Knees to Knees
During family weekend, seven months into addiction treatment and recovery, I am seated across from my 22 year old son. We are sitting “knees to knees," face to face, eyes to eyes within a circle of four other families.
The counselor says, "Holding eye contact, take turns sharing one resentment, one regret and one affirmation with each other.”
Holding my gaze, my son nods my way as if to say, “you go first.”
With a trembling voice that breaks mid sentence with deep remorse, I express my greatest regret, “I regret not listening to my instincts sooner, not getting the right kind of help sooner and having you and everyone suffer.”
My greatest regret still is not accessing proper care and treatment sooner. People were telling me not to try at all (there is nothing you can do, you can't cure it) and to banish him from our family to force change (detach, tough love). Some said it was my fault (enabling) and then others said it wasn't (you didn't cause it). Some said you have to “wait until they want it” and others said you have to “wait until rock bottom.” No one said what exactly that meant or looked like so I'd know when it was and when and how to respond. One mother shared with me, “with so much contradictory advice, I whipsawed between all the poles (over-respond, don't respond, respond punitively, respond with self-care) until I was worn out with the whole deal.”
There was so much confusion and ambiguity about how to respond when your loved one presents with the adverse effects of a neurotoxin on the brain that I felt torn. Stuck in the middle of an idealogical battle rather than a health condition. Add to that, I'd been raised in an alcoholic environment where I was conditioned not to respond at all. Intervening in someone's substance use no matter how severe it seemed wasn't modeled in my family. (I intervened on my mother, when I was 40 years old. I was the first to ever address/confront addiction in our family.) Add to the confusion, a medical system that defined addiction as a health condition but in practice treated it more like a moral issue or lack of willpower (nurses in the ER with my mother) while also contributing to addiction with overprescribing and fraudulent prescription writing (Local Dr. supplying young adults with a supply of opioids and benzodiazapines/xanax). An insurance system that refused payment for evidence based treatment protocols and mental healthcare with the code, “not medically necessary." Religions that treated it as a sin or a lack of God or Jesus. A government that for years defined it as a crime and conditioned families to treat it as a crime or a moral issue with the failed, “War on Drugs” and the “Just Say No” prevention campaign. A society that encouraged substance use, normalized it, marketed it, glamorized it until you got sick, hurt yourself or someone else or you violated the social contract of use or used the substances that were not approved by society and then treated it like a crime. Families were primed to either not respond (deny, cope, suffer) or to respond with harsh consequences (kick out, detach, abandon, banish) and to do so silently (stigma). All of which cause harm to the individual and the family system.
In the confusion and disorientation we all suffered trauma. The manifestation of a slow, conditioned, harmful response to substance use disorder, a treatable health condition. It is that trauma which we are now in recovery from. The suffering that ensued by being told to wait for a potentially fatal health condition to get worse before getting proper care for it, the denial of our reality by the insurance company by refusing to pay for evidence based care. The gaslighting and shaming by some therapists, certain support groups members, family and friends for securing attachment and providing care. The pressure to reject my own maternal instincts and betray my intuition in the name of “tough love." The exhaustion and terror of trying to keep someone alive without medical or community support. The anguish of isolation compounded by the shame and stigma where there never should have been any in the first place.
As a mother, that is what I am in recovery from. A cultural & societal system failure and the gross lack of continuity and consistency in the system of care.
For more than 200 years addiction has been defined as a health condition that impacts the body and brain. Dr. Benjamin Rush, who happens to be my great, great, great, grandfather not by blood but by marriage, pioneered the therapeutic approach to addiction in the 1800's. “Dr. Rush recognized that the person using the substance loses control over themselves and identified the properties of the substance, rather than the person's choice, as the causal agent.” In other words, the toxin on the brain and in the body was the problem, never the person. Two hundred years ago and still families are suffering the impact of the confusion born of a flawed healthcare, criminal justice, education system and a lack of consistent coordinated response and disparate ideologies around substance use. Two hundred years and some people are still debating “choice.” Ridiculous.
My greatest regret is not following my instincts sooner, not trusting my inner knowing sooner to drive my response. In the end, my inner knowing and my instincts were correct and a clear, compassionate, therapuetic response made way for proper care and treatment, recovery and healing. What propelled me was taking a stand for healing and grounding in addiction as a health condition and treating my son’s addiction no different than any other health condition. Love, Brain Science & Attachment Theory were the main ingredients.
But first, the mother had to begin to recover.
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