Because I’m the father of an adult son who has battled addiction on and off for more than a dozen years, other parents—usually those who have just discovered that their child is struggling with addiction—frequently ask me for advice. These are parents whose whole world has been turned upside down because they never thought “it” could happen to them.
Make no mistake: Addiction can happen to anyone, and finding out your child suffers from the disease known as addiction can be devastating. As parents, our first reaction—after the denial and guilt we inevitably feel—is to ask ourselves what we can do to fix our child. After all, since they first entered this world, we have been our child’s keeper. That parenting gene we carry around inside of us is what told us to comfort our son or daughter when they were feeling sad, to chase away the monsters under their bed, or to put a Band-Aid on their knee after they fell and scraped it.
But, unfortunately, addiction is different. As Nar-Anon and Al-Anon teach us about a loved one’s addiction: You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it. (Truer words were never spoken.) So, for parents who approach me with a laser focus on what they should do to help their child—because, again, our natural instinct is to care for our children—the first piece of advice I give them oftentimes comes as a shock.
Take care of yourself first.
To be clear, getting help for an addicted child is definitely a top priority. You want them to get professional help and start their recovery as soon as possible. But the little secret that most parents new to this scenario don’t realize is that your recovery is just as important. Maybe even more so.
When you’re the parent of a child with a drug or alcohol problem, it’s so easy to be completely consumed by their addiction. When you become addicted to their addiction, every aspect of your life can be affected, and your physical and mental health will undoubtedly begin to suffer. When that happens, you won’t be able to help your son or daughter when they need it most.
An analogy that is frequently used to illustrate why self-care is so important is the instruction flight attendants give you when you’re on an airplane that’s about to take off. They tell you that in the event of an emergency, you should put your own oxygen mask on first; then try to help other people. Because if you don’t take care of yourself first, everyone will end up suffering.
In the book Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change, the philosophy behind self-care is described perfectly:
“How can you accept your loved one until she stops what she’s doing? One way is to have your well-being not wholly depend on her, and by devoting energy to something outside of your concerns for her. 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.”
I understand that the whole idea of putting yourself first may be difficult for a lot of people to grasp. But that’s okay. I was skeptical, too. In fact, it took me years to buy into the concept. But once I did, I noticed that things started to change for the better. Not just for me, but for my son and the rest of my family, too. Things weren’t exactly all rainbows and unicorns, but my life was no longer a living hell, either. And in time, I actually started to enjoy my life again, despite my son’s addiction.
While my son was going through the worst part of his addiction, I used to tell my friends that I wished life had a “pause” button. I wanted that button more than anything in the world, so I could push it and put my life on hold while I concentrated on his crisis. But there is no pause button in life, so I had to learn how to coexist with my son and his addiction. It was the only way to survive. And taking care of myself—working on my own recovery—was the only way to get there.
Self care isn’t being selfish. It’s absolutely essential.