Anne Leigh, New England
Transition is usually understood to mean a process, or period of changing from one state or condition to another. Commonly used synonyms include conversion, transformation, adaptation, adjustment and my favourite, metamorphosis—think caterpillar to butterfly.
But this semantic definition implies that our daily reality consists of stasis and I’m only now, at the ripe old age of 58, beginning to understand that nothing, that is, no thing, exists in stasis. Physics explains this much better than I could, but in essence, our every breath in life is a transition, at a cellular level from what was, to what is right now.
Yet, even though our bodies are shedding and recreating our cells constantly, we humans generally conspire in a shared illusion of solidity—we like things to feel familiar and think that life is predictable, for the most part. Change rankles if we haven’t asked for it.
‘Sometimes what’s happening in our families is so close-up, so stressful, that we don’t see the range of possible strategies for dealing with the situation in a healthy and productive way. ANNE LEIGH
Six years ago I left inner-urban Melbourne for the green and pleasant land of the New England Plateau. I was aware that my life would change—that was obvious—but what wasn’t obvious in those early days of ‘resettlement’ was that my entire inner life would also change.
I was no longer a community development coordinator (not yet employed), I wasn’t in the role of a mother (both daughters lived in different States), I wasn’t in the role of wife/partner, (I’d moved to NSW months ahead of my husband, who had to remain in Melbourne to wind up his business), so not a spouse either. I remember sitting on the verandah of our new (very old) house and realising I didn’t know a soul in my new life. I felt like I’d been cut adrift from my moorings—and it felt strangely unsettling, to say the least.
As I pondered the adjustment discomfort I was experiencing I reflected that change causes particular and significant disturbance for those who haven’t set out to create change in their life, and especially not within their family relationships.
This led me to remember the many families I’d worked with over a 20-year period; people whose lives had been thrown into chaos by another’s problematic alcohol or other drug (AOD) use, whether legal drugs like prescription medication and alcohol, or illegal substances like heroin, cannabis and, in more recent years, methyl amphetamine (ice).
The stigma of ‘drugs’ renders families of drug users largely invisible in our community, and ordinary families, just like us, who find themselves in this situation, fear judgement and rejection by their friends and neighbours. It’s a terrible situation to be in as a family, especially for parents. You can imagine when people are out socialising in their friendship or work networks and other parents are talking about their grown-up children and how well they’re doing. Many parents have said how they dread anyone asking them about their young adult drug user; they don’t know what to say, so they ‘cover’ for them if they’re living a drug-dependent life.
Stigma places huge pressure on a family to keep up a coping facade. This also applies to legal drugs, like alcohol. If the drug user is living in the family home, the parents, partners and children spend a huge amount of energy trying to pretend that things are okay when they’re not and, over time, this takes a really big toll on their mental and physical health. This is all exacerbated when the drugs are illegal and that creates an additional layer of difficulty—that now my child, spouse, parent or sibling is seen and treated as a criminal because of what essentially is a health issue.
One of the most common causes of anxiety for parents of drug users is a pervasive sense of guilt. Parents see other families where there are no (apparent) problematic drug issues and torture themselves with the thought that somehow they have contributed to their young adult’s drug dependence. Constant self-scrutiny is corrosive to other family relationships, especially where each parent’s values differ so that there cannot be a cohesive family response to the unsafe drug use happening in their midst.
In fact, the current science attributes a range of factors to someone becoming drug dependent. Parental or spousal blame is way too simple. This is a complex problem for society and government, which is why I think we deal so ineffectively with it, as a society, or as policy makers. It involves among other intangibles, a person’s genetic inheritance, their personal resilience, or coping capacity, their exposure to and influence by others, usually peers. It would be impossible to qualify or quantify accurately the reasons in each individual case.
The many reasons why someone ends up drug dependent are a red herring for the rest of the family; it confuses the issue by allowing them to focus solely on the drug user’s trajectory, when they need to be able to focus on their own needs.
Families benefit by knowing what responses can make the problem worse and what responses can actually help all parties. For example, parents are biologically programed to protect their children. We just forget that there comes a time, when our child becomes an adult, when we can’t do that anymore; we can’t save them from themselves. For spouses, adult children and siblings too, the urge to rescue situations is strong, but only when the drug user is allowed to experience the consequences of their choices do they gain opportunities to make different (better) decisions with different (better) outcomes.
In other words, when families stop ‘cushioning’ their drug user from the natural consequences of their problematic drug use. i.e. no money, no job, nowhere to live, burnt relationships, debts, poor health etc…, the drug user is faced with a very different daily reality and may be in a position to consider their quality of life.
Stopping rescuing behaviours sounds really easy. It’s actually one of the hardest things a parent ever has to do, with the degree of difficulty exacerbated by the absence of any helpful literature in the myriad ‘parenting’ books available. There are, after all, no chapters entitled: ‘What to do if your child grows up to be drug dependent’. The very lack of public discourse creates a sense of shame and blame for parents who are usually the very people most concerned with the health and happiness of their young adult drug user.
Families unfamiliar with the phenomena surrounding addiction or drug dependence think that ‘saving’ the drug user from the consequences of their drug related behaviours will magically cause them to reduce or even stop their unhealthy drug use. However, we know that the desire to change behaviours, in this case to reduce or stop using drugs at dangerous levels, has to come from the individual concerned. No amount of threats, coercion, blackmail or manipulation on the part of the family (who are motivated by a genuine desire to somehow just make them stop!) will improve the situation and can sometimes actually make things worse.
Both the drug user and the family are under extreme stress in this situation and families need to learn how to look after their own needs as a primary focus.
Generally speaking, someone who is drug dependent is either actively ‘using’ or in recovery. People sometimes mistakenly interpret ‘recovery’ as ‘cured’. However, one’s vulnerability to drug dependence, or any other addiction can remain for a very long time, even if the person abstains from drug use. There are recognisable stages and personal development occurring through a drug dependent person’s life and so recovery is viewed as a process, rather than an outcome or a single event. There are many definitions of recovery; I like this one, which comes from the United States: “Recovery is a process of change whereby individuals work to improve their own health and wellness and to live a meaningful life in a community of their choice while striving to achieve their full potential.”
The families of drug dependent people also have their own recovery process too. This is the growth and development that they go through during their loved one’s concurrent process, except for families it’s about managing things like anxiety, instead of drug cravings, and learning to respond differently to the things that cause conflict for families. Families too learn to meet their own needs, eventually, by drawing on their own inner resources and becoming untangled from the quite toxic dynamic that can result when two people or groups—the drug user and the family or parent—try to control each other.
These days my work doesn’t include the drug user, as their needs and wants are often at odds with what the rest of the family needs and wants. The family needs support and information especially if their drug user remains determined to use drugs at problematic levels.
So a huge part of finding a way out of the maze of confusion and high stress levels is finding the inner strength to reach out and ask someone for help.
This is where we come back to the alarming issue of ‘change’ I spoke of at the outset. In my work with families, in order to put one’s hand up for help, families must be able to withstand and overcome the sense of dread that can accompany feeling out of control, or knowing that one cannot do this alone.
Needing to get professional help can feel synonymous with the collapse of the family’s structure—what was secret will now be uncovered. This can manifest as a sick-to-the-stomach anxiety which requires much courage to move through, as it can seem like disloyalty, or betrayal, especially if there has been a verbal or even tacit agreement that ‘we won’t tell anyone’. The risk of physical assault also sometimes has to be reckoned with. Asking for help is no small achievement.
Having worked with many families affected by problematic AOD use I have seen the outcomes and effects of seeking help and the consequent skills development and personal empowerment that ensues. It’s a very hard trek—I liken it to a mountain trek—it can be a marathon moving toward recovery, but the alternative is a marathon that can seriously undermine positive family functioning. Marathons are doable if you know where you’re aiming for and you’ve learnt how to use the right equipment. What starts out as a frightening family experience can result in a life-enhancing metamorphosis for each family member who takes up the challenge.
Anne Leigh—Specialist trainer/facilitator
m: 0406 001 577