PTSD in the Parents of Addicts

By Maggie Ethridge 02/20/17

Autumn didn't realize she had PTSD when she found her daughter near death on the floor. She realized it when she tried to kill her daughter's dealer.

A mother embracing her daughter, both sitting on a couch
It's commonly associated with veterans of war or victims of assault. But parents of addicted children face it, too.

“I think back to what I did and it's so irrational. It sickens me.” Autumn (requested first name only) knows the exact moment she developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from her daughter’s drug addiction. It wasn’t heading upstairs to where her son and daughter shared a room, and seeing her daughter Sara* near death, lying on the carpet and making a rasping, gurgling noise. Autumn’s son had been lying in bed, trying to ignore his sister calling his name. He was inured to her random, erratic behaviors fueled by drugs, and wanted to sleep. It wasn’t until Sara, desperate and unable to speak, crawled out of her bed and began banging her head against the door that he leaped up and screamed for their mother.

It wasn’t calling 911 while she tried to wake her unresponsive daughter that sent Autumn over the edge. And it wasn’t pulling Sara down the stairs and knocking a can of paint over from an unfinished project, so that when she lay her daughter on the hard ground, the paint pooled around her body. It was after Autumn had done all of this, and could do nothing more.

“Just seeing her laying there on the floor, so lifeless, it made me just lose my mind,” Autumn says during a phone interview with The Fix. The ambulance arrived, and a paramedic told Autumn that 20 minutes longer and Sara wouldn’t have made it. Instead, Sara was revived by a shot of Narcan and sent home. She lay on the couch, her mother sitting with her, stroking her hair. “I thought I was going to lose her,” says Autumn.

Sitting on the couch while her daughter slept, Autumn heard Sara’s phone ping and checked the messages. Other drug users were texting, asking Sara for drug hookups, and then a dealer texted, demanding $300 that Sara owed him for drugs. Autumn was thinking of how to respond when the phone rang. She answered and impulsively pretended to be Sara. “I played it off as if I were her; I sound like her. I asked him to meet me at 5th street, outside of town.”

Autumn, a single mother in suburbia who worked full-time, picked up her two guns—a 35 and 380—took her phone and Sara’s, and drove her car to the designated meeting point on a dirt road to wait. Soon, a car pulled up noisily in front of her and parked. A young man got out of the driver’s side and came over to Autumn’s car, opened the passenger door, and looked in, startled. “You aren’t Sara,” he said.

Autumn leaned over, pumped full of adrenaline and cortisol, the hormones of rage and suffering, and asked, “Do you want your money or not?” The young man shrugged and leaned into the car, sat down.

Autumn says, voice shaking, “I pulled my 35 caliber out and put it in his face and said 'My daughter almost died last night, and all you care about is your money.' I jumped on him and bit him, scratched him, attacked him.” Autumn felt nothing but sheer rage.

“He got the gun from me and took the bullets out. I grabbed my 380 and put it in his face and it was another struggle. He disarmed me again, and then got out of my car and grabbed the bullets off the ground and threw them in the back of his truck. I jumped in the back of his truck to grab the bullets. He took off and I jumped out and threw the bullets at him.” The car spun off, shooting rocks at Autumn as she screamed toward him, and a life she no longer recognized.

“I was going to shoot this guy. I'm lucky that he didn't shoot me. Lucky he was just a person addicted to drugs, not necessarily a bad person. I'm lucky that I didn't pull the trigger. I'm lucky he didn't kill me. I'm lucky he didn't beat me. I would have never been able to live with myself knowing that I took someone's life.“

PTSD is typically characterized as a mental health condition that occurs when a person sees or experiences a terrifying event, and is most commonly associated with veterans of war or victims of assault. Yet parents of addicted children commonly experience events and mental and emotional responses that fall underneath the PTSD umbrella, sometimes called complex PTSD. Complex PTSD includes emotional flashbacks, or profound mental and emotional regressions to various states of fear, grief, shame, rage, and depression. This social health issue is rarely discussed in the context of the parents of addicts suffering from PTSD, and there is little research or resources available.

Dr. Vincent, leading psychiatrist in the field of addiction and author of Diagnosing and Treating Addictions: An Integrated Approach to Substance Use Disorders and Concurrent Disorders, says, “There is absolutely no question in my mind that family members are traumatized through their intimate relationship with an addicted family member. The potential trauma may be wide ranging from physical violence, witnessing suicide attempts or accidental overdoses, extreme forms of intimidation and verbal abuse, awareness of involvement in gangs, prostitution or other illegal activities.”

PTSD is a process of emotional trauma that includes what many mental health professionals call “amygdala hijackings,” so-called because the almond-shaped amygdala is a sector of the brain performing the main role in storing emotional memory. It is believed that prolonged fear responses "hijack" this part of the brain, causing it to become hyper-reactive. Repeated instances of this hijacking—without intervention—results in altered brain chemistry, where the amygdala signals the nervous system to panic, and the repetitive panicking can result in a constant altered physical and mental state so that panic becomes a go-to response, instead of a response during a crisis. During a state of overreactive fear, the body responds with rapid heartbeat, cortisol and adrenaline production, and increased respiration and blood pressure. Over time, this process weakens the entire body. Cognitive functioning declines, as does impulse control and perception of the accurate level of danger and response.

It is understood that there is a connection between PTSD and disease, although what that connection is has not been pinpointed. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs's webpage on PTSD says that the National Center for PTSD is studying the mechanisms by which PTSD and disease are connected. The page offers, “Current thinking is that the experience of trauma brings about neurochemical changes in the brain. These changes may have biological, as well as psychological and behavioral, effects on one's health. Research also shows that these neurochemical changes may relate to abnormalities in thyroid and other hormone functions, and to increased susceptibility to infections and immunologic disorders associated with PTSD.”

The Veterans Affairs page on PTSD goes on to associate PTSD, anxiety and depression with cardiovascular risk, intestinal illness, and musculoskeletal disorders—although again, the exact connection and specific risk factors are not known. Many parents with PTSD who have children struggling with addiction have experienced health issues or trauma since their child’s addiction became prominent. David Sheff, the author of the best-selling memoir, Beautiful Boy, wrote of his own health crisis in that book. After his son struggled for years with meth addiction, Sheff had a major stroke and was near death.

Autumn has suffered from serious health issues since her daughter became addicted to drugs. “It wasn't until a few months ago that I found out from a neurologist I was referred to that my medical problems are likely psychosomatic due to PTSD,” she says. “I have memory problems, nerve pain that can occur anywhere in my body that just comes and goes without warning, trouble with my speech and neck and shoulder pain.”

The National Center for PTSD website lists various treatments for PTSD, including EMDR (a type of therapy with specific eye movements designed to reset the nervous system and stored memory) cognitive therapy, exposure therapy (where repeated revisiting of trauma while in the care of a specialist reduces the impact of the trauma) and group therapy, along with medication.

Many parents of addicts find that groups geared toward coping with addiction can also be helpful, such as CoDA (Co-Dependents Anonymous) and Al-Anon, a support group geared for loved ones of alcoholics, but which many people affected by drug addiction also utilize.

Julia* was diagnosed with PTSD after years of dealing with her daughter’s progressive drug addiction. “My hair is falling out,” she says. “I notice it when I brush it or in the shower, it comes out in handfuls.” Julia smoked addictively until she became pregnant with her now baby boy, when she quit.

Julia attended Al-Anon meetings for years, but five years ago she began seeing a neuropsychologist for her PTSD and now focuses on those sessions. Her daughter Kelsey* began using as a child. Kelsey was 12 years old when she was raped by an 18-year-old boy who had been giving her marijuana and alcohol. “We went through court and he was a registered sex offender for 10 years,” Julia recalls over the phone. “He got a 90-day suspended sentence, but he got in trouble so he did a year-and-a-half in prison.”

The family moved in the years after the conviction, but Kelsey’s addiction moved with them. Kelsey has been in 23 rehabilitation centers and was diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder as well as PTSD. She has had periods of sobriety, but “she’s a binge user,” her mother says. “She’ll use for four months and be clean for six, repeat.” Kelsey’s use progressed from marijuana and alcohol to pills, to heroin.

Julia’s PTSD has been more manageable with the support of the neuropsychologist and family members, but she still struggles. “I feel like I can’t breathe, like I can’t fix it and I’m the only one who can,” she says. “It affects every relationship. My job, my intimate relationship, every single aspect. I get so worried; it’s awful. I dream about it.”

The terrible rise in overdose deaths in the last 10 years has increased the numbers of parents left behind to struggle with not only grief, but PTSD. Kate Granju lost her son Henry to a beating and drug overdose in 2010 when he was 18 years old. She has suffered from PTSD and what she believes is complex grief since his death. Granju told The Fix in a previous story, “People who lose a child to drug addiction are already traumatized by watching their child get sicker and sicker.”

Parents who have anxiety or PTSD and a child struggling with addiction find themselves in a never-ending circle of trauma: the nervous system and emotional suffering of PTSD is continuously stoked by the ongoing, often life-or-death crisis of their child’s addiction. Yoga and meditation are powerful weapons to calm the nervous system, but they can only go so far in a life that contains a battery of repeated trauma that cannot be snuffed out or ignored. Finding appropriate support for the specific situation of a parent of an addict is crucial.

For Julia, seeing the neuropsychologist—who is educated in addiction issues—has been the crucial element to regaining her sanity. Although she still finds herself “cleaning everything” and pacing as a way to deal with excess stress, Julia now has a support system in place and coping mechanisms that are specific to being the parent of an addicted child.

Autumn was diagnosed with PTSD the October after her daughter’s overdose occurred. “I went to my physician and became hysterical when I began telling her what I was experiencing,” she says. “She gave me a Valium to calm me down before she could continue talking to me. I was able to tell her what had happened and she put me on medication.” Autumn took advantage of her work’s health plan and utilized the therapy sessions available, which she found helpful, especially as her therapist would take occasional frantic phone calls when Autumn felt herself falling apart.

Eventually, Autumn weaned herself off the medication, and when her daughter was sentenced to 15 months in prison, she relaxed, knowing she wouldn’t overdose and die.

“Now that she will be coming home soon, I'm struggling again,” Autumn says.

*not her real name.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.