never tell someone with cancer to figure it out himself. Never.
An addiction treatment provider once told me that I needed to tell my son he was no longer a member of the family if I wanted him to find recovery. He is not the only person who has given me this advice. Though well-intentioned, it is damaging. Substance use disorder thrives in isolation. It feeds on loneliness and desperation. It’s a vicious circle of using, which causes self-hatred, which causes using, which causes self hatred…It is a unique beast. And I do mean beast. Substance use disorder hijacks the brain to the extent that your child might reject everything you have to say, even though it makes perfect sense. He will probably tell you he doesn’t need your help. But that doesn’t mean you should quit. One day, your support and love might be the lighthouse in the storm that guides him back to shore.
So, no. Do not give your child money. Do not bail her out of jail, or borrow from your 401K account to hire an expensive attorney who will help her dodge a DUI charge. Let your child experience the consequences of her actions. That’s essential in her recovery. But don’t be afraid to educate yourself and share your knowledge. Ask her questions. What does she need to help her find recovery? Is she willing to talk to someone you know who has walked the same path and now has loads of helpful advice? Does she want a list of phone numbers of addiction treatment centers that take her insurance? Would she like to read a great book you found about substance use disorder? These things are not enabling, in my opinion. They are means of staying connected and offering support. Author Johann Hari said the opposite of addiction is connection. You might be the only reliable connection your son or daughter has. And one is all that is necessary.
And for anyone who might have a friend, neighbor, or coworker who has a child with substance use disorder: connection is essential here, too. Start a meal train, offer to watch their younger children, ask if they might need help with household chores. Do all the things you would if your friend’s child had another life-threatening illness. They are coping with a devastating diagnosis.