What I’ve Learned About Parenting from My Husband’s Drug Addiction

Image Source: Michelle Horton

Being married to a troubled, sick man has been — in a word — excruciating. In two words? It’s been an excruciating privilege.

It doesn’t always feel like a privilege, of course. My husband has been consumed by an addiction to prescription painkillers for the majority of our marriage, and his recovery has been slow and turbulent. The stress has been real: Frantic 9-1-1 calls when his labored breathing stopped, the deterioration of trust with more lies than anyone should ever believe, a life of inconsistency and fear. I’ve stared at my rapidly aging face in the mirror, imagining how I’d tell our son that his daddy died, which felt like an inevitable conversation. I’ve screamed and prayed and sobbed. It’s still hard, to this day.

And yet …

When I peel away the tar-like layers of anger and hurt, when I can separate myself from the abusive behavior with freshly built boundaries, I see raw compassion pulsing like a heartbeat. When I can back away from the chaos and look at the full-picture view, I’m keenly aware of the learning experience at play. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever learned so much, so rapidly, so urgently. Not just about marriage or love or drugs, but about human nature. About children. About parenting.

I’ll never look at my own son the same.


Drugs are a coping mechanism.

We have this idea that drugs are the problem — that if we can just keep our kids away from drugs, if we can ensure that they’re GOOD kids who make the RIGHT choices, then they’ll be safe. And yet drugs aren’t the real problem. Drugs are often the solution to a deeper problem. If we want to prevent our kids from abusing drugs, we have to start with the deeper issues.

We come into this world bursting with light, unaware that we’re even separate entities from our parents. Then life gets hard, and quickly. We tend to romanticize childhood, coating it with magical balm and fairy dust, hoping to shield our kids from the harsh realities of life just a little longer. Except they’re here, on this planet, with us every single day. Childhood is stressful, confusing. We absorb tension at home, we feel scared. We have big feelings in little bodies, and so we develop ways to cope. Some of us are taught better than others, but some parents haven’t learned how to cope with life themselves because life is never easy — not as a kid (which is what adults would like to believe) and not as adults (which is what kids assume).

For whatever reason, humans like — maybe even NEED — to zone out, to be distracted, to avoid. Denying this fact doesn’t make it less true.

How does my son see me cope with life?

Am I afraid to look at the darker parts of life, of myself, of him?

What kind of habits am I encouraging in him?

Addiction is a disease with dishonesty, justifications, and delusion.

Am I able to look at the unpleasant truths of life?

Can I be honest about the reality of drugs, the reality of being a human?

Can I listen to what my son has to say, even when I don’t like what I’m hearing?

Can I see my boy for who he is — not who I want him to be, or who I expect him to be?


(Parents, please, pay attention.)

Drugs are an escape from everyday unhappiness.

Anything that helps us look away from the present moment, from the more difficult aspects of being a human, has the potential to be addicting. Anything that distracts us from the places where we feel like we’re lacking, like we’re not enough, like we’re unworthy. And the beliefs we form in childhood are sticky.

How do I talk to my child, about my child?

Will he know that however he feels, it’s okay to feel that way? That no matter what he does or thinks or says, he’s normal and accepted?

Will he know that unhappiness is normal, okay, and temporary?

Can I somehow instill a sense of self-respect and self-love to ward off the more self-destructive habits?

Addiction can happen to anyone.

Our kids can get turned around, lost, despite our very best intentions — sometimes it’s a necessary step in their evolution. And drug addiction isn’t the only addiction, coping mechanism, distraction, or habit. We have plenty of ways to distract our gaze, avoid unpleasant issues, deny parts of ourselves that we don’t like. Some people use boxes of doughnuts, or a 5-mile run, or video games or work or sex. It seems like our kids will have even more entry points to addiction than ever, with blinking screens in their pockets and prescription pills in their parent’s cabinets.

As a parent to a very fallible human being, I know he might stumble and make some difficult-to-accept choices. I know he has a genetic predisposition to inherit his father’s affinity to being numbed out from life. I know that he’ll have adversity and challenges because being a human is hard, and bad habits are easy to form.

But if I can unconditionally accept him, listen to him, pay attention to the subtleties without putting on blinders — if he can grow up with a few less holes to fill, a few less negative identities and attachments — then maybe that’s the best I can do.

Loving a troubled person has made me realize that we all carry psychic wounds from our past, and so many of the holes we try to fill/avoid/deny were dug in childhood. Some holes are deeper and more buried than others, of course, but for reasons bigger than we could ever control. (My son will have some dings of his own; that’s life. That’s the human experience.)

And when the holes start to show (as they do) and he starts to make some questionable choices (as he will), I only hope I have the courage to let him learn on his own, and to accept him as he is.

Because beyond anything else, loving an addict has given me a tenderness toward the human spirit, and a deeper forgiveness to our very human stumbles. Hopefully I can extend that to my little boy, no matter what life has in store for him.

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