Whenever I talk to the parents of a child struggling with addiction, I tell them that taking care of themselves is just as important as taking care of their child. In fact, it may be more important.
Sometimes my instruction is met with funny looks or skepticism. But for the parents of a child in the throes of addiction, self-care is absolutely essential – even if it goes against our parental instincts.
The Overwhelming Role of a Caretaker
As parents, our brains are programmed to do whatever we can to protect our children; we get used to being in control of their lives. From the moment they’re born, we are their guardians and that means doing everything in our power to keep them safe.
Whether it’s making sure there are no monsters under the bed before they go to sleep or simply putting Band-Aids on freshly skinned knees, we take care of things. We also become experts at fixing situations in an effort to make our kids’ lives better.
Unfortunately, addiction is one situation that parents can’t fix…no matter how much we want to.
Learning to Refocus
Early on in my son’s battle with addiction I did not take care of myself. Not only was I completely consumed by my son’s issues; I was addicted to his addiction. Al-Anon is spot on when they talk about the “Three Cs.” We didn’t cause our child’s addiction; we can’t cure it; and we certainly can’t control it. Only the person afflicted with the disease can do that.
When we try to defy that logic, we end up spinning our wheels and making ourselves sick. We become the fallout from our children’s addictions, fighting a battle that we can’t win. And we forget about taking care of ourselves.
Trust me; I know.
Early on in my son’s battle with addiction I did not take care of myself. Not only was I completely consumed by my son’s issues; I was addicted to his addiction. I put my son’s well being ahead of my own. His health and happiness were more important than mine.
As a father, my instincts told me to help him now, help myself later. I believed doing anything different would border on negligence. But that was the worst possible strategy, both for me and for the rest of my family.
The Disastrous Results of Ignoring Self-Care
The results were a complete disaster. I found myself living in non-stop panic mode. I spent most of my waking hours worried and frustrated, and feelings of helplessness were my constant companion. I couldn’t sleep; my life and relationships started to fall apart. My health suffered, too.
All of these things happened because my happiness and outlook on life were totally dependent on the choices and actions of my son. I was clueless. My world was complete chaos and it lasted for several years.
In reality, parents need to be strong for their child. We can achieve this by getting proper sleep, eating well, exercising, socializing, and continuing to experience joy in our life. It can be a difficult concept to grasp, but if we don’t take care of ourselves, how can we expect to help our child?
In the book Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change, self-care is summed up nicely: “When you take care of yourself, you build strength to both tolerate what you can’t change and change what you can. At the same time, as a calmer, happier person, you will be contributing to an atmosphere that is conducive to the change you hope to see in your loved one, and you will be modeling healthy behaviors you wish for in your loved one.”
Grab an Oxygen Mask, Take a Deep Breath: To help illustrate how vital self-care is, I love to use the analogy of oxygen masks on airplanes. Before taking off, a flight attendant instructs you that you should put your own oxygen mask on before trying to help others in an emergency. Why do you suppose that is? Because if you’re not breathing properly, you won’t be able to help anyone else. In the end, the whole group will suffer.
So think of self-care as your oxygen mask. By giving yourself the love, attention and respect you are entitled to, you get the “oxygen” you need to keep on breathing. This allows you to be in the best condition possible to assist your loved one when they need it. You’ll be able to think much more clearly and effectively, and your day-to-day life will improve exponentially.
Coming Full Circle
Eventually, I saw the light. To quote David Sheff from his brilliant book Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through His Son’s Addiction, “I finally chose life for myself.” And when I did? Everything in my world started to improve – including my son.
Taking care of myself was a game-changer for everyone involved. I didn’t stop caring about my son; I started caring about myself. I realized that when a person is addicted, they are not the only one who needs recovery, because addiction is a family disease. I began therapy; went to support group meetings; read a bunch of self-help books; started eating healthier; and treated myself to a new bike so I could exercise regularly.
My self-care/recovery program was truly liberating.
As the parent of a child going through addiction, figuring out that your life is the most important one in the equation is probably the most difficult thing you’ll ever have to do. Some parents never learn or accept that self-care should be the number one thing on their “To-Do” list when they have a child that’s struggling.
It took me a while, but I’m glad I finally bought into the idea. I probably wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t.
If your child’s addiction is having a negative impact on your life, do me a favor and try taking better care of yourself. Make YOU the top priority in your life. Yes, it might sound selfish. It might even sound a little bit crazy. But take it from someone who was once extremely skeptical: It will change your life for the better. And you know what? You totally deserve that.
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