We don't discuss addiction in my family. We live it.
For years, my now ex-husband's alcoholism was the worst-kept secret in town. I told the kids daddy was always "working late" or "out with friends." I didn't need to tarnish the image they had of their father. Over time, he would do that himself.
As the years went on, the kids learned that the lure of the bottle was stronger than a young child eagerly waiting at the door each night for dad to come home. I learned that no amount of threatening, bribing, or crying on my part could make him stop. We all learned that addiction is a thief that robs the addict of the ability to love or be loved.
Family counselors taught me that addiction has a genetic component. I tried desperately to be a good enough mom to counteract the effects DNA might play in my kids potentially developing an addiction of their own. We talked openly about drugs and alcohol. I kept prescriptions in a locked cabinet because that's what the experts recommended. I knew my kids' friends and was active in their schools.
The counselors helped me to explain the disease of addiction in an age-appropriate way. I had to change my thinking that the addict makes a conscious choice to drink or do drugs.
Together we made sure the kids understood that they carried the genes of their father, and his father before him, and even his father before him. Yet I continually reminded them a predisposition to addiction didn't have to be their destiny.
And then my worst fear came true: One of my children joined the ranks of drug addiction. There is no word to adequately describe the fear a mother has in the moment she realizes her child is an addict.
The conversation in our home changed. It was no longer wondering if their father would remember a birthday, it was now asking if they could visit their brother in rehab. Was he coming home soon? Did we even want him to come home?
They, too, had to learn to balance the emotions of having a brother they adore with having a brother they sometimes fear. (And often being fearful for him.)
My children have seen the worst of addiction. Yet they have also learned to separate the addict from the addiction. When well-meaning friends say "Just kick him out and let him live on the streets," my children know those are words spoken by those who have never watched their loved one beg to die because they couldn't go on living in the grip of addiction. Those are the words of the lucky ones who just don't understand.
My children know living with an addicted family member is a delicate balancing act of keeping the family safe from harm while at the same time keeping one member of the family safe from harming himself. It is a Sophie's choice I wish on no one.
My children and I discuss setting boundaries and consequences. No one has the right to treat you poorly. I have taught them addiction is not an excuse for abuse. The addict has the right to hurt no one but himself. We will help the sick person in any way we can, but we will have no part in helping him hurt himself or others.
We discuss the term codependency and have learned to ask ourselves if our actions are helping this person get better or helping him stay sick. They've learned the hard way that keeping secrets is not a path to healing — for anyone.
Resentment, fear, and anger are all acceptable feelings when dealing with addiction and we encourage each other to openly express them. You have the right to be angry your dad chose a bar stool over your ballet recital. And you have every right to resent your brother for keeping your mom awake for days with worry.
We also remind each other to be grateful for the good times, because we know the future isn't guaranteed.
Addiction is a relentless game of tug of war played inside the addict's head. The bonds of a family's love are a mighty force, but the sad truth is that we are often just bystanders cheering for an outcome that we can't control.
Over 125 people die each day in the United States from drug overdose. Federal Government research reveals that over 20 million Americans deal with substance use problems. Only 1 in 10 people are getting treatment to beat this chronic disease. Join The Dr. Oz Show on Thursday, November 17th for our National Night of Conversation to help families come together to face the addiction crisis that plagues our country. Research shows that strong family bonds give children the resources and strength they need to avoid substance misuse. To show your support and participation, post your own picture of an empty dinner plate on your social media channels with #NightOfConversation.