“I just want my dad back in my life,” my son cried from the back seat. We were driving home from his dad’s new apartment — a life change he sensed was coming for years. We all did. But that doesn’t make it any less sad.
He doesn’t have these outbursts of grief often — not like I imagined he would — but there’s an inherent loss in his life. Not just the loss of a father (who, through varying degrees of drug addiction, was not a stable and consistent person to begin with), but the loss of an image and an expectation for how his life should be. If tears weren’t showing up from time to time, I’d be concerned.
I didn’t expect this life, either. Not when I was pregnant to a man I loved deeply — a man who slowly shrunk under the grip of his opiate addiction.
I never imagined I’d be rocking my toddler to sleep as his dad violently detoxed in the next room. I didn’t fantasize about what it might be like to direct EMS workers into my house in a way that wouldn’t wake my then-4-year-old, sleeping soundly in another room as his father was carried out on a stretcher. I didn’t expect to rehearse scripts in my head for how, exactly, I might have to tell him one day that his dad died.
And I sure as heck didn’t imagine I’d one day be a single mom to an 8-year-old.
Yet here I am, driving away from my soon-to-be ex’s apartment while our child stares out the back window with big, fat tears streaming down his cheeks. I know this is where we need to be — where it’s calmer, more stable. I know I’m a stronger, brighter, more capable woman and mother for being married to an addict (and for leaving).
But there’s a glaring casualty in this chaotic situation: My heartbroken boy.
No justifications or numbing or avoiding will change this core truth: I’m now raising the child of an addict. My son will grow up with the experience, the storyline, of having a father who was incapable of showing up and maintaining a healthy, consistent, loving relationship because of his addiction. (That’s a wound I can’t fix with a kiss.)
This is not just my reality, but the hidden truth in many homes around the country as drug addiction rips through all socioeconomic neighborhoods — even my safe, cozy one. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) one in four children under the age of 18 is exposed to addiction or alcoholism at home. For those of us who are left to raise them alone, it’s a heavy weight to carry.
“Growing up in a family where there’s addiction or alcoholism is often like trying to put together a puzzle and only having bits and pieces … It doesn’t make sense.”
The truth is that children of addicts have a very specific blueprint that can lead to their own substance abuse problems or dysfunctional relationships. It’s like a family legacy that gets passed down through generations. This is what Jerry Moe — vice president and national director of Children’s Programs for the Betty Ford Center — told me a couple of years ago. I had called him for an article I was writing on their children’s program — a program which helps kids understand, sometimes for the very first time, what the disease of addiction is and how they didn’t cause it. And yet our conversation had a profound personal affect on me.
“Growing up in a family where there’s addiction or alcoholism is often like trying to put together a puzzle and only having bits and pieces,” Moe said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
I immediately understood. You see, living with an addict means there’s some degree of silence, secrecy, and shame. During the enabling period, things are happening that don’t make sense — especially to our children, who are simply trying to make sense of their world. One day Daddy is on the ground wrestling, the next he’s nodding off on the couch and talking with slurred speech. One day Mommy is holding Daddy’s hand, saying she’ll always be there for him, and the next she’s telling him to pack his bags and get out.
Being the child of an addict means instinctively taking the emotional temperature of a room, and always questioning the truth.
It means feeling perpetually unimportant, as mom or dad prioritizes a compulsion over the child’s own wellbeing. (This past Christmas, when my son went to his piggybank to get money to buy gifts for his friends, I heard him sadly announce, “Looks like Dad stole my money again.”)
It means living with uncertainty, instability, inconsistency, and second-hand anger. These kids might start expecting and accepting that they can never trust or rely on the people around them, including the friends and partners they invite into their lives. After all, if no one tells a little boy that it’s wrong for someone to take money out of his piggybank — that it’s unacceptable behavior, no matter who does it — then what will that little boy accept from other people in his life?
The good news for those of us raising children of addicts is this: It’s not all hopeless. According to Moe, research shows that the main factor in perpetuating the legacy of addiction is actually the non-addicted parent.
“One of the things that always bothered me is that we refer to these kids as children of alcoholics or children of addicts,” said Moe. “But the subtle point that gets missed is that they’re also children of codependence.” And kids can learn just as many negative and destructive habits from the enabling parent who isn’t able to explain the confusing, painful effects of loving an addict.
Moe stressed that kids need a safe person, a steady rock, to lean on for support and to share feelings. And that can make all the difference between unconsciously repeating patterns in an unhealthy family dynamic, and breaking the cycle. Kids can get that at a program like The Betty Ford Center (where they process their experiences through art, writing, and experiential activities), and they can also get it at home.
Despite all my best efforts to stay healthy, to take care of my needs, to keep showing up at Al-Anon meetings, and putting in the hard work required to raise him on my own, I have to acknowledge that this has and will affect my son in ways I can’t control. His father, his superhero, his most favorite man on the planet, is a drug addict. My son has been raised by an addict (and, for many years, an enabling coparent) for the majority of his existence. That will screw a person up in a very specific way.
But I can’t dwell on that.
I can’t stay angry at myself, or my ex.
I can just keep showing up, being consistent, being stable, and being healthy in the hope of mitigating the inevitable damage. I have to have hard conversations and hear the unpalatable truth about just how sad and angry and whatever other confusing mess of emotions he’s feeling — and have it be okay for him to feel it. I have to intentionally and honestly discuss drugs and alcohol in a way that I maybe wouldn’t think to otherwise. I have to keep my eyes and heart open, no matter what path he takes in the future.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a dad who is healthy enough to stay in the house with us,” I said into my rearview mirror, as my son wiped away his tears. “I’m sorry sweetheart, and I know that you’re feeling angry and disappointed, and I’m sad too.”
“I know, Mom,” he said. “And I know you didn’t take away my Dad for no reason. You had a reason.”
(Oh yes, there was a reason.)
“You had to make a hard choice to take care of yourself, and I respect you for that,” he said.
I choked back my own tears, stunned at the perception and empathy my 8-year-old was capable of exhibiting at such a young age. He stitched together tidbits of explanations I gave for his dad’s behavior and my reactions — “I have to take care of myself to be able to take care of you,” I had once said — and reconciled the ways he’s seen his dad hurt his mom. And after all that, he decided that he respected me for my decision.
Being the child of an addict can’t be an easy experience. Nothing about living with addiction is easy. But if it can teach him lessons of the human experience, if it can offer him an example of what not to become, then maybe it’s not all bad after all.
I just have to be strong enough, healthy enough, and present enough.
Together, I know we’ll make it.