When I was growing up, the BIG “C” was whispered among my parents’ friends. It was as if that disease as well as less serious health concerns such as hysterectomies, were regarded as moral failings, not to be discussed. To be sick was to be weak
Years later, the dreaded Cancer was talked about openly, but society’s attitude about another disease, addiction, didn’t change. Robert Weiss, Ph.D., author of Prodependence: Moving Beyond Co-Dependence (Health Communications: 2018), points out that if a family member takes care of a relative with Cancer, he is regarded as a SAINT, yet if that diseased person is an addict, then the caregiver is co-dependent. The author believes that society shouldn’t devalue the caregiver by negatively labeling his service to others.
Why is he blamed? Because drug addiction is stigmatized. It is this stigma that keeps families quiet. It’s still regarded as moral failing, a bad choice.
Addiction specialist, Lipi Roy, M.D., MPH, Medical Director of Housing Works, Inc., states that “because of this stigma only ten percent of those with substance abuse disorders (SUDs) seek treatment. Even the language attributed to addiction is stigmatizing,” says this contributor to CNN, MSNBC and Forbes.com. Witness: those with this chronic relapsing brain disease are labeled “junkies,” “cokeheads,” “addicts” whose drug testings are “dirty.” For more examples by Dr. Lipi, view her YouTube channel. For other good descriptions about non-stigmatizing addiction vocabulary, refer to the podcast by physician-researcher Dr. Richard Saitz.
No wonder many parents of those afflicted with substance abuse disorders are ashamed as I was. My son over consumed multiple drugs, including alcohol for years. I didn’t want many friends to find out our family’s “dirty little secret.” A few knew the inner workings of our family and called me an “enabler,” including my therapist!
In hindsight, I was addicted to my son’s addiction so I also could have been called co-dependent as well. I tried to cover up my son’s misdeeds rather than make him suffer his own consequences. I not only was ashamed, but didn’t want to be blamed for his behavior and looked upon as a bad mother.
I was naïve. I didn’t know of family programs such as the successful CRAFT, a set of therapeutic techniques taken from Community Reinforcement and Family Training. However, I doubt if my son would have willfully attended anyway. I didn’t realize that 28-day rehabs wouldn’t work or that many of their patients would relapse within the first year. The rehabs don’t want you to know that relapse rate.
I never received the dual diagnosis promised by the rehab brochures. I didn’t really know why my son continued to use drugs. I knew from the rehab lectures that drugs flooded the brain with serotonin, how the neurons, synapsis worked, and how drugs can affect the decision making in a less mature pre-frontal cortex. But I didn’t know that fifty percent of those with SUDs have mental health disorders until it was too late and my son died of an overdose in 2016.
Is it possible to control another human being, particularly one whose actions are led by a chronic relapsing brain disease when under the influence? I don’t think so.
Unless you have a child immersed in addiction, it’s impossible to know the fear and desperation of a parent helpless in trying to “cure” his child’s disease. Parents don’t need to hear that they are “enabling.” Chances are they already feel that way down to their core.
Dr. Weiss suggests “meeting the parent where he is.” In other words, don’t criticize his actions that are borne out of empathy, concern, and obligation. Parents need sympathy, not criticism as do those with SUDs.
Wesley Cullen Davidson
Wesley Cullen Davidson is an award-winning freelance writer and journalist specializing in parenting. Currently, she is targeting her writing about recovery to parents whose children have substance abuse disorders.