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I was a 13-year-old girl when my mother went to treatment for substance use disorder for the last time. Today, I’m grateful that my mother is in long-term recovery and encourages me to share my experience. I’m about to graduate from medical school and I’m applying to become a resident in psychiatry. I want to raise awareness about the disease of addiction and offer hope to other families.
I find that my experience of having a mother who struggled with and ultimately recovered from a substance use disorder gives me a unique perspective. I marvel at the strength and determination it took my mom to achieve long-term recovery. I wouldn’t trade the special relationship I have with my mom today for anything. I’m able to approach my patients with the knowledge that, as difficult as things are, they can get better. Much better.
Early life with my mother
My parents were very good at shielding me from the harsh reality of my mom’s illness. In fact, I believed things were “normal” for a time. It wasn’t until I was much older that I truly understood that addiction is a family disease, one that profoundly affects all members of a family.
I didn't have many typical childhood experiences of going to friends’ houses or sleep away camp. Instead I became a professional child actor, something my mom loved, I think because it gave her a sense of purpose. She would travel with me to auditions and even went on tour with me when I was nine.
This was at the peak of her use, but I knew nothing about that. What I did know was that she wanted me to be an actor, and I wanted to do it because it made her happy. I took on that role for her: “My daughter’s following her dreams, and she's a star.” I think I knew instinctively that she had to keep it together enough while on the road to get me to my next audition.
Once she was in a stable place in her recovery, I told her I no longer wanted to work as an actor. Instead, I wanted to become a doctor, like my father. I was surprised at how supportive she was of my decision. In fact, it was the first time I saw how much she changed in recovery – that she wanted me to do what was best for me – rather than what fulfilled her. It was also the first time I felt I could pursue something I genuinely wanted to do without the fear that she would fall apart.
As she recovered, the entire dynamic of our family changed. Our relationship shifted from walking on eggshells to a truly healthy and loving experience of sharing our lives and supporting each other.
Becoming a doctor
I’ve known I wanted to be a doctor since senior year of high school. Coming into medical school, I thought I wanted to be a surgeon, just like my dad. Then, during a rotation in psychiatry, I discovered that my experiences with my mom gave me the gift of compassion and empathy. I was surprised because I had conflicted memories of my experiences with mental health professionals as a teen. In fact, I was dreading the rotation, as it hit too close to home.
My second consult was a patient struggling with substance use disorder who had just relapsed. I knew this woman wasn’t my mom, but I was worried my life with my mother would color my interactions with her. But something transformed me in the room that day. I connected with the patient on a unique level, bringing a different perspective to her struggles and the guilt she felt for her children and how she wanted to repair those relationships.
Since that day, I discovered a passion for psychiatry. Even on the most difficult days in my psychiatry rotation, I would go home and be eager to crack my textbooks to learn more about what I was seeing in my patients. Now, as I graduate, I am seeking a residency in psychiatry, perhaps even in addiction medicine.
Hope even in difficult times
If you are a teenager or young adult, struggling with a parent in the throes of addiction or even in recovery, I want you to know that healing is possible. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible.
Although I was angry at times when my mom missed a birthday or a school event during her treatment at Caron, I also remember feeling a deep sense of relief that she was safe. It was the first time I accepted it was okay that she was getting help. When we visited her, I could tell she was feeling better because of how much healthier she looked. She was glowing and seemed more like herself.
Ultimately, forgiveness was an important part of my own process. I let go of the negativity so I wouldn’t stay stuck and so I could support my mom as we moved beyond that challenging time in our lives.
Stopping the Chaos
If you are a parent struggling with addiction, I urge you to get help. The relationship I have with my mom now wouldn’t be possible if she hadn’t sought treatment and remained committed to recovery and overall wellness. Be open and be patient. It's not going to happen overnight, and it might not happen the first time. But just because perhaps your first treatment experience didn't lead to long-term recovery, doesn't mean additional treatment won’t work in the future.
Your instincts may tell you that you can’t leave your children but sometimes stepping away to take care of yourself is the right choice. Addiction is a matter of life and death. If you continue to spiral, you run a real chance of not being there for your children at all, ever. I want to assure you that my mom leaving us to seek treatment was the best decision she ever made for herself and our family.