Remember the sci-fi movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers? You know, the one in which aliens took over, one by one, the human population of a small town? In the film, each alien duplicated and assimilated the physical characteristics and memories of a person sleeping nearby; these duplicates, however, were devoid of all human emotion. In other words, a person you knew and loved would look the same, but would start acting like a zombie. As a young child, I was both horrified and fascinated with that movie. I remember thinking that when my mother (and later my father) was drinking, or taking pills, she was exactly like one of the alien duplicates in the film. She looked sort of like my mother on the outside, but my “real” mother was gone, replaced by some cold and nasty and very foreign being whose eyes looked vacant and soul-less. It was terrifying.
Many years later, I repeated this experience. I watched as my beloved addict son Sam slowly made the same transformation from an intelligent, exuberant, incredibly funny, sensitive young man, into a cold, manipulative, bizarrely foreign stranger. A stranger who lied, and stole valuable things, even from his family members. A person whose behavior was so crazy and erratic that I was convinced he had some sort of severe mental illness like schizophrenia. He became an alien being who would do anything and everything to continue using drugs. Unfortunately, I realize my story is far from unusual; I’m sure that many or most of you with addicted loved ones have had similar, or worse, experiences like the ones I describe here.
But addiction does not only take over the addict. It consumes the entire family. What I failed to recognize at the time is that my own family members and friends witnessed the same kind of radical transformation in me that I had seen in my parents and my son. The people who love me watched as I became more and more fearful, more and more “addicted to the addict,” as I tried anything and everything to save, to rescue, to control, to stop Sam from using drugs. I frantically made excuses, pled with him, repeatedly bailed him out of jail, sent him money for any ridiculous reason he could think of, found him lawyers, and dragged him from doctor to therapist to psychiatrist. I progressively transformed into someone so obsessed with saving my addicted son that I ignored and excluded my loving husband, my other beautiful non-addict son, my dear friends, my job, my hobbies and, eerily, my own self. Over time I became just as sick, and needed as much help, as my addicted child. I became an alien who looked like me, but the real me was, in essence, gone. The enabler had taken over.
The good news is, however, that unlike in the movie, where there was no treatment once the aliens took over; for us, the loved ones of addicts, and for our beloved addicts themselves, there is hope. There is treatment. And thankfully, there is recovery.
So, where do we, the loved ones of addicts, go for help? I certainly do not have all the answers, but I can tell you what worked for me, and for millions of other family members. And that is the Nar-Anon and Al-Anon Family Groups. In these programs I learned the importance of focusing on MY recovery. I learned that I had absolutely no power over my beloved addict or his behavior or drug use. As the “the Three C’s” saying goes, I learned I did not cause his addiction, nor could I control or cure it. In other words, I finally began to understand that as hard as I tried, I could not “fix” my son Sam. I could, however, begin the work to recover myself. I could take my own self back from the enabling alien who had taken over. I could focus on my behavior, and my failings and finally on my recovery. And in working on my own recovery, I was doing the best thing, and really the only thing, I could do to help my son. In fact, Sam has told me many times that it was only when I stopped my enabling, and finally started saying “no” to him, that he sincerely began his own journey toward sobriety.
I have to add that Nar-Anon and Al-Anon were not easy for me, and if done right, I doubt they are for anyone. They are not simply a matter of attending a few meetings, or reading a book or a pamphlet. Of course I attended meetings, and read the literature. But equally important, I had to find a good sponsor, and I had to work the twelve steps, just like my son Sam had to do in NA and AA. Many of these steps were difficult, and emotional, and sometimes very painful. All twelve-step programs take tremendous effort. But I can tell you this: between the meetings, and literature and my step work, I did recover. The alien who was so obsessed with “saving” her addict son is gone, at least for today, and I am in recovery. But just like Sam, I still have to work to maintain my recovery. Addiction is a lifelong disease, and recovery takes lifelong effort, for both addicts and family members alike.
Before I conclude, I must gratefully tell you that my boy Sam has almost five years of sobriety. I am beyond proud of him and his efforts to maintain his own recovery, as well as his tireless work to help others in his position. He co-founded Amethyst Recovery, where he and all the staff there are doing miraculous, life saving work with addicts and their families.
But this article is directed primarily to you – the family members affected by addiction. My prayer and fervent wish, for each and every parent and family member with an addicted loved one, is that you make the decision to find recovery and peace for yourself, no matter whether your addicted loved one chooses recovery or not. It is possible, I promise. Unlike in the movie, with effort and with the guidance of programs such as Nar-Anon and Al-Anon, you can banish the aliens and find your “real” selves again.
Love and prayers to each and every one of you —