Adopting an addicted child, which is certainly not what I set out to do, and ended up doing anyway, is complicated. As T nears the end of his second successful month in residential treatment, I've had a lot of opportunity to reflect.
I grew up in a family where we spoke openly about addiction and recovery, because my mother had four brothers, three of whom went to treatment during my grade school years. The vocabulary of recovery and self-understanding is familiar to me, and I grew up in a context of understanding that addiction is a disease and recovery is a lifelong project that requires restructuring every area of one’s life.
However, when I became the parent of a substance abuser, I felt unmoored. A lot of writing about addiction and families focuses either on partner dynamics or on family pathologies that gives rise to addiction. I wasn’t really able to find one single thing written about adoption and substance abuse as we navigated our path with T. The commonly available sources seemed to fall into one of a few categories: the tough-love approach (a potential disaster with seriously traumatized children in my personal opinion); the literature about enabling and boundaries (mostly written on the assumption that the addict is an adult), and the common writing for biological parents of teens who are “at risk”, focusing on prevention (far too late for us for that).
What’s unique about a situation like ours is this:
T was way beyond “at risk.” He was “at risk” the moment he was born into chaos and suffering, addicted at birth. By the time I met him, he’d been using drugs every morning since the age of twelve, he was frank about it, and he could tell you with the presence of a 40-year old how drugs seemed to help him tolerate the abuse and alienation he suffered over the course of 14 years in 16 foster homes. He wasn’t making an excuse – he held his addiction up as a raw fact. He knew he needed to do something about it, but he was quite frank that he had no idea where to start. The writing on early intervention with teenagers—which tends to operate from the point of view that you’ve just found out your kid is in the early stages of drug use—made me feel like we were standing around talking about buying fire insurance when the house was already burning.
Second, the writing I found about family dynamics and addiction didn’t account for older child adoption, of course. In other words, the writing for families of addicts assumed that the people involved had always been a family. But T doesn’t have a cohesive family of origin – he has an assortment of birth relatives whose connections are broken up by extreme poverty, substance abuse, violence and constant relocation, as well as dozens of former foster parents and other assorted people who have parented him at times. Helping him means grappling with an exponential equation of complicated family dynamics involving people we don’t even know. Recovery means making sense of all of that history and figuring out which relationships need repair.
Finally, there just isn’t that much written about parenting the addict. T is a child, chronologically 17 and developmentally much younger in some areas of his emotional life. Some of the writing about addiction focuses (appropriately, of course) on boundaries and limits. As a new adoptive mom, I felt trapped in a huge dilemma; perhaps the only situation I can think of where one is truly obligated to stand by another human being unconditionally, regardless of the cost to oneself, is that involving a parent and a young child. And T sometimes is, emotionally speaking, a very young child. I felt keenly that if I erred too much on the side of setting limits with him, I would risk triggering the shame and alienation that underly his misbehavior and threaten the bond we were building. But of course enabling substance abuse was also obviously unacceptable. If there was a book written for parents of drug-addicted three-year-olds, that’s the one I needed. I really found nothing in the substance abuse literature that reflected our experience as adoptive parents of an already-addicted child. One thing we knew throughout is that we could not withdraw our support nor deliver an ultimatum that would sound like we were going to “give him back” – his ever-present fear and expectation.
I’m happy to say that today he’s been sober for two months! Longer than he’s gone without drugs at any time in the past five years. Not only am I happy and proud beyond words, but T is very proud of himself. He wrote me a letter recently, in which he exclaimed “I feel the happiest I’ve ever felt!” He is working his program, waking up every day and trying his damnedest to learn how to live an honest life without the anesthesia of addiction. He's working with his treatment team to get the right medication for ADHD (a diagnosis I mistakenly resisted for a long time, and now understand is key to his recovery).
Sober, T is an unusually perceptive, soft, receptive human being. Sober, his heart is finally convinced that he is loved and connected. He's begun reading, voraciously, again, and writing poetry and long, expressive letters in his funny, formal prose. He has worked his way up in the hierarchy at the treatment house and he takes as much pride in that as another kid might take in making first string on the varsity football team.
Best of all, quite unexpectedly, getting him in residential treatment made a huge impression on him in terms of what it means to have parents. When he was in his darkest depths last spring, I told him firmly "A loving parent doesn't let this happen. A loving parent steps in when your judgement is broken until you're ready to take over again." He trusted us enough to cooperate. Now, he finally has an example of what that kind of love means. It shows on his face.
I liked this quote in the book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which one of the readers of this blog recommended to me and is now one of my most treasured reads. “Misplaced attachment to what cannot satiate the soul is not an error exclusive to addicts, but is the common condition of mankind. Our designated “addicts” march at the head of a long procession from which few of us ever step away.” I've learned a lot by working with him through his struggles. It's been soul-satisfying for all three of us in a most unexpected way.