Marrying your mother was my first choice and if I have to choose between the two of you, I choose her.
These were the words my father said to me when I was 14 years old and I still remember every sight, sound, and smell from that moment as if it was yesterday. I also remember the smorgasbord of emotions I felt.
Anger, resentment, hatred, and fear just to name a few.
I carried those emotions around like a sack of bricks for years until…
I had a child of my own who was an addict and I got to experience the weapon of mass destruction that was raining down on my own marriage. I saw how we got separated while dodging all the bullets that were being fired from all directions. I saw how each attack launched on us left us both fighting for our lives, each time creating new wounds that would take years to heal, if ever.
Eventually that beautiful smile from her face had disappeared, that girlish giggle that I was so drawn to was only a distant memory, that warmth I felt when we hugged had gone cold.
The woman I had fallen in love with was barely recognizable behind all the battle scars. The surprise attack on us didn’t even give us time to plan a strategy. We tried to maintain a unified front but were so overwhelmed that eventually it became a matter of individual survival.
In the end, our marriage had been sacrificed as collateral damage and all we could do was look at each other, fatigued and confused before we both turned and walked off in different directions.
Many people would have learned from that single war but not me. Like the beautiful country I live in, I had to endure my own personal WW II before enough wreckage had occurred to cause me to wake up and make some changes. Also, just like my country, I continue to screw up and create many unnecessary battles today but, thankfully they don’t destroy my marriage. I owe a lot of that to those words Dad uttered to me so long ago.
Granted, there were a lot of other things wrong with those first two marriages and who knows if they would have survived anyway. I do know, however that when that Invasion of the Body Snatchers called addiction took over our child’s body and grabbed the mind and soul for good measure, it took all the resources I may have had for other issues.
My parents have endured a lot of their own personal struggles along the way but they always did it together and came out victorious by putting each other first. I’ve often disagreed with their philosophies and methods like almost every other child on the planet, I would imagine. The bottom line is, what matters most to them is their commitment to each other and I can’t argue with their success.
I’m happy to say that despite having a son who would have tested any marriage, my parents are still hanging out together (often even in the same room) and loving each other after 57 years. I’m also happy to report that I got smacked in the head enough times to figure out a few things too. Despite still having some real time challenges with addiction in our family, I have an iron clad marriage that can withstand any outside storm.
Here are five things I learned from their successes and my failures with parenting an addicted child.
1. Your children belong to God/the universe/Source/whatever You were gifted with the responsibility to raise them together to the best of your ability during their childhood. Before that (in most cases) you made a lifetime commitment to partner up with your spouse through better or worse…well, here’s some of that worse. This, too shall pass along with their childhood and what remains after that depends on how well you honor and prioritize that commitment. As difficult as this may be to hear, your child is now on their own personal journey through life and you cannot do anything to control it. The only positive influence you have will be determined by your ability to stand firm and allow them to face their consequences. You’re in the middle of a temporary shit-storm and when it passes, whether or not you’re still together depends upon how tightly you hold on to each other.
2. Any support you give to your child, do it together. The difference between enabling and supporting the addict is a super complicated issue which you’ll need to figure out together. If you’re like most parents this will be a learning process. In the meantime, it’s important for your marriage that you go through this process together. Inevitably one partner will get wise before the other and by walking through this together, you will create the trust and safety needed to support each other through the difficult times. The addict is a master manipulator and will try to divide and conquer to serve the addiction. Your fastest track to your child getting clean depends on how fast they run out of resources. Your united stance will remove one of those greatest resources.
3. Honor your differences. Understand that you both are different in how you deal with stress. In general (not always), it’s common for the man to want to isolate and the woman to want to talk it out. (It may be helpful to read John Gray’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus to better understand masculine and feminine tendencies when under stress). Schedule 10 minutes in the morning and/or just before bed to discuss the emotions you’re both feeling around your child. Give each other permission to just speak without a response from the other. You can have a dialog about it at any other time but this time is reserved only for each of you to vent. This is difficult and requires practice but it may be the most important piece to holding your marriage together. If you find yourself unable to do it alone, get a trusted third person or a professional to facilitate it with you. This will allow you to strengthen your connection with your spouse by understanding how they’re processing this. You may both say things that the other doesn’t agree with or understand but non-judgment is important here. Remember, the fact that you’re even doing this demonstrates your love and commitment to each other.
4. Don’t blame yourself or each other. Guilt and resentment are the two greatest threats to your marriage. I’ve seen hundreds of different scenarios where a parent sees themselves as being responsible for their child’s illness and I can tell you that has NEVER been the case. No matter how it looks to you, this is not your fault or your spouse’s. Even if you don’t believe me you must realize that blaming yourself or your spouse will create that chink in the armor that the addict is looking for to remain in their addiction.
5. Get support I don’t care how strong you are, YOU CANNOT DO THIS ALONE. There are free programs like ALANON, NARANON, GAMANON, and local meetups. There are also professionals who specialize in this area. The cost is minimal compared to the exorbitant costs involved in the demise of a good marriage or the thousands upon thousands of dollars the average enabling family will throw at the addiction. I personally spent over $100,000.00 on enabling my loved one’s addiction and that’s not even counting the two divorces.
Remember, you are not choosing your marriage over your child, you are choosing your marriage over the addiction.