How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
Children thrive in stable and loving environments. But while I was so loved by my parents, my childhood lacked stability. Stability was abstract — a foreign idea.
I was born the child of two (now recovering) people with addiction. Growing up, my life was always on the brink of chaos and collapse. I learned early that the floor might drop beneath my feet at any time.
To me, as a young child, this meant moving houses due to lack of money or lost jobs. It meant no school trips or yearbook photos. It meant separation anxiety when one of my parents didn’t come home at night. And it meant worrying whether or not the other school kids would find out and make fun of me and my family.
Because of problems caused by my parents’ addiction to drugs, they eventually separated. We experienced rehab stints, prison sentences, in-patient programs, relapses, AA and NA meetings — all before middle school (and after). My family ended up living in poverty, moving in and out of homeless shelters and YMCAs.
Eventually, my brother and I went into foster care with no more than a bag filled with our belongings. The memories — of both my situation and my parents’ — are painfully bleak, yet endlessly vibrant. In many ways, they feel like another life.
I’m grateful that today both of my parents are in recovery, able to reflect on their many years of pain and sickness.
As a 31-year-old, five years older than when my mother gave birth to me, I can now think about what they must have been feeling at the time: lost, guilty, shameful, regretful, and powerless. I view their situation with compassion, but I recognize that this is a choice I actively make.
The education and language around addiction is still so stigmatized and cruel, and more often than not the way we’re taught to view and treat those with addiction is more along the lines of disgust than empathy. How could a person use drugs when they have kids? How could you put your family in that position?
These questions are valid. The answer isn’t easy, but, to me, it’s simple: Addiction is a disease. It’s not a choice.
The reasons behind addiction are even more problematic: mental illness, post-traumatic stress, unresolved trauma, and lack of support. Neglecting the root of any disease leads to its proliferation and feeds it destructive abilities.
Here’s what I learned from being a child of people with addiction. These lessons have taken me over a decade to fully understand and put into practice. They may not be easy for everyone to understand, or agree with, but I believe they’re necessary if we’re to show compassion and support recovery.
1. Addiction is a disease, and one with real consequences
When we’re in pain, we want to find things to blame. When we watch the people we love not only fail themselves but fail their jobs, families, or futures — by not going to rehab or getting back on the wagon — it’s easy to let anger take over.
I remember when my brother and I ended up in foster care. My mother had no job, no real means to care for us, and was in the deep end of her addiction. I was so angry. I thought she’d chosen the drug over us. After all, she let it get that far.
That’s a natural response, of course, and there’s no invalidating that. Being the child of someone with an addiction takes you on a labyrinthine and painful emotional journey, but there’s no right or wrong reaction.
Over time, however, I realized that the person — buried under their addiction with its claws deep, deep in — doesn’t want to be there either. They don’t want to give everything up. They just don’t know the cure.
According to a 2016 study, “Addiction is a brain disease of temptation and of choice itself. Addiction doesn’t replace choice, it distorts choice.”
I find this to be the most succinct description of addiction. It’s a choice due to pathologies like trauma or depression, but it’s also — at some point — a chemical issue. This doesn’t make an addict’s behavior excusable, especially if they’re negligent or abusive. It’s simply one way of looking at the disease.
Though every case is individual, I think treating addiction as a disease as a whole is better than viewing everyone as a failure and writing off the disease as a “bad person” problem. Plenty of wonderful people suffer with addiction.
2. Internalizing the effects of addiction: We often internalize the chaos, shame, fear, and pain that comes with addiction
It’s taken years to unravel those feelings, and to learn to rewire my brain.
Because of my parents’ constant instability, I learned to root myself in chaos. Feeling like the rug was pulled out from under me became a sort of normal for me. I lived — physically and emotionally — in fight-or-flight mode, always expecting to move houses or change schools or not have enough money.
In fact, one study says that children who live with family members with substance use disorder experience anxiety, fear, depression guilt, shame, loneliness, confusion, and anger. These are in addition to taking on adult roles too soon or developing lasting attachment disorders. I can attest to this — and if you’re reading this, maybe you can too.
If your parents are now in recovery, if you’re an adult child of an addict, or if you’re still dealing with the pain, you should know one thing: Lasting, internalized, or embedded trauma is normal.
The pain, fear, anxiety and shame doesn’t simply disappear if you get further from the situation or if the situation changes. The trauma stays, changes shape, and sneaks out at odd times.
First off, it’s important to know that you’re not broken. Second, it’s important to know that this is a journey. Your pain doesn’t invalidate anyone’s recovery, and your feelings are very valid.
3. Boundaries and establishing self-care rituals are necessary
If you’re an adult child to parents in recovery or actively using, learn to create boundaries to protect your emotional health.
This may be the hardest lesson to learn, not only because it feels counterintuitive, but because it can be emotionally draining.
If your parents are still using, it can feel impossible to not pick up the phone when they call or not give them money if they ask for it. Or, if your parents are in recovery but often lean on you for emotional support — in a way that triggers you — it may be hard to express your feelings. After all, growing up in an environment of addiction may have taught you to keep silent.
Boundaries are different for all of us. When I was younger, it was important that I set a strict boundary around lending money to support addiction. It was also important that I prioritize my own mental health when I felt it slipping due to someone else’s pain. Making a list of your boundaries can be exceptionally helpful — and eye-opening.
4. Forgiveness is powerful
It may not be possible for everyone, but working toward forgiveness — as well as giving up the need for control — has been freeing for me.
Forgiveness is commonly mentioned as a must. When addiction has ravaged our lives, it can make us physically and emotionally sick to live buried under all of that rage, exhaustion, resentment, and fear.
It takes an immense toll on our stress levels — which can drive us to our own bad places. This is why everyone speaks of forgiveness. It’s a form of freedom. I’ve forgiven my parents. I’ve chosen to see them as fallible, human, flawed, and hurt. I have chosen to honor the reasons and traumas that led to their choices.
Working on my feelings of compassion and my ability to accept what I can’t change helped me find forgiveness, but I recognize that forgiveness isn’t possible for everyone — and that’s alright.
Taking some time to accept and make peace with the reality of addiction may be helpful. Knowing that you aren’t the reason nor the mighty fixer-of-all-problems can help as well. At some point, we have to relinquish control — and that, by its very nature, can help us find some peace.
5. Speaking out about addiction is one way of coping with its effects
Learning about addiction, advocating for people with addiction, pushing for more resources, and supporting others is key.
If you’re in a place to advocate for others — whether it’s for those suffering with addiction or family members who love someone with an addiction — then this may become a personal transformation for you.
Often, when we experience the storm of addiction it feels like there’s no anchor, no shore, no direction. There’s just the wide open and endless sea, ready to crash down on whatever measly boat we have.
Reclaiming your time, energy, feelings, and life is so important. For me, a part of that came in writing about, sharing, and advocating for others publicly.
Your work doesn’t have to be public. Talking to a friend in need, driving someone to a therapy appointment, or asking your local community group to provide more resources is a powerful way to make change and make sense when you’re lost at sea.
Lisa Marie Basile is the founding creative director of Luna Luna Magazine and the author of “Light Magic for Dark Times,” a collection of daily practices for self-care, along with a few books of poetry. She has written for the New York Times, Narratively, Greatist, Good Housekeeping, Refinery 29, The Vitamin Shoppe, and more. Lisa Marie earned a master’s degree in writing.