Five Things NOT to Say to the Mom of an Addict
With the opioid epidemic in full swing, it’s time to establish some kind of etiquette around that conversation
I write frequently about the fact that my son is an addict. I change his first name, we have different last names, live in different states, and I always ask if he’s okay with me publishing pieces that feature or mention him. I get a solid amount of email and responses related to addiction, a lot from well-intentioned folks. I like that people write to me, I like that they ask questions, and I hope my openness helps, even in a small way, to destigmatize addiction.
But we need to change the conversation a bit. I know it’s difficult for some of my friends to ask about Sam. They are concerned, and they want to help, except the way they go about it is disconcerting. I sometimes dread their questions. Chances are, you also have a friend or relative dealing with addiction and that’s why we need to talk about talking.
- Don’t lower your voice when asking about the addicted family member. He’s not dead. He’s not a secret. Lowering your voice is overly dramatic and makes the parent squirmy.
Just say, “How’s Sam doing?” as you would ask about anyone else’s kid. That’s fine: normal tones, regular cadence. NOT: eyes cast downward, whispering “So…how IS Sam?”
2. Never ask THE well-meaning question. Yes, that one that all parents of addicted kids loathe. Here it is: “You know, I will never understand how Sam became an addict. You were such a devoted mother. You spent so much time with him. How did that happen?”
Let’s unpack that question (and I get asked this question the most) Okay, you don’t understand why Sam became an addict. Me neither. Nor do the experts: addiction is still an evolving health condition. It probably has to do with the genes, his father’s epic enabling, and Sam’s overall mental health. So a combination of biology, social conditions, and environment. That’s the short answer.
But what you’re really asking is what did you, his mom, do — or fail to do — to allow this? What action or inaction on your behalf caused this? That’s what we, the parents of addicted kids, hear. And we asked this question A LOT.
Think of it this way: would you ask a “good mother” why her child has diabetes or epilepsy or cancer? Addiction is also a disease. My son has addiction issues because he inherited a shitty genetic code. We get that you’re well-meaning, but deep six that wondering question once and for all.
3. Don’t only ask about my other kids. I love my son as much as them, and I’m proud of his accomplishments, however small. Some people avoid asking about Sam, and when I, always wondering about people’s behavior around addiction, ask why, they look at me sympathetically. “Because I’m afraid the news will be bad.”
Huh. Yeah, me too. Trust me: I’ll let you know any news. I’m not in the business of hiding life changes to my friends. I think about my son all the time, and you not asking about him hurts me.
4. You can laugh when I find humor in some situations. Yes, you can — really. Being an addict is only one aspect of my son; all the others remain.
When his addicted friend told me, with pride in her voice, that Sam could get dope and wheels when no one had any money, I felt a tiny swell of pride. Yes, I know it’s distorted, but he’s always been smart and charming and super resourceful. I got his friend’s admiring tone. It was a little funny — he’s still Sammy, even if the humor is dark and twisted, sometimes a moment of lightness helps when you spend so much time in darkness.
5. “Aren’t you always afraid he’s going to die from an overdose?”
Yes. I am. We all are. It haunts us.
Shame on you for asking.
Bottom line is that parents live with addicted children in the same way they live with kids who have any kind of illness. We have memories and moments with them now that will stay with us forever. We want you to understand that there is nothing we would not do to change the path our child has chosen. Nothing.
But we can’t. The journey and the struggle belong to them. What you can do is be a companion on the journey we are on with our child, understanding that we only have the sparest of hope to keep us going. You want to let us keep that.