I’d met a friend for coffee, my first outing since the start of the COVID pandemic. I was eager to escape the ongoing pressure of dealing with grown sons with addiction and mental health issues. Usually, this friend is willing to hear me unload all the difficult moments. But now, sipping lattes in Starbucks, she leaned across the table and whispered, “You shouldn’t have to live like this.”
I quickly put on my Armor of a Thousand Excuses. “Yes, I know but . . .”
I’d just told her about a recent episode, one where my two live-in sons had swung at each other and also managed to break a window. The window was small, and nobody needed stitches, but my friend’s jaw dropped. She looked at me as if I’d confessed to inviting Martians over for dinner.
What Kind of Choice?
If my sons had cancer or were mentally disabled, would her reaction have been different? I don’t know, but she exposed a cruel divide.
They brought it on themselves. They choose to use. He’s incorrigible. She’s just rotten.
We tend to sympathize with certain diseases, but others we still blame on moral bankruptcy or a misguided choice.
Familiar comments like these are often heaped upon those with addiction and their loved ones. Hardly anyone will pronounce cancer or diabetes or other maladies as choices or the result of poor decision-making—although lifestyle choices are responsible for thousands of preventable deaths each year. But with addiction, judgment is swift. And if we stand by a person suffering, we’re admonished to cast that person away so we can pursue our own happiness.
And if we don’t fight back against these myths, we shackle ourselves to black and white and unbearable choices. You’re either an enabler or you’re not. A doormat or not. A fool or not. These brutal either/ors bring out the “I know, but” in me.
If we don’t fight these myths, our choices are black and white and unbearable.
Whenever I talk about my grown children with SUD, I hear myself saying, “I know (I shouldn’t enable, be a doormat, a fool), but.” I follow the but with whatever I’ve done out of love for my sons. I fully expect to be chided for enabling, for not attending meetings, for staying close when I ought to detach. I might hear once again: You shouldn’t have to live like this.
But the fact is, I shouldn’t have to—I choose to. Some will say that what I do isn’t real love, anyway. That by not kicking them to the curb, I’m crippling my kids. In fact, if I’d only step out of the way, they’d be free to go splat at their bottoms and find recovery.
But would they? Evidence shows that when families withdraw support, most with SUD don’t respond well. Sadly, many never hit bottom. They die, alone and miserable. Sorry. Can’t go there.
Will Real Disease Please Stand Up?
Those who urge me to turn my back or to claim my own happiness might see things differently if I replaced addiction with a more socially acceptable malady. Cancer? If I complained that I’m worn out from cleaning up vomit of my sons undergoing chemo, most would sympathize. If my sons are angry or depressed about their diagnosis because the treatments haven’t worked, I can’t imagine anyone saying I shouldn’t have to live like this.
If my kids were developmentally delayed, I might even be admired for doing the very tough work of caring for them as adults. But most people wouldn’t urge me to institutionalize them so I could live carefree.
Addiction and mental illness are real diseases. They are not choices, or moral failings or a lifestyle chosen to make my life a living hell. My children are suffering. They hate what they do and what society says they are.
But they are not choosing. They’re not incorrigible, rotten or worthless. These judgments are myths. They aren’t any truer than claiming that most Type II diabetics always make good food choices.
Myths aren’t true and myths die hard. But we can turn myths of addiction upside down. When some say, “She’s worthless!” you can respond with, “I know, but she’s still my daughter and she’s more than the last bad thing she did.” When someone says, “I think he chooses to use,” counter with “I know, but that’s not true.” To answer many cruel judgments about our kids, we can say, “I know but, I love them.”
You can bet that judgy types will still judge. But don’t apologize. Instead, stand up tall and answer with compassion.
Exploding myths surrounding Substance Use Disorder might help moms like me stop saying, “I know but . . .” Lucky for me, that day in Starbucks, my friend understood when I gently explained that I’m just a mom who loves her kids. That’s why I live like this.