How I survive my son’s Substance Use Disorder

by Brooke D.

As the mother of an addict who is has been in and out of recovery for the past three years who has also struggled with depression for most of his life, I have had to learn to focus on my life.

In Al anon I learned that I can be “happy whether the alcoholic is drinking or not.” I have chosen to apply that to all aspects of my son’s mental and physical health.

Specifically, here are some of the things I do to take care of myself on a daily and weekly basis. The more he has struggled, that more that I have had to focus on self-care. So, I try to eat healthy foods, exercise, meditate, journal, seek the counsel of a few trusted friends, and take time for fun.

As it the case for many with an alcoholic child, this is not my first rodeo.  There are others in my family who have struggled with alcohol and mental illness. Thanks to Alex’s Dad, I started to attend Al anon many years ago.  One of the first things I learned there was to practice basic self-care. So, I take myself to the doctor, dentist or other professionals on a regular basis. I try to eat healthy foods and make a point of cooking most meals from scratch, both as a choice for better nutrition and as a way to slow myself down several times a day.

When I am dealing with a particularly tough crisis, I seek extra counseling from a paid listener.  One of those counselor’s years ago suggested I should have a massage, facial or pedicure each month. Most months, I do at least one of these things for myself. There was a time I used to think I could not afford these pampering services. However, as she pointed out, I always find money for the medicine, treatment centers or services my loved one needs.  It is ok to make sure I pamper myself a little, too.

Exercise has also become a staple in my life.  I am not a gym rat by any means, but I have learned to take a walk when I get home from work most days. Each morning I begin with a little yoga. Thanks to Alex, we joined a gym several years ago, so he could work out as a teenager.  I still have the membership there and try to lift weights or take a formal yoga class a couple of times a week. I am certainly not going to be running a marathon nor do I look like a fit goddess, but my mental clarity is much better when I exercise regularly.

Meditation is part of my daily routine, as well. Each morning I get up an hour before I need to get ready for work to meditate and journal. I have journaled sporadically since I was a teen, but when crisis came to my life with Alex’s Dad and later Alex, I realized it was needed every day. I am not perfect at meditating, but I have learned to use quiet instrumental music or nature sounds to help me focus.  

Sometimes I just focus on my breathing. I may only truly focus for a few minutes at a time, but just the quiet gives me greater clarity.  I also take time to write a brief journal entry each morning. Often, I find the answers to my struggles flow out of my pen when I write in the quiet of the early morning. When things got particularly bad 3 years ago, I added a brief time of mediation and prayer to the end of the day, as well. I find this has allowed me to sleep knowing that Alex is in God’s hands.

Al anon has been my lifeline. I go to at least two meetings a week and have friends I can text or call who do not judge me or my son, because they have been there.  There are lots of other great support groups as well. I think it is essential to have some non-family members to talk to regularly who have walked a similar path and understand what it is like to love someone with addiction. Frequently, I find myself seeking advice or a listening ear when I am not sure how to proceed. I don’t know how anyone can cope with addiction and mental illness without a safe, confidential support group. I also get a lot out of listening to the other member’s stories.

Finally, and this has been the hardest to do, I have learned to make time for fun. I have always been a worker bee and will make sure that my job is done, my home is clean, there are groceries in the house. I used to do that to a fault and not take time out to play. But, I now get that I will only be angry and resentful if I don’t take time to socialize or do fun activities regularly. So, I try to have dinner with friends, go to a concert, an art gallery or other cultural event regularly.  

There are so many low-cost activities or no cost activities out there, that I really have no excuse not to play.  Sometimes I can combine an outing by taking a walk with a friend or going out after a meeting for coffee with a trusted friend.  Something as simple as making time to sit and eat with a friend at work, makes a big difference.

My oldest child is an addict, an alcoholic and suffers with mental illness. Multiple times over the past few years, I have been nearly consumed with grief, guilt and/or exhaustion.

Thankfully, I have developed coping strategies focused mostly on healthy habits and self-care. I encourage others to borrow my strategies or come up with their own. No matter what happens with Alex, I know that I am not alone and that I will survive. It is my daily prayer that Alex finds the resources that he needs to recover.  The best I can do today, is to take care of myself and make sure that Alex knows that I love him unconditionally.

Brooke is a high school educator.

8 thoughts on “How I survive my son’s Substance Use Disorder”

  1. Brooke D., It takes courage to write the words “As the mother of an addict” and to share the post you have written. Just as it takes courage to be the mother of a child struggling with addiction and/or mental health issues, regardless of the age of the child. Courage to live with the uncertainty of what the next phone call might be. Courage to accept that there is so very little we can actually control. Courage to listen to information and details we never expected to hear. Courage to smile when others are sharing how ‘great’ their children are doing. Courage to learn to love unconditionally. Courage to stay quiet when you know that sharing your story with some people would result in judgements that would forever change how they treat both your child and you. Even courage to practice self-care.

    No matter how old our children are, they were once babies. Babies that as we held them in our arms, we never wanted for them, wished upon them, or could even foresee the struggles they would face. Babies that we we did everything to nurture. Babies who brought out our most basic mothering instinct to protect them from harm. Only at some point to be faced with the heart wrenching reality that we could not protect them from everything. The hopes and dreams we had for them as babies have disappeared, to be replaced with a daily prayer of ‘give them the strength to make it through today’.

    1. Wow, just wow! Thank you for your words. I had no idea that someone would understand my pain, grief and speak so eloquently about how it feels to be the mother of an addict. Today my son is in recovery and for that I am extremely grateful. That the little baby I held and nurtured so tenderly had to go through such horror is still hard to reconcile. I am sure you do know.
      Again, thank you for your words!

  2. Thank you for sharing Mary Ellen! It sounds like you are doing a great job with self care. I love the oxygen mask analogy. I try to remember that cocept as well.

  3. This hits home on so many levels. Thank you so much for sharing.
    It has taken me 2 years to realize how important self care is on my journey.
    My qualifier is my 17 year old son and my true serenity began when I started to self- love. As a parent, one of the hardest things to realize is that we cannot cure mental illness and SUD for our loved ones. Shifting the focus to me has truly allowed me to detach with love . Today I can show Unconditional love for my son. Whether he is in recovery or active addiction. I know he has the tools to be well and that only he can decide to use them. I need to focus on the tools I have to be well and self care is at the top of the list. I always go back to something I heard at a support group – it’s important that we put our oxygen masks on first during crisis. Just like we would on a plane in distress. I can only truly handle life when my oxygen mask is firmly on my face.
    Thank you. Much love to you.

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