Powerlessness Most Dangerous Form of Parental Denial

by recoveryhelpdesk on February 13, 2011 · 30 comments

Parents often find themselves reacting in response to one crisis after another.

Reacting to each crisis as it arises, without any kind of a recovery plan, is not effective and only results in emotional exhaustion.

“Parents often come to feel powerless.  The myth of powerlessness is the most dangerous form of denial of all.”

Exhausted, confused, sad, angry, hurting and grieving parents of addicts often come to feel powerless.  The myth of powerlessness is the most dangerous form of denial of all.

It’s no wonder that many parents come to feel powerless.  Addiction is complex and challenging.  On top of that, parents are often told by those they turn to for support or expert advice that they are in fact powerless.

To make matters worse, any thing a parent does to support their loved one will be criticized by somebody as “enabling.”

No wonder so many parents conclude that they have no choice but to “detach” and watch in horror as their child suffers the often devastating consequences of their addiction.

So-called enabling is not the cause of addiction, or the reason addiction continues.  It’s not worthy of the star billing it seems to get from so many.  It’s a side show at best.

The focus on enabling is destructive because it distracts from where the real focus needs to be.  And it contributes to parents’ sense of helplessness as parents are taught to think that their well-intentioned efforts have only perpetuated the addiction.

Parents often come to fear that any action in support of their child might just be an extension of their so-called enabling.

Most the time, parents haven’t done anything particularly “wrong”  including “enabling.”  Neither have their kids.

Addiction happens.  And it happens for complex reasons.  Parents aren’t to blame, and neither are their kids who never wanted to be addicted and would stop if they could.

Parents need to hear that they don’t have to stop loving or believing in their child, walk away, or wash their hands of the whole situation in order to have healthy boundaries.

Parents must understand that they can BOTH establish healthy boundaries AND actively support their loved one in establishing the conditions of safety, stability and opportunity necessary to build a lasting recovery.

Parents must understand that they can BOTH establish healthy boundaries AND actively support their loved one in establishing the conditions of safety, stability and opportunity necessary to build a lasting recovery.

Parent’s don’t have the absolute power to stop addiction.  But parents are far from powerless.  The truth is somewhere in the middle.  Parents who choose to do so can play an important role in limiting drug-related harm and promoting early and sustained recovery.

Parents are not powerless.  Parents do have opportunities to influence the course of their child’s addiction and recovery.

The myth of parental powerlessness is the most dangerous form of denial of all.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 T.J. February 14, 2011 at 3:26 pm

I agree. By telling yourself you are powerless, you then are relieved from having to do anything. It’s a cop out. If you tell yourself you are powerless now, then why are parents beating themselves up blaming each other for how they should have did things differently in the past? If you think you had a hand in creating the monster, then it would follow that you should have a hand in cleaning up the mess. Do you follow me?

2 recoveryhelpdesk February 14, 2011 at 7:04 pm

I think it’s a very personal decision whether and how to have a hand in addressing the addiction of an adult child. My point isn’t that parents should take action. My point is that parents have a choice. They can take action if they choose. The only option is not to disengage and let “nature” take it’s course.

I think we need to be careful about perpetuating the language of blame. The best way to proceed is to let go of blaming altogether. That includes self-blame, and it includes blaming the person who is addicted. It’s not a healthy or productive subject of focus. Better to accept that addiction is very complex, and move on to what can be done about it going forward.

3 T.J. February 14, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Yes, revisiting the past does nothing. It’s over. Let’s figure out what we can do to support people where they are.

4 Maureen February 16, 2011 at 1:34 am

Yes, it doesn’t help reliving the past. Nobody did anything WRONG per say.
support us in today…..
yesterday is GONE
Tomorrow has yet to come
and we are still here
God Bless Us All
Maureen

5 recoveryhelpdesk February 16, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Thank you for your comment Maureen. Well said! And by the way, Happy Birthday!

6 Heather's Mom February 20, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Great post! I appreciate hearing that it’s not as easy as right or wrong/black or white/blame etc. B/c those of us living in it can feel the grey area and it can be hard to figure out what to do with so many people saying what we HAVE to do (or not do).
God bless.

7 recoveryhelpdesk February 20, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Thanks! You are so right about feeling the gray area. My goal is to help parents acquire the information they need to think things through for themselves and make informed decisions. Taking the intellectual shortcuts offered by those who seem incapable of recognizing the gray is tempting at times, but not wise with so much at stake.

8 Peggy February 23, 2011 at 2:43 am

Thanks for this post, Tom. You’re so right. If I hadn’t taken action when I did to facilitate Hayley getting in to treatment, she would have died. She wanted to change her life, but couldn’t do it on her own. As a heroin addict, she could only think/plan an hour or two ahead, let alone navigate through the intricate labyrinth of research, phone calls, and complicated logistical/financial/medical arrangements it took to get her to where she needed/wanted to be. Hayley has been ‘clean’ (sorry to use that term – I did read and concur with your comments to Dawn about such stigmatized language) and sober now for almost 10 months. She was 31 years old when she entered her first drug treatment program last May – that may have made a difference, don’t know. She told me that she realized she didn’t have time to “f**k around”. Anyway – - it’s all gray in terms of when and how a parent intervenes. However, I just know that one day a year ago, the ‘tipping point’ reached critical mass, and I felt compelled to take some kind of action. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I hadn’t tried. If readers want to read about the events leading up to Hayley walking away from her life of addiction, please refer them to my blog posts from about January – May 9th, 2010. It’s all there. There’s no standard formula for success – but maybe some one will find some bit of information that will facilitate their own child’s recovery.

9 recoveryhelpdesk February 23, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Thanks Peggy.

I agree that your blog offers a good example of the fact that parents can often make a real difference if they take an active role in supporting recovery.

You can find Peggy’s blog by clicking on her name in her comment, or by going here:

http://peglud.wordpress.com/

10 Tori Lee February 24, 2011 at 11:25 pm

I have been going back and forth on this exact subject. When we did an Intervention last April (didn’t work) we did kick him out and the main reason was his refusal to get help and the dangerous friends he had around and in our home (we have a 12 – at that time 11 y.o. to think of as well) he was 19. I never stopped speaking with him. Many times I would buy him food and clothes and often helped him in ways I shouldn’t have – giving him money and paying his phone bill. It was very difficult for me to figure out how I could help him without supporting his habit and I even went so far as to rent him an apartment until he got kicked out (30 days later – cost another fortune) for selling and using drugs. 1/21/11 he was arrested (thank goodness) and we were able to get him to rehab. We go to court tomorrow to find out if he will be able to transfer to sober living (which he says he wants and actually asked for it) or they will make him go to jail. But we went through a lot to work all of this out and visiting sober living places, getting letters, etc. Our son has an amazing amount of support. I fear a relapse as that is what seems to happen. This is his first time arrested, in rehab and sober living and it seems it could be the first of many. I was looking at vivitrol because it is something he can’t sell or abuse (he was buying suboxyn before but it didn’t work probably because he didn’t have enough and refused to see a Doctor) but I read that vivtrol has a better success rate. Of course it is up to him if he wants to try it but I hope he will try something. He has quit many times on his own and detoxed by himself (well with me watching him and taking him to the ER) but it never lasts very long. He also thinks weed is perfectly fine which worries me. Anyway, I am paying for his sober living (if the Judge allows it) and food and I will allow him to earn things like a phone and us helping to pay off his 7 tickets that are now warrants BUT no I will not help him if he is not trying to stay sober and working at it. I will always talk to him and offer him help but after he stole everything I had in my bank account in November which left me unable to pay my mortgage which I am still a month behind in and stole money the previous months and stole my belongings to sell I don’t think it is fair to me and most importantly his little brother to have him live with us. It is costing us a fortune to help him and could cost us our home but my Husband and I agree nothing material is worth our sons life. We just have to help him in the right way. I will never not speak with him EVER but I have to have some peace. Even after we kicked him out he still for months broke in our home in the middle of the night standing over me (very, very high) which is creepy and dangerous. I just can’t be around him when he uses. Anyway, all that to ask you what you think of vivitrol? I read some of your posts and really like them. I am getting a prescription to quit smoking and I know I need it. Sure I can quit on my own I have 100 times but I always go back to it. I have no problem with my son taking something that could help him not use heroin, oxi or any of the other things he was using. One more thing, I always hated the term ROCK BOTTOM. REALLY? I don’t understand that. I know they say everyones rock bottom is different but as much as my son fought going to rehab he needed the push that it was rehab or jail. He even said to his Counselor that sadly he may need to go to jail to quit using. He wants help and he wants to be clean but I know it is hard for him especially at 20. He has also told me that kicking him out really helped him want to get clean because he missed living here. I always took his calls and if he was high and abusive I simply told him that I loved him very much and was ready to help him when he was ready but I would not accept his abuse and I would hang up.

11 Helga February 25, 2011 at 11:48 am

The problem is that the healthy boundaries I have set with my daughter let to her total withdrawal. She gets what she wants from other, but no longer from me.

12 recoveryhelpdesk February 25, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Thanks for your comment Tori Lee. Vivitrol was just FDA approved for treatment of opiate dependence in October 2010, so it’s very new. I am waiting to see how effective the medication is in the “real world.” I do have counseling clients who find this option appealing and have chosen to try Vivitrol. I’m going to be paying attention to what they say about their experience, and observe the concrete results in terms of recovery.

If the medication is well tolerated (no unmanageable side effects, cravings or uncomfortable mental states), I think there is great potential here. What a great medication profile: monthly dosing, non-narcotic, no physical dependence, blocks opiates, and no risk of drug diversion!

13 recoveryhelpdesk February 25, 2011 at 10:19 pm

Hi Helga –It’s sounds like you had not intended to cut off all contact with your daughter, but only to set some boundaries. Is it your goal to find a happy medium between poor boundaries and total withdrawal? If so, I think that is probably a realistic goal. The first step would be getting clear with yourself about what your goal is and what that would look like. I’m sure separation has been both a relief and a torture to you both at times –probably not a comfortable place over the long term.

14 T.J. March 6, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Hi Tom,
I am worried about setting too many boundaries at this point (early in my daughter’s recovery) because I also am afraid she will withdraw from us. She is doing very well on Suboxone – it has been a month and four days since her first dose. She graduates from high school in a few months.

When is it safe in a person’s recovery to start addressing other issues? Heroin is such a huge one, that I felt like concentrating on that alone is enough. What about the fact that she is still smoking pot? Should I even worry about that right now? So far, all her visits to outpatient treatment have been positive, and she has developed a solid trust for both her doctor and her counselor. She continues to test negative for opiates, but still positive for marijuana. So far, the doctor has not raised it as an issue to deal with. I have to admit that my own attitude toward marijuana use is relaxed. I don’t use it myself, though I did when I was in high school, but I believe it should be legalized. But the fact of the matter is that it is not legal right now, and she is only 18, and I would hate to see her get in trouble. I continue to let her know its not a good idea, not a healthy habit and she could easily get caught in a routine pull-over by the police. Take her car away? Then she may start bumming rides in other cars with drivers that aren’t safe. Kick her out of the house? Then she may go live in an unhealthy environment. She has a pretty sweet boyfriend that cares deeply about her-they were using heroin together and he wanted to quit a long time ago, but she didn’t want to (I just recently found this out). If it hadn’t been for him nagging at her and threatening to break off their relationship if she didn’t stop, she may not have had the gumption to seek help. But that brings up another issue-the boyfriend had quit before her on his own but was suffering a little physically trying to do it without a maintenance drug like Suboxone. Well, after being on it for a few weeks and feeling so much better, she felt able to taper off to half of her prescription and began sharing it with him. This scares me because she could get in so much trouble. She told me it didn’t seem fair to her that she had help, and he was having to do it on his own, just because his family doesn’t have much money and he can’t afford treatment like she can. At first I was really bummed out about it, but before I confronted her I thought about it for awhile and realized it was actually a compassionate act on her part, and decided not to make an issue out of it. Yet I am still worried about the legal and ethical concerns. What do you think?

15 recoveryhelpdesk March 8, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Hi TJ,

As I like to say, “real recovery is safe and sustainable.” I look at recovery issues in terms of safety and impact on both short-term and long-term recovery.

Smoking pot does carry some risk. Legal risk and risk to sobriety. Both risks are moderate in comparison to heroin use, of course.

I’m not surprised that the doctor has not made a big issue of the marijuana use so far. Many doctors do not address marijuana use, and many others don’t address it until later once the opiate dependence recovery is fully stable. Even federal guidelines for methadone treatment do not require discharge from treatment for marijuana use (but they do restrict take home doses based on marijuana use).

There is some research to suggest that for most people marijuana use does not negatively impact recovery from opiate dependence, and from what I have seen this is often true. I do know some people who say that marijuana use does lead to opiate relapse for them. It sounds like your daughter is doing fine so far.

On the issue of sharing her medication, you describe a very familiar scenario. It’s such a shame that treatment isn’t available to everyone who needs it.

Here again there is both legal risk and recovery risk. This is also not a healthy dynamic in a romantic relationship. The risk to recovery has to do with the fact that your daughter needs to be able to take an adequate and stable dose, and to have a boyfriend who is independently getting the treatment he needs. My goal would be to get him in with a doctor ASAP.

Reckitt Benckiser (1-888-898-4848) is the drug company that makes Suboxone. The doctor can also contact his local Reckitt drug rep rather than this number. The drug company has a patient assistance program to help people that can’t afford the treatment. But only the doctor can apply on the patient’s behalf. So the steps:

1. Get him to the doctor
2. Get the doctor to agree to prescribe Suboxone for him
3. Get the doctor to apply for the patient assistance program to help pay for the prescription

I would also be checking carefully to make sure that the boyfriend does not have access to health insurance through a parent’s health insurance, or through some state program for people with low income. It sometimes takes some checking to identify all options.

16 T.J. March 9, 2011 at 11:51 am

Yes, I agree it is not a healthy dynamic when one person is dependent on another in this way-especially when they are just barely adults, but not totally mature enough to make really sound decisions. There are so many scenarios where this situation could go sour very fast-they fight, she withholds the medication, or he turns her in. Your concerns are also mine. I have been, and will continue to encourage him to get help on his own.

Thank you for your gentle and sound advice! I needed to hear suggestions from someone who deals with these situations on a daily basis-and knows what can happen. My experience with supporting someone in recovery is limited to the last month and a half-and every situation is uncharted territory to me. I think the reason I didn’t freak out when I discovered she was sharing with him was because I’d read on this site that it is a common situation. The only thing about it that encourages me is that she is feeling very good on only 4 milligrams a day, which leads me to hope that weaning off of it won’t be terribly miserable for her. I will talk to them both about getting him to the doctor for his own treatment-I don’t want my daughter to get in trouble, and I know he would really benefit from the counseling portion of the outpatient program my daughter is involved in-she looks forward to it and hasn’t missed one session yet!

17 Patti Herndon April 26, 2011 at 5:30 am

I am thankful for the education and family support your insights serve, Tom. Keep on keepin’ on! ;0)

Patti

18 Jules July 16, 2012 at 7:13 pm

My son is addicted to opiates and I’m having a hard time helping my other non-addicted adult child (25 and has a J.D.) but can’t comprehend addiction and it’s insidious ways. Is convinced that it’s a “choice”. That my husband and I should be doing more… We are dually addicted, yet sober for 12 or so years . Having been there and done that, we have great difficulty tossing him to the curb, as is often suggested to us. He’s in constant pursuit of sobriety, hates himself and his world. Always swearing he’s “all done” and though he’s improving, we know he’s using behind our backs, and he continues to manipulate and cause great distress throughout my entire home. He will take prescribed suboxone in front of someone daily, but; is not being honest . Guess i could go on forever. Very alone and frustrated. Glad to have found this site. Thamks

19 recoveryhelpdesk July 16, 2012 at 11:17 pm

My heart goes out to you and your family Jules. I know you know this, but sometimes it helps to hear it: Recovery is a process. It takes place over time. For most people, the process includes both periods of use and non-use. It may be helpful for you to choose to think about the day to day ups and downs (using/not using, being motivated/not being motivated, struggles with manipulation, struggles with being open and honest) as static on the radio. Ignore that, and listen past the static to what matters. From what you are telling me, the bigger picture is that your son has two parents who love him and understand addiction more than most. Your son is in constant pursuit of sobriety. He has good intentions never to use again, but so far has not been able to reach his intended goal. Yet, he is making progress, and you can see that. Focus on keeping him safe, motivated and willing to keep trying. He will get there. I’d like to hear more about his Suboxone treatment. What is it that he is continuing to use? If he is continuing to use opiates, and is taking a low dose of Suboxone, he may need a higher dose. Or methadone may be a better match for him.

As for your other child, and others who thinks addiction is a choice, the key thing for them to understand is that an addicted person’s free will is compromised. Once a person is addicted, they no longer have unfettered freedom of choice. Very powerful physical and psychological changes have limited the ability to “just stop.” I like to describe addiction as like having a shopping cart with a bad wheel. We’ve all had those in the grocery store! It’s easy for someone with a perfect shopping cart to think it should be easy to steer the shopping cart toward sobriety. But for an addicted person, they point the cart toward recovery and intend it to go forward, and instead it veers off on a tangent. It takes constant re-correcting and effort to keep the cart on the path to recovery. It’s exhausting and discouraging. But over time, people learn to live with and overcome the challenge. Keep them safe, loved, encouraged, supported and feeling understood (even when they can’t understand themselves)…and they will get there.

20 Jules July 17, 2012 at 9:48 am

Thanks for answering me. Tears rolled down my face as I read your response. Not only because of what you said, but more because you answered me at all. Sometimes I feel very alone. My family, is truly falling apart before my very eyes, because of this “diseases” recklessness, and unpredictability. Everyone has their own opinions, and where one sees hope, another sees more manipulation, lies and game playing. Both can be right, and our actions WILL cause a re-action.
I find that I have to LET GO and LET GOD, but as much as I give it to him… Wanting immediate gratification myself; I find myself taking it back and tryin another “fruitless” idea on my own. His personality changes as I’ve never seen before. He acts as if he hates me. ie. Sometimes says he does and blames me for his problems. He is my youngest child, and I’m accused constantly of BABYING and sticking up for him, when “nobody” should. I don’t feel I favor him, just trying to take care of the “sicker” child, and set priorities from there. He still craps all over me however, which makes me wonder “where all this deep seeded anger” comes from? I only know for sure, certain things. The other stuff I need to sumize by his actions and reactions.
Everyone showed last night to my home unexpectedly to tell him he would be FORCED to go to a detox, through the courts; if he did not agree to go on his own. Could have gone well, but though I told them he had been drinking and to please wait, a 4 hour, semi-battle took place, that could’ve been so different if planned better. I, once again was the de-terrent in its happening at all because “I cant take the yelling and screaming” anymore. I actually begin to panic, have heart palpitations, and they don’t pass for a few hours AFTER the arguing stops… I hate it, and it’s scary, but is where I’m at right now and must walk away. Cannot afford proper treatment for him so I share mine and would give it all to see him sober. That’s why the dosage can be innapropriate, at times. I have to go by how he tells me he is feeling, and pray he’s being honest. I can pretty much oversee what he does as he still lives with us and doesn’t have many friends left. I’ve gone on to long… Sorry! Thanks again for answering me. It meant more than you know. Love and prayers

21 recoveryhelpdesk July 17, 2012 at 9:07 pm

Hi Jules –It’s very sad to me that people who need and want treatment can’t get it because it’s unaffordable and they don’t have insurance to help make it affordable. I’m hopeful that the new changes in federal laws around healthcare will help many families in your situation get the care they need. It’s good for the individual, the family, the community and the nation. I hope you are able to find some support near you. A good counselor would probably be the most helpful in giving you a safe time and place to talk through the challenges that are causing you so much distress. Taking care of yourself will both help you and allow you to have the strength to be a support to others. Hang in there! Tom

22 SG August 29, 2012 at 4:32 pm

I am stunned to know there are people like me out there and a professional preaching a new paradigm. It is a tough choice over and over, because right action simply isn’t easy to define each time.
Realizing that we had become nothing more than providers of goods and services to our son, we decided that the car was going to have strings attached- like he would see a therapist weekly and send out one resume weekly. (We think he is opiate – free at the moment but he admits to being very depressed, thinking of suicide and hating his job) He was so enraged at the notion of strings he refused to even listen to the conditions.
This was less than 24 hours ago. He has responded to a couple of texts. We shall see.

I have felt so guilty about my “co-dependence” but there is an old saying — You’re as happy as your most miserable child.

Glad to have found you.

23 recoveryhelpdesk August 29, 2012 at 8:23 pm

SG, Thank you so much for your comment. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it phrased better: “It is a tough choice over and over, because right action simply isn’t easy to define each time.” Perfectly stated! Tom

24 SG September 19, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Truly, your website has changed my life- I no longer feel guilty and I am trusting my guts much more. And I asked my son for another chance, said I was taking a different attitude and explained how and why. When he left that evening, he hugged me.
He is taking an antidepressant now and edging toward a therapist. He says he feels better and happily agreed to a home opiates screening, which he passed.
We have even talked about him going to school full time in January.
It’s a start. Not our first one, but I’m always glad for another.

25 recoveryhelpdesk September 20, 2012 at 10:08 pm

Glad to hear SG! Tom

26 Jules November 7, 2012 at 10:12 am

Need some uplifting advice… My son has been struggling with opioid dependence for approximately 4 yrs. He’s jumped off to heroin… and keeps tellin us he has 4 days???? When told this “AGAIN” thismorning , my dissapointment made me angry and I told him he doesn’t want it bad enough. He slaps me with the “but, without your support, “I’m goin to use again! Watch and see?” Not only does he have us enabling him, but; using the “blame” game… We have done e everything for this boy an continue to, to no avail. I want to make him leave, but feel horrible tossing him to the curb? He’s our youngest son, 23 yrs goin on about 13. At my wits end. It angers my husband to the core of his being, and though I feel that way often enough myself, feel as dissapointed n angry that I get, projecting this to him makes him lash out n say because of our lack if support, he doesn’t even have the desire to try n stay sober??? Can’t think “out of the box” right now.. HELP!

27 recoveryhelpdesk November 21, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Hi Jules, It’s not clear to me what your specific question is. You say you want to make him leave, but feel horrible “tossing him to the curb.” Would it be possible to transition him out of the house without “tossing him to the curb?” What are his options?

28 Jules March 3, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Hi, I don’t know if I have the right link but this has been on my front page since I got my last response. Today is my sons b’day. He’s been doing fairly well..(I think?) for maybe 6-7 days. Thismorning when I got up I went in his room and said Happy Birthday n that I loved him… Was in his room sittin on his bed a couple minutes, when I got up to leave and in so doing began to pick a few dropped cuggarette butts, missed the tray n a couple stray wrappers… His attitude, “altitude” soared, he began to yell at me as to why I would be touching anything in his room, etc. it was so out of nowhere?
Willie n I clash heads often as (mostly when using; perhaps “only”..not sure) he will yell at me and call me names which he knows upsets me greatly ~~ (though, I’m not sure why I’m not just used to it and except it as par for the course.). Just the same, if I didn’t vent somewhere, to someone or something I think is real, I may have lost it. Thanks. Atleast now I’m just lost, but not going to “lose it..” Yet…

29 LJS April 18, 2013 at 7:53 pm

My husband is ready to kick our son out. He has the chance for a decent job through a temp agency that could become permanent. We have been dealing with his addiction for two hears now. A 90-day rehab stint from January to March 2012 and then two months of sober living in April and May. He stayed clean for about two months when he came home. He slips every few weeks. Never as bad as before, but does slip. He has had two bad runs since sober living (lasting about a week). My husband kicked him out once before and he went to live with my mother and adult sister. He missed home and we let him come back. I just don’t believe the streets are the answer. He has no friends to live with that don’t use, so he has no safe place to go. None of us have the means to send him to counseling or a psychiatrist. He has been so much during Rehab and Sober Living he is tired of repeating his story and being a guinea pig for different meds. He doesn’t like AA or NA because he says that it is a lot of people that are court ordered and are looking to find people to use with. I feel the biggest problem with his father and I trying to help him is that we are in direct opposition on what the right thing to do is. Which leads me to be co-dependent and not talking to my husband and my husband wanting to implement extremely tough love.

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