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The Devil’s Playground: Why Apathy Has No Place in Recovery

May 15, 2016 - - 0 Comments

“She got fired again,” was the now familiar answer to my casual inquiry to how my sister-in-law has been lately.  Her mother’s reply had become curiously monotone in sharp contrast to the exasperated frustration I used to hear.  The millenial young lady with the beautiful brown eyes continued to struggle with addiction and the real world.

And she had done it again.

It seemed like Michelle was trying to make a career of being kicked out.  We had lost count of how many times she had been kicked out of a job or a substance abuse rehabilitation program and the occurrence of conversations like this one were becoming more and more frequent.  And it seemed each time the topic came up, I was seeing more and more in her mother what I had seen from the very beginning in her father: apathy.

All of Michelle’s challenges and failures had one thing in common and that was the absence of her father.  He was physically present, going to work just a few miles from home and returning to his family every night.  The thing was that he was only present physically and this serves as an example of one of the most damaging things a parent can do to a child who is struggling.

Apathy is Rejection

Successful substance abuse recovery hinges on one important idea and this idea is that the drug use itself is merely a symptom of underlying struggles the user is trying to pacify.  This is known as “self medicating” and, although this concept is well known to inpatient treatment centers, it is a concept that is not frequently known by average everyday parents like Michelle’s.

This concept is important for family members of those who are in substance abuse recovery because the struggle to fix the real problem is deeply emotional and your child needs you to be involved on that level to make any real progress.  Whether or not Michelle was consciously reaching out for help, her father’s continued failure to be actively involved in her life and recovery represents his repeated rejection of her.  Each time broke his little girl’s heart and spirit.

This is a problem in many homes and I believe that this dynamic of apathy is what leads a lot of addicts into the cycle of substance abuse in the first place.  Michelle’s dad is a man I know well and love deeply enough to have had him open up to me about his parents and this revealed a totally predictable pattern.  His parents couldn’t be bothered by his struggles as a boy which made him very self-reliant and strong willed.  It also destroyed his self-esteem and deprived him of any good example to follow when raising his own children.

This failure to be actively involved in Michelle’s challenges on a fundamental emotional level taught her that she could not go for support to the man from whom she needed it most.  In a chaotic world that crumbled daily under the weight of her pain, she had learned that she was alone.

The Power to Be Involved

I completed my treatment for drug abuse at one of Oregon’s many inpatient treatment centers in the year 2000.  Life would continue to present its challenges and I can’t say I never laid a finger on “bad stuff” again.  Any flirtation with the old demons were fleeting and never got worse than misbehaving at a party.  I could count the number of these occasions on one hand.

I believe that the success of my recovery is due largely to the fact that my program put a lot of emphasis on the involvement of my parents.

Much like Michelle, my father went to work every day and came home too tired or otherwise occupied to deal with the daily tailspin of my antics.  We would later learn that many of these antics were subconsciously designed to get a reaction out of my emotionally absent dad.

I will forever be grateful for the way he responded when the call came to get involved.  He reluctantly participated in the sometimes silly exercises designed to build our bond and challenged himself to let his guard down so he could be there in the trenches with me, slaying my demons.

And that’s exactly the point.  I wouldn’t say that any of those exercises could reasonably be held responsible for the bond my father and I now share.  What mattered in that chapter of my life is that my father made me and my recovery a priority.  He traded in his busy meeting schedule and constantly chirping pager for fireside group chats and trust falls.

And that mattered.

How Do I Connect?

There are two basic motivations for everything you do in life.  Each action is rooted in either love or fear.  Michelle’s continued struggles sent her dad right into the cover of apathy because he was afraid.  It takes a lot to engage the struggles of a child in the throes of drug and substance abuse and his apathy cleared a path for him to navigate each day untouched by her drama.

Look inside yourself for love.  Do what a loving parent would do, even if the child in your life has hurt you and broken your home.  One single act of love will start the connection that your baby will absolutely need to win the battle of substance abuse recovery.  Knock on the bedroom door and have a zero-pressure smalltalk or run an intercept in the kitchen for a no-strings-attached hug.  If your initial attempts are rejected, keep trying.  Love always wins.

I read somewhere last week the following idea: “It is easier to build healthy children than it is to repair a broken adult.”

You may have a broken adult on your hands and that certainly represents a challenge.  I promise you can handle it.  If that broken adult has younger siblings, remember that you have the choice now to be involved in their lives on an emotional level.

They deserve it.  And so do you.

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