Learning the Same Language
Alex: Our daughter’s addiction story lasted approximately ten years, though none of us understood the nature of the beast until almost the end. Her behaviors changed slowly. We rationalized, we were confused, and we were tolerant in a helpless way. Looking back, it was like the rising water of a tide. When it lapped at our feet, it was uncomfortable but not ominous. As it slowly and insidiously rose, as each new and strange behavior established itself in our lives, we focused on surviving each day’s challenge. Too late, we noticed the deep water we were in—the loss of any control or direction. If we struggled to get our daughter back, which we did often, we accomplished nothing and exhausted ourselves. And so we drifted on after our grown child, trying to keep ourselves afloat in a powerful current that was dragging us away from the shore of healthy and normal.
We thought we were doing the right thing trying to rescue our daughter. If she was drowning, how could it possibly not be the right thing? We consulted experts and lost years in their contradictions and medications—highly addictive medications, as it would turn out. Increasingly, our daughter was fulfilling the doctors’ diagnoses of a serious mental illness, but not just one—all of them. We felt terrifyingly alone—no treatment, no doctor, no longed-for miracle was in our corner. Even our friends began to recede from our lives—their concerns so trivial to us. We endlessly and bitterly discussed the situation between ourselves.
Pedro: We discussed everything except how we ourselves felt, because despite the increasing toll on our well-being, we felt this was secondary. We did not once in ten years question our own mental health or see a therapist for ourselves. We did not even ask each other how we felt. We simply endured, and then we endured more. Our strength became the only thing we could depend on and the only source of pride we had left.
Alex: Eventually, our daughter herself sent out an SOS. She allowed a doctor to tell us that serious drug taking was involved, and a direction was suddenly clear to us. She refused residential treatment, so we contacted an interventionist. We spent ninety minutes with him. He was so quietly confident in his assessment. Nothing about our story seemed to surprise him in the least—not the emotional violence or abuse, not the long list of failures, not the filth, not the stealing.
He suggested her drug problem was worse than we thought. We badly wanted to go ahead with an intervention, but one thing held us back: we were afraid she would run away and live on the street. We postponed the intervention.
Pedro: Four months and one failed intensive outpatient program later, events suddenly took over. A fortuitous combination of the police, a psych ward, and two very good social workers led our daughter in one week to Caron Treatment Center and led us a few weeks later to the family program there. None of us has looked back since.
Alex: At the beginning of the first day of the family program, my husband and I were asked to describe how we felt. For the next five months, we were coached and cajoled and occasionally confronted to answer this intrusive question. We seemed to have no instinct for it. How many emotions were there? And why was it important to know? Couldn’t we just say we felt okay? Was there a right answer? We hadn’t a clue.
Pedro: This was the beginning of a profound learning experience for us as individuals and as a family, because our younger daughter, who had also been helplessly swept away into the deep water of her sister’s addiction, was welcomed into the family program as we were. We learned new skills about how to handle our emotions and the emotions of others. We learned how to communicate honestly. We learned how to protect ourselves. We learned how to say no. We learned how to recognize what fear did to us and how to handle it. We learned, or began to learn, how to detach with love. It was a new language that we could speak to each other—a safe and powerful language.
Alex: Imagine our surprise to discover—when our daughter completed the residential program at Caron, and we fearfully made the first steps toward rebuilding a relationship with her—that she had learned the very same language. For the first time in a decade, we felt solid ground beneath our feet, and we were not afraid and not alone.
Afterword: It has now been over six years since we attended the family program at Caron Treatment Center, and we still speak the language of recovery. We speak it to each other, and we use it internally, to speak to ourselves in moments of need and encouragement. As with any language, it’s all about practice.
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My biggest powers are acceptance and unconditional love.