Monday, June 23, 2008


“Parent is currently seeking treatment for substance abuse. Through therapy, this parent has discovered that the substance abuse was a form of self-medication. While using, the parent feels as if they were relaxed and free of anxiety, withdrawal from this substance currently leaves the parent restless, irritable, and discontent. The children are in the unfortunate predicament of witnessing the parent's mood swings and depression. Every display of anger leaves the parent in a further state of depression and self-loathing. Parent is assured that these intense feelings are natural and will pass, but are still painful regardless. How can the parent nurture and protect the children while making hir recovery a top priority?”
-- Anonymous

Anger, depression, and self-loathing might be natural responses to physical withdrawal, but that doesn’t mean we should just bite the bullet and wait for them to pass. I think you are absolutely right to want to prevent the pain. I agree that it is worthwhile to look for solutions now – I think it is far too common for depression to become habitual, so figuring out how to break the thoughts that lead there and the expression of those thoughts that is counter to greater intentions seems to me to be very important.

Also, you mention that substance abuse was a form of self-medication. I think it’s important to look closely at why self-medication was needed. What is replacing the formerly abused substance? I think when we’re in pain, we need to address the root causes of that pain while applying quick fixes. Self-medicating via substance abuse doesn’t address the root causes. Neither does stopping the substance abuse. The bigger issue here needs to be addressed, whether that is done via therapy or prescribed medications or light treatments or acupuncture or massage or yoga or meditation or nutrition or exercise or vitamin supplements or something else or a combination of some or all of the above will depend entirely on the specifics of the individual. In other words, figure out what leads you to self-medicate, and do what you can to address that issue (or those issues). It is imperative, I think, that you be willing to approach these problems from more than one perspective. Nobody really understands how the human mind works. Humans have lots of different theories about it. Ultimately, however, it is YOUR mind, and it is up to you to find the theories that fit best for you – the answers that best solve your unique problems.

But the core of your question was how to nurture and protect the children during a difficult time for the parent – and I think that requires help, in the form of other adults. If there is a parent-partner, then the two of you need to figure out together how the other parent can take over as much as possible so that you can work through your physical and emotional difficulties without hurting people that you love. It’s also critical that you reach out to family and friends, and enlist more help. That might mean talking about the actual problems you’re having. It might mean setting up more playdates and overnights. And if you’re a solo parent, then it is time to lean very hard on friends and family. I think you need to do two crucial things now. One is to work hard on breaking the patterns you’ve established that are hurting your kids. The other is to physically protect your kids and make sure that they have other people they love nurturing them while you’re moving forward, while you’re in a place of making a lot of mistakes. If you can’t change yourself fast enough, you can at least change your frequency of interactions for a time.

Guilt is a word you didn’t use at all, but I think it is very, very, very likely that guilt is the source of this: “Every display of anger leaves the parent in a further state of depression and self-loathing.” If I’m right, then there is a really nasty cycle starting here, one that needs to be seen and dismantled ASAP. Guilt serves one useful purpose – it shows us what we don’t want to do, who we don’t want to be. Once we’ve recognized that, it is crucial that we let it go. Let go of the mistake, and let go of the guilt. The real danger of feeling guilty is that if we get stuck in that feeling, we are setting ourselves up to fail. Feeling guilty makes it harder to see what we are doing right, what is going well, what we feel good about. Instead, guilt focuses very harshly on how we have failed, with an assumption that those failings are permanently damaging and irreparable. This leads, not to more success, but to more failing – often the same mistakes are repeated, creating more guilt, which leads to, yes, more misery. In order to learn from mistakes, we have to let them go. We have to see ourselves as separate from our mistakes. Guilt attaches our identity to our mistakes, and gets stuck there. So, if I’m at all right with this guess, you need to recognize what you are doing that is positive – tackling a very big problem (substance abuse). Unraveling these internal problems (substance abuse and the underlying causes) is a hugely positive thing.

And don’t stop there! Look at the small stuff. What can you do differently when feelings of frustration start creeping in? What helps you stay calm and centered? There is a way that we can assume we need to ride a feeling through to the end, and I think it can be very freeing to recognize the falseness of that. We can change gears anytime. We can start down a bad path, recognize that, and stop. Turn around. Find another way forward. Just because anger is rising, just because depression is descending, doesn’t mean we have to follow that pattern through to the end. We can, if we figure out how, turn it around. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we start doing that, the better. Maybe you’ll catch yourself in the guilt cycle and figure out how to let that go by calling a friend, or by snuggling with your child, or by feeding yourself a good meal. Maybe you’ll catch yourself in the anger cycle and break it by focusing on your breath, or by going outside, or by opening the curtains to let in some sunlight. Maybe you’ll catch yourself in self-pity and break it by taking a long bath or making a cup of tea or putting on a favorite CD. The specifics that I’m listing are not important. What is important is that you realize that YOU have the power to shift your own mental landscape, the power to choose where to focus your thoughts. How you do that, well, that’s up to you. I’m just reminding you that it is possible. And that you won’t always figure it out. So focus on noticing when you do figure it out. Focus on whatever helps you stay clear, calm, separate from what is hard.

I don’t know how helpful this will be. I don’t know whether it’s even really possible for me to help you at all. I strongly, strongly encourage you to talk to people face to face about everything you wrote to me. Find support where you are. Ask for help. Ask for help. Ask for help. Know that sometimes people won’t be able to help you, and ask anyway. Keep asking until you realize you’re doing okay. Then, remember to return the favor.

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