“Go to Hell!”
Out of the mouths of babes!
There are rites of passage familiar to every life and every role in life. And I would venture a hallucination that, if you are a parent, you vividly remember the first time you heard your pre-K child blurt out some little gem from The Sailor’s Handbook of English.
Chances are your child was delighted with herself. I mean, successfully mimicking a new word, let alone using it in a sentence, is no small feat for one so young. You, on the other hand, were likely a hot mess of stunned, amused, embarrassed…and even ashamed.
After picking your jaw up off the floor, you now had that come-to-Jesus moment of having to respond. Appropriately. Responsibly. Immediately. But what the hell do you say to a child who not only means no harm, but learned his new favorite expression…from you?
“That’s not a nice word.”
“We just don’t use that word.”
“But you and Mommy use it all the time.”
“Well, it’s a grown-up word.”
“When will I be grown-up?”
Too soon, Baby, too soon.
Fast forward to the unthinkable, unlaughable scenario of a child mimicking the actions of an addicted parent, and you have a glimpse of my worst nightmare come true.
I have 37 years of active addiction to account for. I also have a child with 14 years of addiction…and still counting. Don’t think for a minute that I don’t feel the weight of having modeled that death trap for her, or that I don’t wish we were just talking about a few colorful words.
While the phenomenon of second-generational drug use is little understood, we do know that some 30 million Americans struggle with substance abuse or alcoholism, and over 8 million kids live with at least one addicted parent.
That’s almost 12% of all American children! And children of alcoholics specifically are four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves.
This cyclic trend perpetuates the many factors that motivate addiction in the first place — low self-esteem, lack of confidence, fear of taking action, feeling irrelevant and invisible — and can cultivate a retreat into silence and aloneness.
We probably shouldn’t be surprised that children of addicts so naturally and statistically follow their parents’ lead, especially as the lives of those children become centered on the parents’ substance abuse, and not on ‘being children.’ But how do we shove a stick in the spoke of that wheel and keep it from rolling forward into a third generation…and a fourth…?
If you and your child are both addicts, I can pretty much assure you that your child is going to point straight at you and blame you for his or her addiction. And you’re going to have to respond. In word. In action.
Throughout my daughter’s addiction, I’ve had to remind myself that my own recovery is my first obligation — even when that has meant withdrawing my support during her relapses. As emotionally conflicting as that is, I can’t possibly help her, let alone heal the past, if I am running along with her.
I’ve had support for my own addiction through numerous programs including NA; but as the parent of an addict, I suddenly needed an entirely different kind of support (Nar-Anon). I have learned that the best and most honest way to direct my child toward recovery is to live my own.
Addiction is a way for frightened souls to hold on to what they are terrified of letting go. Recovery, however, is all about letting go — of guilt, shame, and the desperate need to control what isn’t ours to control.
By making amends and standing confidently and gratefully in the integrity of my own recovery, I am able to step out of her shadow and into the light…and to help lead her to it.
She is, after all, a child of the Universe. Despite my influence that modeled her eventual choices, her journey belongs to her.
Just as I remember the time my daughter boasted her first swear words, I will never forget the day she told me I had taught her how to be an addict.
My response today can only be: “Good, you were paying attention. Now let me teach you to recover.”
I am safeguarding her hope by safeguarding my own health.
Addiction and recovery have given me a gift that I may not have had otherwise: the ability to practice non-judgement.
“Our actions are neither good nor bad, it’s our thinking that makes them so.”
— William Shakespeare