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The Five Stages of Parenting an Addict

Many of us are familiar with the groundbreaking work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She came up with five stages that most people go through when faced with grief, chaos or tragedy, and more specifically, death. The five stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. I think those stages can be applied to what parents (or other loved one) go through when their child is addicted to drugs or alcohol. I changed “bargaining” to “fixing”.

It’s may be helpful to see these stages as “normal” and also to recognize them in order to move on vs. staying stuck in one place for too long. Being stuck in any of these stages, except the last one, can potentially harm your relationships, affect your health and cause you to be full of negative emotions (worry, guilt, anger, blame, depression). Here is how I see the five stages when related to addiction of a loved one, hopefully this will help you move along – it took me about two years to get to Stage Five but if I knew then what I know now….it may have happened sooner.

Stage 1 – Denial
In this stage you see signs that something is wrong but think to yourself “my child would never______.” You tell yourself its nothing to worry about, or that it’s just a phase. Then when you are faced with the reality (the addict tells you, gets arrested, etc.) you start thinking “this can’t be happening to me”. During denial you tell yourself that if you ignore it, it will go away on its own. The danger of this is that it sets you up for a very long journey down a very hard road. You need to face the reality, educate yourself, find support and choose how you will deal with the addict in your life. Denial is the biggie, because it can last for days, months or even years. Once you are out of denying the problem you then become aware of what’s at risk and look for someone or something to blame. This brings us to Stage Two.

Stage 2 – Anger
For many of us anger comes in the form of blame. It’s hard to accept that our child would do this to themselves, it’s easier to find a reason for their choice even if that choice means taking blame ourselves or placing it on our spouse. I got angry at myself, then at life circumstances, then at my son. I stayed angry at my son for a long time. I think in a way anger protects us from having to face how serious the issue is, and how out of control we are to fix it. There is no one to blame, all addicts would turn back the clock in a heartbeat if they could avoid that defining moment of drug use. We need to get the anger out in whatever way works for us (that doesn’t cause harm to anyone). If anger is left unchecked it can turn into resentment which turns into bitterness. No one wants to be a bitter person or risk causing more harm than good with our negative outlook.

Stage 3 – Fixing
This is a tricky stage. Once we are done being angry about the situation, we want to change it. We want to find the solution, implement it, and the problem will be gone. Oh, how I wish it were that simple. In my opinion there is a difference in enabling and supporting the addict. There is a fine line between the two and it would take another article to get into that topic. So let’s say in this instance “fixing” means taking the problem on as your own and doing everything in your power to get the addict “back to normal”. We try to get them to go to meetings, if they are addicted to opiates we get them on Suboxone, we send them to rehabs, we take them to specialists, we even try throwing them out of the house with nothing. None of these things are wrong, but none of them will work unless the addict is ready. We can’t force readiness. We can provide opportunities, but there are no guarantees. If we believe the solution is in our hands – we are in for an agonizing amount of disappointment. We simply cannot fix it, though many of us would sacrifice all we have if we could.

Stage 4 – Depression
When we finally accept the reality that our loved one is an addict, when we have let go of the anger and realize that there is nothing we can do to fix it, we feel defeated. Depression can set in because, frankly, life can be pretty depressing when someone you love is living this lifestyle. They lie, cheat and steal. They put themselves in danger every day. Many end up incarcerated or with huge legal problems. Every time the phone rings you automatically wonder if “this is it” (that call we dread telling us our child is dead). Many nights are spent tossing and turning with worry and fear. We feel helpless, we still get angry about it, we want to wake up and have this all been one long terrifying nightmare. The only cure I know for this depression is true acceptance.

Stage 5 – Acceptance
Acceptance is kind of like surrender. You realize that there is nothing you can do to change the circumstances or your addict. You settle into the reality without letting it take over your life. You learn to reach out to others for support in meetings, online or elsewhere. No matter how hard it is, you are eventually able to remove yourself from the chaos. You don’t stop caring, you stop obsessing. It took me two years to reach this place. In year three I have got my life back – I experience joy, have fun, can go a whole month or more without fantasizing my son’s funeral (I did that constantly for about a year). I’ve learned to be cautiously optimistic. I am stronger and wiser and accept the reality of the situation. My son has five months clean today. He may get six, seven – a year, five years….or he may not. The second I recognize the old thought patterns, I stop and redirect my thoughts to positive, realistic thinking. Sometimes it’s hard to find something positive when they are deep into the addiction, but if they are still alive there is always hope, and hope is something that can help us through.