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The Importance of Self-Care When Your Child is Battling with Addiction

My one essential reassurance: You are not alone.

If your child is in the throes of addiction, you’re in for the most terrifying ride of your life. Hold on tight. Get help. Seek the company of others who are going through the same ordeal. Listen carefully, and learn from their stories. Be open to new experiences, fresh viewpoints, and different perspectives.

So easy to say…so hard to do. Believe me, I know.

For over 8 years, my teenage son battled addiction. Sometimes, I think words of advice are so full of hot air that with one gentle push, they will blow away. At other times, I can’t make sense of what they’re telling me to do. “Get help,” for example. Sure, I’d love some help, but how do I go about looking for it? Where is the best place to find it? Who is the most reliable person to provide it? The questions that come up with every suggestion turn my head around in circles and cement my feet to the ground; I feel incapable of moving forward, backward, or sideways. I’m stuck.

When I was waist-deep in the mud, muck, and horror of my teenage son’s addiction (He’s now 31 years old and 10 years in recovery.), I discovered several practical strategies that helped ease my exhaustion, settle my frantic mind, and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Step by step. Some of these suggestions are familiar, others are a bit quirky, and still others may strike you as nonsensical, but they worked for me, and I hope they help you, too. While I can’t offer a magic bullet answer, I can offer you one essential reassurance: You are not alone.

1. Talk to yourself. Don’t edit your words—just ramble on, and if you mix in a bunch of swear words, that’s just fine. Research shows that people who swear a lot are smarter, funnier, and healthier than those who don’t need their mouths washed out with soap. Best to do this when you’re alone in the house or car, but I’ve been known to talk to myself, out loud, in grocery stores. It’s habit-forming, and it feels good even when people stare at you.

2. Take a shower. No, take two. Or three. Showers are one of the greatest gifts we have that we all too often take for granted. This quotation from The I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text also known as the Book of Changes, helps explain my affinity for water. “Water . . . flows on and on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows; it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature. It remains true to itself under all conditions.” I try to remember these words as I let the water flow over, around, and through me. Be like water. Flowing on and on. Refuse to shrink from danger. And always stay true to who you are.

3. Breathe. I recently watched a YouTube video illustrating three dog breaths: the Chihuahua breath with quick, shallow in-and-out snuffles; the Labrador breath, which expands the ribs sideways; and the Saint Bernard breath, which begins in the belly and moves upward through the Labrador and Chihuahua to fill your whole body with fresh air. It must be the dog lover in me, but these techniques really resonated because I sometimes forget to breathe. I hold my breath, eager or anxious for what’s coming next, and then finally let go with a long and grateful sigh. My lungs need the air, my brain needs the oxygenated blood, and my heart smiles at the thought of panting like a dog.

4. Laugh. On my desk, right next to my keyboard, I pasted a list of Scottish words that crack me up, and at the same time, offer me useful but harmless terms to mutter under my breath when I’m trying to cope with annoying people. For example, bawbag = a stupid or irritating person. Numpty, a useless, bumbling idiot. Nugget, a colossal numpty. Bawheed, a person whose head is full of bollocks (Google that one). And fannybaws, a bit of a twit. (And apparently, a friendly greeting in Glasgow, as in “Hello fannybaws!”)

Find the words, stories, and jokes that make you laugh, and keep them close at hand. Here’s one of my favorite (PG) jokes:

“Why does the ocean roar?”

“You’d roar, too, if you had crabs on your bottom!”

5. Bite your tongue. You have plenty of wise advice to offer, but if you’re caught up in an argument, your addicted child isn’t going to listen to one word of it. Before long, the conversation (if you can call it that) will spiral out of control, ending up in a power struggle that gives your child a legitimate reason for pushing back or pulling away. (And by the way, I’m much better at biting my lip than my tongue, but there are times when I draw blood.)

6. Ignore bad advice. Especially from well-meaning friends. When my son was in the thick of his addiction, a friend told me to “sit in the pain.” I wanted to punch her in the nose. Where the heck did she think I was sitting?

7. Forget the news. Go “dark.” Read a book or a poem. My favorite poets are Mary Oliver and David Whyte, whose words and images soothe and console, elevate, and enlighten. If you turn on the TV, watch a lighthearted show like “Doc Martin,” about a hapless, blood-shy doctor fumbling about in the fictional English seaside village of Portwenn. I watch “Doc Martin” over and over again, enthralled as much by the bumbling Doc as the gorgeous seaside scenery. Maybe you love Star Trek, Harry Potter movies, or the Planet Earth series. It doesn’t matter—just give yourself a break from the news, social media, and your cell phone.

8. Walk. When my thoughts and emotions are all jumbled up, a walk never fails to unknot the tangled threads. The farther I walk, the better I feel, but even a 5 or 10-minute stroll (or power walk) helps. Even in the rain.

9. Meditate. 5 or 10 minutes is great, as the experts say, but sometimes, we feel so scattered that all we can manage is 30 seconds. Take what you’ve got. Shut your eyes and breathe. Just breathe.

10. Say the Serenity Prayer. Say it over and over again until it’s embedded and enmeshed in the creases and folds of your brain tissue.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, wisdom to know the difference.

You can say it fast or slow, but those three words—serenity, courage, wisdom—will ease your pain.

11. Repeat the 3 C’s. I didn’t Cause it. I can’t Control it. I can’t Cure it. Repetition is once again the secret here. You didn’t cause this. You can’t control it. And you can’t cure it. You will rebel against these thoughts for they go against the all-too-human need to blame someone (especially yourself); take control and fix it! As with the Serenity Prayer, repetition is the key, for while the brain can be stubborn, it will eventually yield to wisdom.

12. Remember: You can’t change other people; you can only change yourself. But in changing yourself, you change everything. Remember, too, that all around you—in your neighborhoods, schools, churches, places of work, everywhere, in fact—others are seeking to change themselves. You are not alone.

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