Keys to getting better: Surrender and honesty

Only when we are ready to look the issue in the face, admit there is a serious problem and join our kids in surrendering to the truth and being honest with them and about them, can change take place.

Rebellious teen and worried mother (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Rebellious teen and worried mother (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
I recently worked with a family who approached me because of their son’s addiction to marijuana. Since working with them, huge changes occurred in the family for two main reasons – the first was that the timing was right, the second was that the mother understood that the key to change lay in her hands.
Here is her testimony of our work together: “I first approached Tracey because of my 20-something son’s addiction to marijuana. At the time, this was not only affecting his life, but our family life as well.
“Tracey pointed out that one family member’s addiction is a symptom of other issues that need to be addressed in the entire family. After meeting with my husband, me, my son and his girlfriend during a series of sessions, she was instrumental in identifying a whole pattern of relationships that needed attention... providing a springboard for positive growth and basically, hope for a better future.”
The truth is it wasn’t rocket science, but that it came down to a single tenant: It’s not about the kids, it’s about our ability to set rules, set boundaries and stick with them, while letting our kids know we believe in them.
As I have mentioned in past columns, it is up to us to let our youth know what we expect of them. Of course, the most important rule is to be consistent.
I have parents bringing me their teen or young (and not-so-young) adults, with the idea that they can drop them off and I can fix them. But as we have learned, it is never enough to only work with one member of the family when there is a problem.
In my experience the biggest dragon to slay with youth, and particularly with troubled youth and addicts, is their issues with ego and self-esteem. As was the case with this mom’s son, and as is often the case with our troubled youth – regardless of the fact that they are often brilliant, creative, resourceful, loving and beautiful in many ways – they tend to have an inflated ego compensating for low self-esteem.
Sometimes we sit in wonder over how our most talented and seemingly amazing kids have the most issues. How can this be? This young man seemed to have a tremendous amount of confidence in himself and his position in the world around him, quoting great philosophers and speaking about how many millions are on medical marijuana. Unfortunately, it became very evident this was a facade. The closer I was able to get to his issues and unhealthy behaviors, the more uncomfortable he became.
My next step was to bring in his parents. I usually do this during the first week or two – no matter what the age of the child in trouble. It didn’t matter that their son was 27; he had proven to have the social capabilities of a 14-year-old due to his heavy and long-term usage. The only thing I had managed to do was to convince him that if he wanted to stop smoking, he needed a strong support system. The best one I know of is Alcoholics Anonymous.
For those unfamiliar with Alcoholics Anonymous, the program was founded by Bill Wilson, an alcoholic, over 80 years ago in Akron, Ohio. After years of being enslaved to his addiction, Bill created a program based on two main principles: surrender and honesty. For addicts and many others, these can be the most challenging commitments to make.
An inflated ego can be a huge obstacle when it comes to being a functioning individual. Addicts are chained to their impulses; they have a need for instant gratification, and maintain a euphoric recall about their using experiences – only remembering the pleasurable aspect of all they have gone through.
The 12-step program of AA (as well as its associated groups NA, ALANON and ALATEEN) begins by asking the addict – whether addicted to food, relationships, drugs, alcohol, sex, TV, video games, etc. – to admit that his life is out of control.
Without that realization, we can cry to and scream at our loved ones for years on end, but chances are nothing will truly move. Once they acknowledge that their life is out of control, they must admit that in order to get better, they must turn it over to a power greater than themselves.
The following steps are based on honesty: making a list of everyone hurt due to their addiction; approaching those they hurt and apologizing (as long as it won’t cause further damage to that person and to the addict); and finally, “service” – giving back to others. This program is universal and has helped millions of addicts worldwide to live an addiction-free life.
In addition to the valuable lessons learned in “the rooms” of AA, the meetings provide ex-users with an instant community. To stay clean, they must give up their social scene – old playmates, playgrounds and playthings. No one wants to be alone; and especially when fighting addiction, no one can do it alone.
Walking into an AA meeting means finding a new group of friends who offer new playgrounds and playthings.
They become your recovery family. You are asked to find a sponsor who will be on call 24/7 to help you fight your using impulse. Meetings are held every day; if you are just getting started, you are encouraged to attend 90 meetings in 90 days.
Such was the advice I gave to this young man. He was willing to go to the meetings, even though he had many reasons why he was different from the attendees. To help him focus, I asked him to send me daily text messages with one thing he learned at each meeting. His messages included such insights as “One person can lift 100 pounds, two people can lift 300; we need help and can’t do it alone,” and “Only if we eliminate our selfishness can we manage our addiction.”
Whereas at the beginning of the process he was able to cut down his use, committing himself to using only once a day and after meetings, eventually he gave up his struggle and moved away from home to an apartment where he could get high whenever he wanted. He also became very uncomfortable being honest about his dysfunction, and when I laid the facts on the table he quickly decided he couldn’t continue.
The first time I met with both his parents, the dad’s remarks to me upon entering the room were, “You must be good if he refused to come back. Our son doesn’t like to look at himself in the mirror.”
We began the session speaking about enabling: What they needed to do was to stop enabling their son. This sends the clear message that they will not help him continue his detrimental actions, at least around them.
Most of us have heard the expression “hitting bottom.”
According to the well-known AA mantra, “Your bottom is where you stop digging.” Opening the eyes of our loved ones to the hole they are digging is also our job. The famous HBO show Intervention shows family and friends doing just that: Demonstration to their loved ones how their actions and using are affecting not only themselves but those around them, and refusing to enable those behaviors anymore.
Only when we are ready to look the issue in the face, admit there is a serious problem and join our kids in surrendering to the truth and being honest with them and about them, can change take place. •
The writer is an addiction counselor for teens, young adults and parents. She is also the founder of the Sobar alcohol-free live music bar project for teens and young adults.