The Collateral Damage of Addiction by Cynthia Garrity-Bond


cynthia garrity bondI am the mother of three adult children.  I am also the mother of an addict living the nightmare of denial and the consequence of said addiction.  Like many, my family of origin is riddled with alcoholics and addicts.  I learned to “detach” (not always in love) from their demons, drawing clear lines in the sand for my own future.  I thought a geographical relocation in another state would give me the distance and perspective needed to live my own life absent the insanity substance abuse can bring. When I discovered my spouse of then seven years was an addict my world fell apart.  For the life of me I could not understand how this could happen—again.  What did I miss?

I began attending Al-Anon in the hopes of self-discovery and the necessary tools required to live with a recovering addict.  Placing a healthy focus back on myself and away from the addict was liberating and healing.  After a few years I drifted away from meetings, digging in to my marriage and the raising of our children.

Because of the safeguards of confidentiality I must be respectful and careful with what I share—which is the problem. How do I give words to the heartache of watching a child self-destruct outside the anonymous walls of 12-Step meetings?  How does a mother navigate between the face of love while not enabling the habit?  I find myself (again) attempting to traverse what would seem to be familiar terrain; only somehow it feels different in ways I struggle to articulate. This time I am not the spouse, daughter or sister, I am the mother and because of this the burden of loving is much more complicated. In some ways I suspect my child and I suffer from the same emotions of guilt, shame, and isolation.  But what really binds us together is the stigma of addiction shared by the addict and those who love the addict.

As of late, many articles are appearing on addiction and how the addict is understood. While not without his critics, Johann Hari’s TED talk entitled “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong,” challenges how the addict/alcoholic is understood and therefore rehabilitated in the United States.  The TV reality show Intervention demonstrates U.S. philosophy of treatment by bringing the mythical bottom to the addict through the threat of family loss and connections.  Instead of threats, Hari points to the country of Portugal and its successful reduction of addiction.

In the year 2001 Portugal decriminalized all drugs, channeling monies once used for punishment to the rehabilitation of the addicts by reconnecting them with society through such programs as micro loans or job creation. After fifteen years, results support this shift from vilifying to compassion. Hari takes the same approach by offering a deepened connection to the addict:

I love you whether you’re using or you’re not.  I love you, whatever state you’re in, and if you need me, I’ll come and sit with you because I love you and I don’t want you to be alone or to feel alone.

Reading Hari I am reminded of Father Grey Boyle, founder and CEO of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest anti-gang and re-entry program in the world. In his book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, Boyle chronicles the lives of former gang members as he “accompanies” them from gang affiliation to successful integration into society through kinship.  Writes Boyle,

You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.
~Tattoos on the Heart

Reading Hari and Boyle relives me of the burden of the stigma and shame I feel when I think of my child as the addict.  As a mother it is all too easy to bind myself into the many unanswerable questions of what I should have done differently.  In my past dealings with the alcoholic and addict I have been encouraged to make decisions I was not comfortable with.  While I understand and respect the danger and even entrapment of behavior that enables the substance abuser, I find myself (after all these years) leaning into the language of kinship and connection instead of ultimatums, at least for now.

While I have felt anger and even rage toward my adult child, I have never been comfortable with the insistence on rejection as an option for their sobriety. As Hari notes, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection.” The challenge, of course, is the discernment of what connection via love actually means in the wake of the addict’s selfish behavior. I have been warned relapse is built into recovery, that the stigma of shame to self-love can be an exhausting process.  Boyle recognizes the worth of this waiting when he quotes the prophet Habakkuk, “The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment and it will not disappoint … and if it delays, wait for it.” For, “Ours is a God who waits.  Who are we not to?  It takes what it takes for the great turnaround.  Wait for it.” (Tattoos, 113). And so, like the long labor of this child’s birth, I wait for it.

Cynthia Garrity-Bond, feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. Cynthia taught in the Department of Theological studies at Loyola Marymount University and the Religious Studies Department of Mount St. Mary’s College, Los Angeles Her research interest includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, transnational feminism and ecofeminism.

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Categories: Faith, Family, General, Healing, Love, Motherhood

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20 replies

  1. Oh my heart aches for you. Thanks for your honesty and sharing. I am certain your words will help many others. I have not dealt with a child who was an addict, only a boyfriend who left me for his drugs in any case. I think the strong boundaries you are developing are important. I wonder about both “tough love” (which I guess is what the Ted talk criticizes) and “unconditional love.” In my experience, while love in the sense of wishing the best for another may be unconditional, it is also important to say “no” you cannot act this way with me (steal, lie, take advantage, rage, belittle) etc. In my case this means there are close family members I will probably never see again, because they have no empathy for my position and will continue the behaviors that are hurtful to me (they are not addicts, just caught up in their own worldviews). But these are not my children. Siggghhhh. Take care of yourself and do the best you can, while remembering that you really cannot change anyone else’s behavior. (Nor are you the sole and probably not even the main cause of it.)

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    • Thank you Carol for you soothing words. After reading your comment I think I may have misrepresented myself. What I was hoping to do was stop the silence about addiction–not make me look like the long suffering mother. The stigma of silence, I believe, is what I wrestle with (and of course my child’s struggles). It’s a bit of challenge because on the one hand I need to honor their anonymity while also be present to my own challenges.

      You and I seem to have many of the same family of origin issues–and look how amazing you turned out! I am deeply thankful for your words of encouragement.

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  2. Thank you for your honesty and your vulnerability in sharing your story. This disease still carries stigma,, judgment, and secrecy which inhibits many from getting the care they need. Putting addicts in jail instead of treatment certainly hasn’t worked. Most of us are affected by this disease in some way. My heart goes out to you as you navigate your role as a parent of an addict.

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  3. I am sorry for your pain, Cynthia, and I’m glad you’re looking at approaches beyond Al-Anon, which although tremendously helpful, does tend toward rigidity. I appreciate the work of Dr. Gabor Mate. His book, “In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts,” was quite influential. And there’s hope: A dear friend’s daughter was addicted to heroin for years and years. She refused to give up on her or do the “tough love” thing. Yes, she went through hell, but her daughter has been clean for several years now. It does happen and relapse does NOT have to be part of recovery.

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    • Diane,
      Thank you for the link to Dr. Mate’s text. I will check it out.

      Yes, there is hope. Because of anonymity I did not share the success of my oldest child–now 8 years clean. I used the myth of Persephone and Demeter in my relentless pursuit of finding this child the right care and yes, the long waiting period. In his/her master thesis this child wrote:
      “For my mother, who traversed and scoured every inch of the underworld to unearth her daughter/son (protecting this person’s sex identity). Still, we rise.

      Thank you again!

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  4. Thank you for sharing this Cynthia. I like what Carol said above, and hope you find support for yourself as you travel this path. I do think that compassion is more healing than punishment. The balance of compassion for addict and for self is the tricky part. Wisdom and insight on your path, with many friends to support you.

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  5. My heart goes out to you, Cynthia. Dealing with an addict who is your child has to be extremely difficult.

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  6. Thank you Nancy. I appreciate your thoughtful words.

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  7. I still cannot talk about this whole addiction thing (adult children) with any semblance of coherence. Thank you, though, for your articulation, Cynthia.

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  8. Esther,
    Sorry, I’m not understanding your response. Can you say more?

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  9. Hi Cynthia,

    Thank you for sharing you story with all of us. I am so sorry that you and your child are going through this. I lost my husband to alcoholism 9 years ago. I have found Al-Anon helpful, overall, but I understand your reservations about it. I try to remember the slogan, “Take what you like and leave the rest.” As awful as it is to be married to an alcoholic, I’ve often thought the parents of alcoholics and addicts have it much worse, so my heart goes out to you and your child.

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  10. Hi Cynthia, wow, thank you for sharing your struggles with us. As a mother I don’t know what I would do if i learned my daughter was an addict.

    I also come from a family that has many addiction issues, and first married an alcoholic, then had a long-term relationship with an alcoholic whom I had to leave because of the alcoholism.

    I have a couple of experiences I would like to relate. First, I was for many years a relationship and sex addict. It sucked! I spent many years in therapy and gradually those addictions/behaviors faded, and I am now in control of choosing my relationships. I look back at my behaviors and remember how much pain I was running from and trying to cover with those behaviors.

    Secondly, I have been on Prozac for many years. 3 years ago I tried getting off, and found a new level of hell I had never known existed. I didn’t realize it is (IMHO) a legal speed drug. It was a horrendous experience, and for the first time I could understand why someone would choose to go back on drugs after trying to get off. I was in unbearable emotional pain, and eventually went back up to a therapeutic dose of Prozac, though the emotional pain is only slowly fading.

    I do have a history of trauma, and I can see very clearly how addictions act to distract/try to cover/ try to make go away psychic/emotional/spiritual pain.

    One of the worst parts has been finding myself alone so much of the time–I live in elderly housing, in a small apartment, with not a lot of connections with my neighbors. Fortunately I have wonderful friends and family who offer me refuge and comfort.

    One of the deepest pains from the trauma was isolation, and it makes so much sense to me that what the authors you mentioned offer as a healing path is connection and love. Those are what I need and what ease and heal the pain.

    I think it is huge that you are trying to walk a middle way with your child and offer something that can heal, rather than punish. I wish you much support and love along the way, and a happy outcome.

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  11. Beautiful post. Thank you!

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  12. Moving story told with great courage…I believe that walking the knife edge between refusing to give up, and allowing myself to hope without putting an expectation on an outcome is the way to move through this kind of liminal space. But this is oh so hard to do, and often I fall off the knife edge plunging into (fill in the blank) whatever. What I have learned is that the only important thing to do is to pick myself up without harsh judgement and to continue to walk on…

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  13. Thank you, Cynthia, I have not had those challenges, but others and it always puts in perspective how we all do not come from the Christian ideal of family. In mine, it was a lot of verbal abuse, which they say is as bad as any addiction. Yes, it marked a huge portion of my life and took years to figure out what was wrong with how I coped and also to heal form the deep, deep wounds. Those challenges do help form us and at times gives us more compassion, that is the gift to take away.

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  14. I understand your heartache all too well; my daughter died May 11, 2016 as a direct result of a lifetime (from the age of 14) of drug addiction. I had already lost my son in 2005, from a heart attack, but the awful truth is his death most likely was also greatly due to a lifetime of addiction. He had been “clean” of his chosen drug (methamphetamine) for a couple of years, but he could not give up his alcohol. So what is a mother (me) to do? I don’t think addiction is really understood by those who profess to treat or cure it in the currently accepted way. They just want to punish, or as you say, reject, the addict; throw them in jail, etc. I could never ever reject my children, either of them. I just hope a better way to help addicts comes along before it’s too late for so many people. Meanwhile, addicts and those who love them suffer greatly, and lives, including the ones who love them, are torn apart.

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  15. Thank you for sharing. Coincidentally I just wanted the same Ted talk this past week. I had a lot of the same thoughts.

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