How to Deal With Guilt and Shame as the Parent of an Addict
This week, author Judy Tomczak is back to talk about an issue I believe all parents of children with addictions feel: Guilt and Shame.
As parents, we can't help but take responsibility for our children's actions. We believe each choice they make is a reflection on us. If our child is having trouble, we feel like we must have done something wrong. Mothers, especially, carry this burden as they generally assume the majority of the child-rearing. As a single Mother, Judy wrestled with the guilt and shame of where she "failed" as her daughter struggled with addiction.
In my own experience with parents of addicts, I have to say I believe them to be some of the most compassionate, caring, self-sacrificing parents I have met. Their hearts breaking, they cannot bear to separate their love for them from their child's addiction. I truly admire each parent who carries this burden. Being married to an addict is hard but there's a much deeper soul-tie from the heart of a parent.
I'm always so happy to have Judy here to share her heart and her story with us! Please give her a warm welcome, leave a comment and say, "Hi"! If you're the parent of a child with an addiction, I hope her words are a great comfort and encouragement to you.
When I reached this point in my story I looked up and sitting directly across from me was a lady whose eyes I could see, were filling with tears. I spoke to her directly and said, "This is the toughest part isn't it?" and she nodded.
This is the point in my story where I talk about the guilt. This was the hardest hurdle for me to get over.
I had dreamt of the perfect husband and perfect home for my one-day perfect children. It started out with the perfect wedding. I can't think of a single thing other than misplacing my hairbrush that went wrong on that wedding day. I had met him within the walls of the Christian organization we both worked for. We had both been raised in Christian homes. There were warning signs I can now see clearly, there was a struggle within him. Back then, I reasoned them all away. He was a Christian. That's all I needed to know. [Leah here-> I did the SAME thing! How many more of you can relate? Leave a comment below if you read this and thought, "Ah! That's what I did too!".]
The affairs and drinking began within the first year of our marriage. He had a career in sales, which included travel and conventions. After 10 years of trying to make it all work, forgiving, rebuilding, over and over again, the marriage dissolved and I began my journey as a single mom of two young daughters. My perfect dream, home and family shattered forever.
I went from being the kind of mom I wanted to be for my children to being a mom who carried the weight of the world on her shoulders with a heart completely broken. It would never be enough or everything they needed but it was everything I had to give and I felt guilty. Often guilty for things that were not even my doing. So when my daughter began to struggle and to self-medicate, somehow I knew I had failed her. I must have failed her. I must fix this. The guilt was crushing and consuming, all consuming. What did I do? What didn't I do? If I had only.
During one of my daughter's relapses, I spent countless hours over countless weeks typing out every single text message we had exchanged in the months before the relapse. I don't know if it was a blessing or curse that my cell phone saved every single message. I searched each one for what I must have said to trigger her behaviour, to trigger the hatred she now felt for me. What I found was a mother's encouraging words and unconditional love expressed over and over again. Nothing made sense.
As I shared this with my family support worker, she listened carefully and then, spoke life-changing words to me. She said, "Judy. If your daughter was famous and receiving all kinds of awards for all her good works and achievements, would you be standing behind her saying... It's me, I did that, it's all my doing? Why then," she said, "Are you taking the blame for all her failures?" She then reminded me I had another child whose life turned out very differently. Why had I not thought of that? The truth is, we could have five children with four doing well and one who struggles and yet it is by that one whom we will measure our worth as a mother.
With new clarity, I began to look back on the kind of mother I was. Not perfect, because perfect mothers don't exist anywhere. Our home, though broken, was also full of countless fond, wonderful memories and a ton of laughter. God was always at the centre. I raised my daughters in church, in a Christian school, and they were surrounded by loving, supportive Christian people somehow all forgotten in the haze of chaos before me. In the midst of paying the bills, working long hours, commuting back and forth to work with my two young girls in tow, I had managed to be the kind of mom I am proud of. Though I wasn't the mom I had dreamt I would be, I was a long way from a bad mom. I wasn't able to provide for them the home I had planned but I did do the best I could.
Attached to this mountain of guilt was another hurdle called shame. I thought people would certainly judge me to know I had a child doing this to herself; Judge me as a parent and judge her. There was a strong pull to protect us both from that judgement, which meant keeping others out. Others I needed so desperately to help me through it.
As she reached her bottom and breaking point, I did also. If I could have willed my world to stop I would have. The pain of losing my daughter to her addiction one more time was more than I could bear and that's when I reached for help. In my grief, I had a light bulb moment with God in which I realized, "God this is how you feel isn't it? When we shut you out and curse your name. You grieve for us and weep for us." I realized just how deep His love goes and I knew I had to give it all over to Him. I became excited for both of us knowing how deeply He was grieving for my broken heart and her broken life. Trusting Him with it all was the first step to letting go.
God brought so many wonderful people into my life. Some were Christians and some were not but all were placed into my life to walk alongside me through this. People who really knew their stuff when it comes to the battle of addiction. The people who impacted me the most were those who were just like me. Moms and grandmothers whose children had lost their way. Good moms, Christian moms who genuinely love their children. Our stories all so similar.
It took over a decade for my daughter and myself to get the help we needed. The voices in my head are likely the same voices she heard that kept her from seeking help. They are called: Guilt, because I am not perfect and, shame, fearing the judgement of others.
When I dared to remove the mask, I was amazed at the help I found. It was there all along.
As the cloud of guilt and shame lifted I began to see clearly what was all around me. The love of my youngest child whose life had taken a backseat to her sister's struggles for way too long as is typical. There was guilt in that as well but I chose to move forward. She too needed me in ways I had missed. I began to enjoy a deeper, richer relationship with her.
Then I began to see the young women in my life who I love like daughters. One whose children call me "Grandma Judy". Was it by accident that they found their way into my life? They could never replace the daughter I grieved so much but in some way, they validated me as a mom.
My daughter didn't talk to me for almost two years then one day, I got a text that said, "You know I love you, Mom". With those words, she entered back into a relationship with me. Our relationship isn't the same as it once was but some day it may be better than it ever was.
I needed to forgive myself for my mistakes as a parent and also let go of the responsibility for the choices she was making. I didn't choose this for her and in many ways nor did she. In the beginning, it is a choice, a bad one for sure. That first drink or first high. We have all made bad choices in a moment of weakness but for a great many, it becomes no longer a choice but a battle for their lives. A master that controls their lives. It isn't a battle we can win or lose for them. My place as her mom, was to be "Mom" and not her saviour. Love her unconditionally, forgive her, pray for her daily and often wait, as God did the work in her life to bring her home.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline or in Canada, call 1-800-565-8603 or visit Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) for your local helpline.
Judy Tomczak is the author of "When the Light at the End of the Tunnel is Another Train". Judy is the youngest daughter of Rev. Lorne Shepherd, founder of the Heart to Heart Family Ministries. Life was relatively calm until her adult years but nothing challenged her faith and well-being more than watching her daughter fight the battle of addiction. Judy has committed herself to being a conversation starter and storyteller to do her small part in lifting the veil of guilt and shame that often surrounds mental illness and addiction. Knowing you are not alone is often the first step in seeking help.