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What the Family Can & Can’t Do

broken glass and ornaments

Allies in Recovery member Mlb2t has been working with Allies in Recovery for several years, in her struggle with multiple addicted Loved Ones and mental illness. You can see the thread of her comments here.

"I haven't commented in a long time. Right now I am struggling with my own depression. I barely make it to work each day, but yet I believe that work is one thing that keeps me going. Yes both my boys have struggled with addiction but presently they are both in recovery. The problem that exists at this time is the severe mental illness the my oldest son struggles with. This is another terrible illness that carries such a stigma. I have done so many sections to get him help and when he comes out he only seems worse. When he goes in he won't sign a release for me to discuss anything and even when I call because I am allowed to tell them things they just can't tell me anything, I have been hung up on. How can he expect to be helped if o one knows the true story. Yesterday when I was at work he came here looking for me and started screaming in the lobby to all the people there swearing and carrying on about how the world is horrible and everyone is going to burn. I directed him outside and told him to leave. I was so embarassed. I called his therapist and crisis. Here I am his mother, I know he has diagnosed mental illness and I still felt horrible and wanted to run away. Things have been so bad since last November I have practically tried to make myself invisible. I don't know how to live anymore. I'm always told to do things for myself so I do but the problem is still there and as soon as I am alone again I am crying and just so unhappy. I don't know what to do."

Your comment makes this a good time to talk about the limits of your influence as a family member. The old Al-Anon adage is true: you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.

This bears repeating: You can’t cure your son’s mental illness or substance problems.

What you can do:

  • You can love him,
  • You can communicate in a way that de-escalates tension, makes both of you feel heard and maintains the bridge between you,
  • you can try not to reinforce acting out and active use,
  • you can look for and reward good “behavior,”
  • you can continue to guide and support him in treatment.

These are the limits.

The rest is up to your Loved One. Your Loved One has several chronic diseases: a mental illness and a substance use problem. Both of these can go into remission. There may also be times when one and/or the other is active.

Holding the stance we just bulleted above is what you can do in the face of active use or mental illness.

The rest, I’m afraid, is focused on you. You have to find a way to be in your own life and do your best to enjoy it, even while your Loved One cycles in and out of these chronic conditions. It’s about finding the right distance, maintaining your compassion for their struggles, stepping in if there is something in that bulleted list that can be done or cleaned up, and then returning to your life.

I would guess your job knows about your sons. When your oldest came to your work angry and agitated, I am certain your co-workers felt empathy for both of you. What did you tell yourself that made the dominant feeling one of embarrassment?

What did you tell yourself in that moment? Did it help you get back to yourself or did it deepen the wound? Module 7 in the Learning Center provides some common ways of thinking that make things hurt more. These distortions in our thought processes make things worse and keep you from pulling out. You are always going to be shocked and wounded when your sons do something dangerous, mean, or embarrassing. How quickly you pull out of that shock and get back to yourself is more under your control than is their behavior.

A good cognitive behavioral therapist could help you unpack what is going on in your head that is pulling you down and adding to your own depression.

Last time you wrote both your sons were active and in crisis. There has been movement in the right direction. Your family is so affected by substances and mental illness, it is hard to imagine what your life is like. As hard as things are, I hope it helps to clearly distinguish where the lines of influence and action are drawn.

We are here.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. I am at a loss. I don’t know what to do. My son has been an active addict for 6 years. His drug of choice was shooting herion. He has overdosed 5 times and luckily there was always someone there. He has gotten suboxone and vivitrol shots. but, he just stops taking it. not realizing that the meds helped him.

    A week ago Monday I had to call the police because my son was shooting up cocaine in my bathroom. That was my breaking point. I told him to leave my house. He had a few paychecks coming his way (and he used that money to get high) from his previous jobs but he’s unemployed now. I had put a restraing order on him. Well he contacted me on the 7th day. He finally ran out of money. He contacted me and told me that he got a bed at Lahey Behavioral Health Detox. I brought him there and now he is going to a css bed in Quincy. Now he wants me to bring him money and smokes. This is were I am at a loss to contribute to his habit do I give Him Money. He is so mad at me, I told him I don’t know what to do. He said that he can get thru this if he has smokes. He tells me that this is no life for him if no one wants to help him. Please give me some advice.

    On the other hand my other son was shooting cocaine also and he is in a drug program in jail. I send him money for his canteen, my other son brings that to my attention. what do I do. I am desprate .

    1. I would say that there are many threads in your story that are positive – your son got a bed at a detox; then he is going to another bed in Quincy – he seems to be making an effort. That is a ray of hope for you. Smoking?? FINE! give him some cigarettes if they allow it! There was a point where I realized if all my son did was smoke cigarettes, I would be happy (and now he is in recovery AND quit cigarettes, and has even gone back to the gym!) …but as far as the money request goes – draw a very, very solid line there. You can give him love, food, smokes – but if he’s in a safe place (or not) the only thing money will do is tempt him to buy drugs. Whatever he needs – tell him you will buy it and bring it to him (not drugs!). That way he can’t make up stories (and they all make up stories when trying to get drugs, their brains have been hijacked to do this) – and you’ll still feel you’re helping. What you do for one son is not relevant to the other – two different stories. Hang in there, I hope there is some positive that you can see. Moving to recovery is powerful, make sure he gets the medicine he needs and the counseling he needs to understand and then tame his addiction. Good luck. You are a concerned mom who loves her kid and you are doing the best you can.

    2. It’s hard to imagine having two children addicted to drugs. We have other members for whom this is the case. Our heart goes out to you.

      It may be difficult to believe, but both your sons are in a good place right now. Neither one is using. Both are in treatment. Jails are becoming de facto treatment facilities, thank goodness. For right now, this is the best it can be.

      … Read Dominique Simon-Levine’s full response to butterfly61 here: