I was part of a collective conversation several months ago that focused on addiction in teens and young adults specifically as it pertains to a parent’s denial of the situation and the effect this denial has on younger children in the home. It was a brainstorming, sharing, flushing out conversation more than it was a – let’s find a solution to this problem conversation. Some of us had personal stories to share, others of us were in the addiction profession, others were in the medical and mental health profession and brought a perspective that shed light on the long term implications that accompany denial and the impact on siblings.
As stimulating and important as the conversation was, it soon moved to the back recesses of my mind as other more pressing matters took center stage. And then I got a call from a friend. It seems her eldest son is an addict. Something the family is just now coming to terms with and admitting openly. Something her friends have known for years.
She talked about the process of moving from denial to acceptance and although this step was easier than she had expected, the fall out of living in denial for so long had taken a toll, actually wreaked havoc on her family. You see, she has a younger son. A son who has been watching from the sidelines, from the time he was nine, as his older brother, his idol, fell further into the grip of addiction with parents who refused to respond. A son who was forced to form his own conclusions about drugs and alcohol and their effectiveness as solutions for life. He was left alone to contemplate a parent’s role in addressing a difficult situation or refusing to address it for a reason that he could not fathom. He questioned whether he should be following in his brother’s footsteps or running in the opposite direction – but having no experience in what the opposite direction looked like, he stayed put, in the familiar. He was alone. And in his loneliness, he turned to denial and a sense of powerlessness toward addiction. His addiction was more subtle, more conspiratorial that his brothers. Unlike his older sibling who came home intoxicated throughout middle and high school, he was sober whenever there was even the slightest chance his parents or their friends might encounter him. He became an expert at covert anesthetizing. And, most troubling, he had more than just booze and drugs to numb his pain. He found other addictions. His family remained in denial. Until, like most addiction stories, someone fell to their knees and hit rock bottom.
The family is finally in full recovery mode, and by that I mean, they are ALL enrolled in a 12 step program, working with family counselors and seeking guidance from clergy, but my friend knows that it will be years before her family is whole again. Denial will only get you so far. And then the truth descends like an angry hammer and wipes out all the lies and betrayals and the work of rebuilding begins.
This painful story is worth sharing for only one reason. I know parents who are, at this very moment in denial. They deny that their child is a bully. They deny that their teenage daughter is cutting. They deny that their seven-year-old is stealing. They deny that they don’t have a plan for raising their kids in this fast paced world we live in. They deny that their adolescent son is addicted to porn. They deny that their recently pubescent daughter has already had oral sex. They deny that there is booze missing from the liquor cabinet and they refuse to acknowledge the smell of marijuana emanating from the downstairs basement. They deny they are over their heads and need help, direction and support.
Denial and addiction are co-conspirators. Our best chance in helping our kids navigate the world of addiction and the world of risky choices is to deny denial a place at the table. Finding the courage to admit and then deal with, whatever challenge is set before us as parents, is sometimes enough to influence the direction our children will move when they are confronted by the sometimes confusing and demanding world they live in.
So take off your goggles. Find the courage to accept what is really going on in your home. Take a risk and start a conversation with a child who seems more distant with each passing day. Trust your gut. Throw back the drapes and let in the light. Talk to your kids, challenge yourself, and ask for help.
We are all in this together. Whether we want to be or not is immaterial. What happens in your home affects me, affects my community and it ultimately affects the world we live in and above all else, your kids are counting on you.