— Why saying no to addicts can help them say yes to sobriety.

Not long ago, I read an article in the Washington Post by Britni de la Cretaz titled: “There’s nothing I can do to prevent my child from becoming an addict. Here’s why that’s okay.” I was struck by the title of the piece—or more specifically, by how much I agreed with it.

About halfway through the article, de la Cretaz writes: “I thought back to my childhood and asked myself what my parents could have done differently to ensure that I wouldn’t have become an alcoholic, and that’s when the answer became clear: Absolutely nothing.”

Recognizing and accepting that addiction is largely out of everyone’s control is a tough message for parents (or anyone close to an addict) to hear, but I believe it’s true—and worth exploring.

As an alcoholic and addict who writes frequently about alcoholism and addiction, I’ve thought deeply and often about how and why I became an addict, and whether or not it could have been prevented. In many ways—at least from a physiological perspective—I don’t think it could have been. Perhaps I was fated to become an alcoholic simply because my mother and biological father were alcoholics. Perhaps addiction was written in my DNA because my parents drank, and because their parents drank, and because their parents before them drank, too. And if that’s the case—other than not drink in the first place—what could my parents have reasonably done to prevent me from drinking?

And what if my addictive tendencies were caused by environmental conditions or because of how my family is structured? What if I’m an addict because my parents got divorced? Or because they smoked in the house when I was young? Or because I had too much candy as a child?

It’s somewhat ridiculous when it’s put that way—to expect that a parent can do all the right things, or even that “right things” exist to be done in the first place. It’s reductive to think that something as complicated as addiction can be explained away because of the choices a parent has made. Parents can certainly play a role in fostering or discouraging addictive behaviors, or by modeling particular behaviors, but the decision to drink or use, to participate in behaviors that can lead to addiction, remains solely with the individual.

The hard truth is that parents are ultimately powerless to stop their children from becoming addicts—I believe this wholeheartedly. But parents and loved ones can absolutely play an essential role in the recovery process. However, that role is a difficult one. Because the only way that addicts and alcoholics can ever begin to truly wrestle with their affliction is when their parents and loved ones finally let go and allow their sons and daughters and friends to experience the natural consequences of their actions.

Necessary Discomfort

When I was nineteen years old and my drinking and drugging was just ramping up, I got in a fight with my girlfriend. I went to a friend’s house and drank a bottle of vodka, took a handful of Vicodin, went for a drive. I was young and angry, and I turned the music up loud and lit a cigarette and felt myself caring less and less about everything around me, about my life and my girlfriend and the fact that I was driving a borrowed car with a suspended driver’s license, drunk and high.

When I saw the red and blue lights of the police cruiser in the rear-view mirror, I stopped for a moment, contemplating what I should do, knowing I should get out of the car and accept whatever the consequences might be. But it seemed an impossible decision to make at the time, so I smashed the gas pedal to the floor and fled, tires squealing and kicking up gravel, until I crashed into a concrete pole.

I was charged with a dozen or so crimes that day and I went to jail. When I was finally allowed my phone call that first day I was locked up, I dialed my stepfather and asked him to bail me out. “Come on, Dad,” I said. “You’ve got to get me out of here. You don’t know what it’s like.” He was silent for a few moments, and when he spoke, his answer was tender yet firm: no.

I wish I could say that one “no” from my stepfather was all it took for me to reform and get sober, but I had many more poor decisions ahead of me—a lot more drinking and drugging still left to do. However, that first “no” was the start of something—something I think of now as a necessary and compounding discomfort.

Seven years after that incident, after that “no,” I would finally grow tired of my life’s chaos and all the natural consequences I was experiencing because of my actions. I would be gifted an opportunity to go to rehab. I would go. I would get sober.

For twelve years now, I’ve remained that way—sober—but I still identify as an addict and an alcoholic. It’s not a part of me that I want to hide or that I’m ashamed of. It’s not something I ever want to be truly recovered from, either, because being recovered would mean that the hard work of sobriety is done, and it’s not. There’s still so much more work to do—on myself and for other addicts and alcoholics. There’s also far more value in the process of recovering, of continuing to reflect on my addict self—that self that hates hearing “no.” And if there’s ever been a time where more people are needed to reflect on and try to truly understand addiction, it seems like it’s now.

Toward the end of de la Cretaz’s piece, she writes: “If my daughter ends up being an alcoholic, it will not be because of anything I do—or don’t do—as a parent. But because I have been there and found my way out, I’ll know what to do if and when she ever needs help herself.”

The important thing to remember is that there is a way out of addiction, but it starts with saying no to the people we love. It starts with saying that we’ll do everything in our power to help them get better, but we’ll no longer protect them from the natural consequences of their actions.

Sober since January 2005, Tim earned a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University in Chicago. His work has appeared in various places, including here and here, and he’s currently seeking representation for his memoir: A Story Like This.


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Immediate Help Resources:

– The National Drug Abuse Hotline: 800-662-4357.

– Eastridge Health Systems (Kearneysville): 304-725-7565.

– Behavioral Health Services (Charles Town): 304-728-3716.

– Jefferson County Day Report Center (Ranson): 304-728-3527.

– Celebrate Recovery: 304-262-6522.

– Oxford House: find a house in the Panhandle.

Adult & Teen Challenge: 443-848-7399.

Narcotics Anonymous: (800-777-1515) – meetings nationwide.

– Delancey Street Foundation one of the single most productive recovery organizations in the country.

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