An Open Letter to My Parents, Who Didn't Handle My Addiction Well
When I was at my ugliest, I wished you would hold me.
There’s a part of me—a big part—who is terrified to write this. I’m uncertain you will ever read these words, and even less certain that if you do, they will sound like anything more than whining and finger-pointing. Just another litany of excuses. I know I’ve given you more than enough reason to expect that.
So the first request I have to make of you is a leap of faith. I’m not trying to concoct more excuses or lies. I’m not trying to manipulate you, even if it hurts less to think of this as a manipulation. I’m really, actually trying to tell you something meaningful. Please hear that.
I want you to know that on those mornings I woke up with my stomach feeling like it was burning with poison—because once you’re addicted, it’s withdrawal that feels like the poison, not drugs—I hadn’t forgotten the little kid with all that promise. She’s always been here, even while stitched into the body of a quivering, sick person. I still had all my dreams. I still wanted to accomplish big things—to make you proud. I just needed to stop feeling sick first.
Do you know what my friends and I talked about most, after we got high together? What we’d do when we got off drugs. We couldn’t wait. It felt so close—as close as tomorrow—when we’d write that bestseller, or win awards for costuming Hollywood stars, or open a home for at-risk youth. We held those dreams as dear as we did when we were kids, back when you believed us. We had no idea what recovery would really be like. When we were high, recovery seemed like it would be easy.
When I was at my ugliest—lips flopped open, head lolling, eyelids drooping over eyeballs that rolled around like pinballs in their sockets—I wished you would hold me. Instead, you walked away. I don’t blame you. It’s a repulsive sight, I know. Maybe it would have helped if I could have found a way to tell you I was in hiding. That when I was in that dark, soft place behind the ugly face, I felt quiet, and safe, and untouchable.
In her investigative analysis of the relative success Portugal has had in stemming opioid-related deaths, Susana Ferriera writes that the country’s progress can be attributed to a few basic factors, one of which is a social acknowledgement “that an individual’s unhealthy relationship with drugs often conceals frayed relationships with loved ones, with the world around them, and with themselves.”
In almost all of the books and pamphlets we get shoved into our hands at 12-step meetings, detox centers, even some therapists’ offices, we read about repairing broken relationships with friends and family. Too often, however, the burden is placed wholly on the person in recovery. This imbalanced view of post-addiction relationships is cloaked in words like “acceptance,” “self-awareness,” and “culpability.”
I need you to practice self-awareness too. Accept that you are partly culpable for the way my life turned out. In Al-Anon, the ever popular “families of addicts” version of Alcoholics Anonymous, they tell you to believe: “I didn’t cause the addiction, I can’t control the addiction, and I can’t cure the addiction.”
It’s true that you can’t control my addiction. Once I developed a substance use disorder, it was going to take a lot more than just family to get it under control. But it’s irresponsible to feel that you didn't contribute to it at all. When I tried to talk to you about my feelings of depression at age 14, and you picked up a book to ignore me instead—you contributed to my addiction.
When you freaked out at the bruises my boyfriend was giving me at age 17, threatening both of us rather than telling me you loved me or that I deserved better—you contributed to my addiction. When I told you I was almost raped and you called it a scam—you contributed to my addiction.
When I relapsed, and you shamed me for it—you contributed to my addiction. When you told me I couldn’t stay with you for one night when I was feeling unsafe in my own home—you contributed to my addiction.
I’m starting to sound accusatory. I know people don’t like that; it’s difficult to listen to. In an interview with Time, addiction specialist Gabor Mate discusses how parents can contribute to their children's addiction in ways beyond their control: “In our society, it’s not [just] a question of whether parents are doing their best or love their kids or not, it’s that parents are often isolated and stressed or too economically worried to be there. What I’m saying is that early emotional loss is the universal template for all addictions.”
I used to be ineffably angry at you for all the ways I felt you’d screwed me over. For a long time, I hated you. Sometimes, on our worst days, I still do. But I recognize your humanity now. I don’t think you were supposed to be a superhero anymore, or perfect. This is not about fault or blame. I understand now that you were simply doing the best that you could at the time. I just want you to understand that the same has always been true about me.
If I want to be free of my addiction, I have to let go of old resentments and take treatment into my hands. But I also need you to stop thinking you’re “enabling” me by loving me. Because I need you to love me. I need you to give me unconditional and unlimited chances.
But that means looking head-on at the ugliest parts of me and still choosing to stay. It means listening when I say, “This is too much, please help me.” It doesn’t mean giving me money, or giving in to other demands that clearly come from the mouth of my addiction, but it does mean letting go of the idea that “tough love” is what I need. Tough love usually leads to more trauma, which makes addiction even more difficult to get over.
I wonder if I’ll ever have the courage to ask directly what I need from you. For now, this is the bravest I get. For now, I’ll leave this here and see what happens.