I Sucked at Helping My Daughter Overcome Her Heroin Addiction Until...

By Linda Dahl 11/17/17

I flounder in the pain of betrayal when my few pieces of “good” jewelry disappear, my bank account is emptied, the police call in the middle of the night – always in the middle of the night.

A mother comforts teenage daughter on couch.
I love you and will always support you in getting well. But I hate the disease of addiction you’re suffering from and I won’t support it anymore, because I do not want you to die.

You can’t help them. This defeatist caveat about trying to help people with addiction is alive and well, though it ill serves the swelling ranks of desperate loved ones. During a recent NPR interview, Sigrid Rausing, the author of Mayhem, (yet) another memoir about family members struggling with addiction--in this case Rausing’s extremely wealthy brother and his first wife-- repeated this questionable mantra. Ms. Rausing seemed like a kind person, but there it was: you can’t help them. I have been hearing this clap-trap since I got into recovery forty-plus years ago. They have to hit their bottom. They have to want to get sober. And it’s tempting to think so, since so many people with addiction don’t recover. But that ignores the 23 million-plus individuals who do, including me and my daughter.

For about ten years, I’ve been writing about the underserved needs of addicted girls and women and the body of evidence for gender-specific treatment. My motivation was personal: my teenaged daughter’s quick descent into heroin addiction. When I crashed and burned from alcohol and the drugs popular in the 60’s and 70’s, AA was the only place to turn to, other than a few scary cults like Synanon and a few rehabs for the wealthy or lucky; and there was Al-Anon for families. That was it. Desperate and broke, I ended up in Manhattan church basements in l977. No drug counselors, peer support or recovery coaches, no outpatient programs. We didn’t even have Prozac yet. People hit their bottoms, whack, and the motley crew in AA was it. They were, mostly, ferociously helpful. You did what they told you, and mostly, it was good and it worked.

Years go by, I’m this reasonably stable person with a job, family and an abiding sense of life as tough but good. That’s when my only child, the light of my life, starts acting out at 15, 16, 17. She’s sullen, withdrawn, changes her group of friends, loses interest in…everything. It’s me again! I am terrified. I find her a therapist. I find her another therapist, an alternative high school program for “gifted kids outside the box,” outpatient, inpatient…And I try to talk to her. You will note the “I,” “I,” “I.” ‘Cause it’s about me. But I try. When I was a kid, parents avoided, if at all possible, talking about anything emotionally important. I’m determined not to make that mistake. Instead, I overcompensate.

I’m on the warpath and cannot be stopped. I will find and fix what’s bothering her. Fear encases me so that it is almost impossible to hear those who love me; above all, my sponsor, who’s had my number from day one.

Everybody else gets that she’s in the grip of addiction, that I can’t get her sober. But I’m not giving up. I flounder in the pain of betrayal when my few pieces of “good” jewelry disappear, my bank account is emptied, the police call in the middle of the night – always in the middle of the night. I forgive, empathize, commiserate, and mostly, I agonize. I borrow money, bail her out of jail, pay for expensive lawyers, pay for repeated attempts at college. The capper, as someone who read my recent novel about a mother and her addicted daughter, almost gasped at me: “You did her community service for her?” Yup, I masqueraded as my addicted daughter, cleaning out litter pans at the local animal shelter. Because, I reasoned, she was too “sick” to show up.

But I didn’t drink or drug. And, as usual, the pain of staying where I was forced me to listen to what I didn’t want to hear. I was as raw as a newcomer, that early-sobriety-means-your-nerves-are-on-top-of-your-skin-way. I gradually got that I had to stop rescuing her or she would never face up to her addiction. I had to stop shielding her from what she was doing.

A long time ago I accepted that you’re either moving away from or towards a drink. And, when you don’t know which direction to take, hold on and ask somebody you trust. For the parent of a child with addiction, a variant of this axiom is to do everything you can to help them get healthy and nothing to help their disease. Opioid addiction made it pointless to appeal to her reason or emotion. Her young brain was hijacked and needed a constant intake of heroin just as a starving person needs food. I had to shift the dynamics. No more, how could you do this? What the f*? Now, it was, I love you and will always support you in getting well. But I hate the disease of addiction you’re suffering from and I won’t support it anymore, because I do not want you to die.

Then came the consequences. I’m not of the “kick them to the curb” school. Kicking me out back in the day just upped my fear and loathing and made me drink and drug more. I am of the “choices” school. As in, choose to go to X or Y rehab or find somewhere else to live. Distinction without a difference? I don’t think so. All of us swim in a sea of negativity in our active addiction. Giving us choices gives us a bit of dignity. Oh, and then I got out of there, unwilling any longer to hear the lies and blame hurled at me.

During the period that followed, my daughter’s response to my new approach was that I was bipolar, just plain crazy, and the world’s worst mother. Whatever. I was now getting help for myself, some of it in ways “program” people might not approve of. But then, I’ve never been attracted to the bleeding-deacon school of sobriety, so I took my prescriptions and, being a hot mess, I also took up smoking after 30 years off nicotine (cheroots, of all things), watched crap TV and ate junk food. I reasoned that it was better than booze. I kept talking to my long-suffering sponsor and dragged myself to meetings. I even sponsored a newcomer – and she stayed sober.

It took years, but at what turned out to be her last rehab, my daughter told me I had been – quote - “awesome when you ignored my bullshit and just stayed calm when you told me I had to leave the house immediately or else stop using and get into recovery that day.”

“What’s awesome,” I replied, “is that you did it.”

She’s now in her sixth year of recovery. It could have gone either way, of course. We all know that. But inviting a loved one suffering from addiction to collaborate in their recovery is the best we can do. The reasons people recover lie deep in the psyche but we can encourage cracks in the armor of denial to let the truth in. I’m a walking example. I fought sobriety. When I made my 90 days, a group of old-timers at my home group told me they never thought I’d make it. But hey, look at me now, off the cheroots and most of the meds and all set to become a bleeding deacon.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Linda Dahl is the author of a numbeer of books, includine: The Bad Dream Notebook, , and Loving Our Addicted Daughters Back to Life: A Guidebook For Parents. You can find Linda on Linkedin and Twitter.