Let the Guilt Go

by Sandy Swenson
June 10, 2019

Oh, the guilt. It’s a terrible burden. All the could’ves and should’ves. All the what-ifs and what-if-nots. All the mistakes and missed clues and second-guesses piled like rubbish inside of our brains and our hearts. We do the best we can when raising our children, but when things go wrong, every single thing we’ve ever done—every word, every action, every thought, every look—becomes fodder for the fire of maternal guilt.

So when addiction grabs a child, it’s natural to inspect and evaluate our past behavior. It’s natural to start turning over every leaf. And we’ll probably uncover some things we deserve to feel guilty about—things for which we need to make amends and changes in our course. We’ll also uncover some things we might think we need to feel guilty about but, in fact, do not. Sometimes bad things just happen. And addiction is one of those things. Addiction is a disease; how and why it develops in one person and not another is out of our control—much like diabetes.

So let the guilt go.

As moms, we don’t have the power to cause addiction. Once we truly believe this—once we’ve heaved ourselves over this gigantic hurdle—everything changes.

Sure, we can annoy, embarrass, interfere with, and neglect our children in ways that could probably “drive them to drink,” so to speak. We can make them mad and sad and hurt their feelings (and sometimes do things that are even worse). Yes, we can push them to the point of seeking comfort in a bottle or bag in myriad ways. But addiction is what might or might not happen later, once a sip or sniff mysteriously goes rogue. Once choice becomes obsession. This is the point at which use becomes disease, but it doesn’t happen to everyone who sips or sniffs. And there’s nothing we as moms can do to push substance use over that edge; this is out of our control.

Even when we know this, understand this, we torture ourselves as we wonder: Maybe addiction would have left our child alone if only we hadn’t gotten divorced. Or had gotten divorced. Or hadn’t worked so much. Or hadn’t been unemployed. Maybe if we hadn’t enjoyed our evening cocktails so much. Or weren’t so strict. Or weren’t strict enough.

For the sake of our well-being and the well-being of our beloved addict and family, the self-flogging must end. We need to forgive ourselves for what we didn’t know before we knew it—or before we knew how to do it, or how to do it well, or how to recognize it, stop it, or change it. Only then are we empowered to move forward with healthy new resolve.

So let the guilt go.

Imperfect parenting does not cause children to become addicts. If that were so, every child in the world would grow up to be one. This job isn’t easy, so we mess up a lot, all of us, even when we’re trying not to. And some of those mess-ups are huge. But our mess-ups don’t cause addiction—if they did, not one of us would remain unscathed. Take a look around. Some children are lucky enough to be raised in the most wonderful of circumstances, surrounded by a loving family and attentive parents, living in a beautiful home in a safe neighborhood, with food on the table and a bed with clean sheets—but even drenched in advantage, some of those children will, for some reason, become addicted when exposed to alcohol or drugs (medically necessary or not). And, sadly, some children are raised in the most horrendous of circumstances, abandoned and abused, passed from home to home where they’re not always wanted, and without the benefit of positive influences, regular meals, good health, and financial security. Seemingly doomed by the weight of their tough lives, some of these children will engage in substance use similar to that of their better-off peers, but for some reason they won’t become addicted—because addiction is not a reflection of bad parenting, just as being an addict isn’t a reflection of being a bad person. No, something else is going on.

We’ve been held in the clutches of guilt—misplaced guilt—for too long. Just as with shame and blame, this emotion is poison, and it keeps us from dealing with addiction like the disease that it is.

So let the guilt go.

Sandy Swenson

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“We may often feel fragile, but we are strong. And we are many.
We have the power to overpower the destruction that addiction spreads.”

Sandra Swenson is the author of The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction (Central Recovery Press 2014), Tending Dandelions: Honest Meditations for Mothers with Addicted Children (Hazelden 2017), the Readings for Moms of Addicts app (Hazelden 2018), and her blog.

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