Over 8.3 million children, nearly 12 percent of all children in the United States, live with a person in active addiction.
I’ve sat here at my computer staring at that statistic for hours.
I’ve thought of people I know, things I can’t unsee, and the pain of a close friend of mine who has wrestled with the frustration of forgiving her own father for years.
I’m not going to lie. I had a hard time with this article. It came close to being buried in the abyss of drafts that never make it to that blue “publish” button. This was a tricky one.
Because I am a child of an addict.
I am an ex-wife of an addict.
I am a recovered addict.
I have personally experienced every nuance of abuse, betrayal, and abandonment. I know addiction intimately.
I have felt the pain.
I have provided the pain.
It’s still blurry sometimes, the memories of being an abused, rejected child and then realizing I successfully protected my own children from every demon…except the one that eventually surfaced in my own life. It was a season I will forever regret, a time my children did not deserve.
The One Thing
The only thing I was ever truly sure of, was the fact that I wanted to be a mom. Born into a highly dysfunctional and abusive family myself, I don’t understand how I knew what family was supposed to look like, but I knew what I longed for. Sunday dinners and playing in the backyard. Camping trips and bonfires. Pool parties, movie nights and Christmas trees. All the things I never had. I longed to give these to my children.
As a single mom with three tiny children and zero financial help, it was difficult, but I always knew we’d make it. It was the four of us. These little lives were (and are) my whole world. We would make it against any challenge because we loved each other.
I was committed. I was determined not to fail my children like everyone had failed me. I would be there for them, always. I would protect them from harm.
And I did.
I was a good mom for a really long time.
…until I wasn’t.
I think the day that is most clear in my mind is the day my daughter was trying to take a jug of wine away from me. She was probably 15. I hadn’t been sober for days. As she pulled it toward the sink, I yelled at her and lunged for it, pushing her away. She stared at me as if she were looking at a complete stranger. She walked out of the room.
After my dad’s death, things unraveled at high speed. Internally, I was dying. I was crushing and snorting Xanax, drinking, and taking at least a few Vicodin every day. I had become a shell of a person, confused and lonely, but still attempting to be there for my children the best I could at the time.
My life turned into tiny cycles that continued to repeat themselves: 1-2 weeks sober, full of life, optimistic and hopeful, immediately followed by a 3-4 day drinking binge, shame and remorse, followed by another longer stretch…maybe a month or three of sobriety, and then another binge. Time passes quickly when you’re in bondage. I lost a decade.
My children are adults now, and we are very open about the pain of the past. They are gracious and loving. They are forgiving.
It wasn’t always the way it is now. When I left for treatment my youngest daughter wouldn’t speak to me. It took her a month to text me for the first time. Things moved slowly. We had a lot to discuss. There were so many layers of pain in all of our lives.
All my children needed to come back to a healthy relationship with me in their own way, on their own terms. I’ve been clean and sober for almost two years now and we are still walking out every day with humility and gratitude. We appreciate each other. We cherish the moments we have.
I remember the text message I received from my son after Thanksgiving dinner this last year. He couldn’t have been further than a block or two away from my house when he wrote, “Thank you for caring enough about yourself and about us to make the changes you did in your life.” It was a good moment.
I am blessed beyond measure and continue to be open with my children about the pain I caused them and the dark place I was in for so long. Our healing story has a happy, albeit ever-unfolding, ending. Addiction is dead and relationships are being restored.
I’m still learning. I’m still allowing God to heal me so I can be a better mom…a better person.
Every story is not this way, though. Many, if not most, include deep resentments, confusion and tangled feelings. I’m definitely not a relationship expert, but I’ve seen some of the mistakes that can be avoided when making a comeback out of addiction and into your child’s life.
Here is a very personal list of things to avoid:
Ignoring the Absence and Reappearing: Children, regardless of how young, realize when a parent has been gone or “not all there.” If addiction has led you to periods of time away from your family, please know that your child has suffered while you were gone. They understand very little about what you’re going through, what you’ve been doing, or why the alcohol or drugs became more important than them. Returning from a binge and attempting to reinsert yourself into your child’s life as if nothing happened is damaging and devaluing to your child. It forces them to ignore something that actually did happen, pretending that it didn’t. When adults behave as if there is no elephant in the room, the child experiences a distorted and highly unhealthy reality.
For more estranged parents, this often happens when there is an important event or milestone in the child’s life. Instead of talking about the absence first and facing the problem, the parent often just “shows up.”
Promises, Promises: Many parents recovering from addiction make heartfelt promises that things will be different, they will call more, or see them next week. If you are currently in addiction, give yourself some time before making commitments. Broken promises are common identifiers of those in addiction or very early recovery. It’s much better to say nothing than it is to make a promise you won’t keep.
Instant Reinstatement: Just because you’re clean for a couple of weeks or even a couple of months doesn’t mean your children understand who you are today, or who you’re becoming. It was especially difficult for me to offer any type of advice or guidance for a pretty long time. It can’t be forced. My children had to build up a trust of my word and especially my parental advice. It wasn’t easy, but with patience and prayer, they gradually began to see me as stable and trustworthy.
Most importantly, it took time to cause the damage. Healing will take time as well. Don’t give up on yourself and don’t give up on your children. Even if you have horrible memories with them of things you absolutely wish you could take back, I promise, there is healing. God can and will reach into the deepest pain and make all things new.
Ask Him. Trust Him.
Note: If you are currently struggling with addiction and need help, let today be your new day: 239-440-6856