How a mother helped her drug addicted children by letting go

MARTHA S. can laugh about it now, but she remembers the awful times - the nights she was so frightened about her drug-addicted son and daughter that she cruised the streets of Montgomery, searching for signs of her children outside the homes she knew belonged to drug dealers. ``I did crazy things,'' she recalls, speaking in a soft Southern accent. ``I feared for them, that they were going to overdose, or that they were going to kill somebody, or they were going to go to jail. And this is a fear I lived with 24 hours a day.

``I became so frightened that if I was in a department store and was close to the office and I heard the phone ring, I was in complete fear that I was going to be paged,'' she says, ``and be told that something had happened to them.''

Over the years - as her children's problems with drug abuse continued from high school into early adulthood, and from alcohol and marijuana to barbiturates and heroin - Martha's fear did nothing to stop her children. If anything, listening to their telephone conversations or following them around the city only made matters worse.

Finally, Martha found help. But not for her children - for herself. At a seminar one night Martha heard about Families Anonymous, an organization patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous and designed specifically for the families of drug and alcohol abusers. On May 11, 1982, Martha and several other Montgomery parents founded a local FA chapter - and began helping one another cope with the dark family secrets of drug abuse, unburdening themselves of the guilt and shame that had kept them from sharing their problems with others.

In the months that followed, Martha learned many things - to stop trying to control her children's lives, to not blame herself for their decision to take drugs, and to choose to have a warm relationship with her son and daughter, regardless of whether they used drugs. And over the course of year or so, something else happened. Both of her children entered treatment programs and kicked their habits.

``There were a lot of positive changes in her,'' says Joe, Martha's 28-year-old son, of what happened to his mother in FA. ``She wasn't so controlling; she didn't want to know my business so much. She started allowing me to do whatever I needed to do, without her following me around.

``It allowed me to have the dignity,'' he adds, ``to get in as bad a shape as it took for me to get well.''

Martha calls what happened to her family ``a miracle.'' It's a word used by many parents who have seen themselves and their children helped through a program begun 15 years ago by three southern California couples whose families were being torn apart by drug addiction.

FA is based on the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program, which emphasizes admitting that one is powerless over an addiction and the existence of a higher power that is capable of restoring the individual to soundness. At the heart of FA's doctrine is the understanding that parents must stop trying to change their children - and start trying to change themselves. It is inevitable then, FA members say, that the relationship between parent and child will change for the better, thus helping clear the way for the child to get better himself.

``The change in the parent has to have an effect on the child,'' says Liz A., who is adviser to the chairman of FA's World Service Board, headquartered in Van Nuys, Calif. ``It's like a ripple effect.''

``If one person changes, the other one has to change,'' says Liz, who has seen three of her four children stop using drugs during the six years she has belonged to FA. ``Children no longer have you to blame for the problem when you remove yourself from it. When you change your behavior, they have to take a look at themselves. They start to take hold of their life.''

Local groups - which number nearly 400 across the United States and include chapters in Britain, Australia, and Canada - meet once a week.

Anonymity is insisted upon (no full names are used), and no one is forced to talk about a personal problem or join in group discussions.

``It gave us a lot of peace to even be able to sit in a room and say, `I've got a problem in my family,''' Martha S. says of the first FA meetings she attended. ``So many of us felt guilty or ashamed.

``I didn't feel like I had done anything wrong,'' she says of raising her children. ``But I felt I was wrong because I could not make [the addiction] stop. You know, you put Band-Aids on their knees when they're babies, you get them over the measles, and you've fixed them. Well, this was something I couldn't fix.

``I felt very ashamed, my self-esteem got very low, because my children weren't shining like I thought they were going to when they were small,'' she says. ``You know, you would sit in a restaurant and see a family that looked nice and think, `Gosh, how good they look.' And you'd feel real sad that that wasn't going on in your family.''

Martha says that one of the first and most important things she had to learn was to stop trying to take responsibility for her children - by forcing them to take the consequences of their own actions; to stop enabling them to be addicts, in other words, by covering for them when they wrote bad checks or got into trouble.

What she learned, she says, is ``a healthy way to love - allowing other people to be responsible for themselves.''

``I had to break my addiction to them just as they had to break their addiction to chemicals,'' she says. ``The first thing I learned not to do was to get up and give everybody a glass of water. You may not be able to believe I'm saying this, but to say, `No, you'll have to get your own water' was a big step for me.

``I'd have loved them to death,'' she says. ``Because I kept thinking the sicker they became, if I could love more, then it would stop. Inch by inch I learned not to do for them the things they could do for themselves.''

Laying down a burdened sense of responsibility, however, did not mean abandoning her children. In fact, her ties to them became closer and more trusting. Martha says she learned ``how to communicate without being judgmental.'' And perhaps most important, in accordance with FA's 12 steps, she learned to trust her children to a ``higher power.''

``I was becoming God to myself,'' she says frankly. ``I would ask for help, turn it loose to God for five minutes, and if He didn't come down and fix it immediately, I was back in control.

``My ego became very big,'' she says. ``I kept thinking I was going to be able to fix [my children's addiction]. Every day was a new day and I was going to fix it.''

``I think your ego has to shrink,'' she continues, ``so something bigger than yourself can come into your life.''

Today, Martha's son is an alcoholism- and drug-abuse counselor at a private clinic in Montgomery.

Her daughter, who lives in Florida, works in an office, is happily married, and is expecting her first child next month. Both son and daughter have been free of drugs for more than three years.

There have been a lot of lessons along the way for Martha - learning to trust something bigger than herself; to understand that she had choices available to her about her own attitudes in the face of drug and alcohol addiction; to realize that ``no parent owns their child.''

She urges people to understand that someone ``with an addiction disease is not a bad person who needs to get good, but a sick person who need to get well.'' And from the fear she's known and the peace she's found, she offers hope.

``I think it's painful for families to go through this,'' Martha says. ``But on the other side of that, the relationship in our family is probably better than it would ever have been if this situation had not been in our life.

``When an addiction hits a family,'' she continues, ``the relationship will never be what it was before. It will be different, but it can be better. It can be healthier. It can be wonderful.''

Last in an occasional series. Others articles ran on Dec. 4, 10, and 16; Jan. 2, 9, and 22; and Feb. 4.

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