Twenty-two thousand primary care givers in Australia are grandparents. Why? Drug and alcohol related problems, relationship breakdowns, mental or physical illness[i] problems related to an addicted adult child are having a dynamic effect on aging parents who refuse to free themselves of family responsibilities for different reasons.
As with all things, there are degrees of drug and alcohol related problems and mental health illness and not all offenders are bad parents or become involved in the legal process. For many, their life is a roll-a-coaster and they do have periods of non-addiction and stable mental health where they are excellent parents and role models.
However, their life is a struggle and this means there are many grandparents managing issues within the family in order to maintain a balanced home environment for the grandchildren. Grandparents are doing this unselfishly and tirelessly with the same commitment they exercised towards their own child who is now the offending parent.
A golden retirement is not for these seniors as they struggle with the issues around freeing themselves of their adult children. It is no longer about unconditional love but it is about choice. Choice definitely is a factor and it is a possibility to cease all contact with the offender as many well-meaning friends will recommend. The parents could then continue with their lives preserving both their bank balance and sanity. Many parents do make this choice and that is the right decision for them.
However, for others, this is not an alternative. For these parents, the fact is their child will always be their child. They love their addicted adult child and they know that if they let go, there will be a decline into a dark world of homelessness, isolation and perhaps even death and this they cannot accept. It is about hope, and to lose hope is the gravest hardship that many cannot contemplate.
Understanding the extended world of an addicted adult child
Understanding the world of these grandparents is difficult. For many facing the issues around addiction and mental health is something that has never entered their domain. They watch as other family members who do not agree with their decisions pull away and so the family becomes further disconnected. For some perhaps they grapple with such questions as ‘why, what did I do wrong’ or ‘is it my fault’? They cringe as well-meaning friends who have no experience or understanding tell them what they should be doing.
Many cloak themselves with a shroud of secrecy and shame as they try to manage not only the behaviours of the addictive person and the protection of the grandchildren, but also the attitudes of society.
The extended effects of addiction and mental health on families has been called Secondhand Drinking and Secondhand Drugging (SHD)[ii] and likened to the second-hand smoke campaign where others become affected by a person’s addictions and habits. It is an area that has not captured a great deal of research but is beginning to be acknowledged by some Australian bodies. The Australian Drug Foundation has some excellent fact sheets available such as Support Children; a guide for Grandparents[iii] and the Family Drug Support Australia has some very helpful supports including a support line. A Letter to Family and Friends[iv] says many things that perhaps families in this position cannot and outlines some sensitive issues and attitudes that never get voiced.
Addiction and mental health are complex issues and if there was a simple solution, much would have been resolved by now. Offering ultimatums such as ‘stay clean or get out’ probably do more harm than good as perhaps an expectation of complete abstinence does.
The current theory on rehabilitating addictions is known as harm minimisation. Harm minimisation is a perspective of working with people to think critically about their lifestyle and habits, the benefits and the potential and actual harm that is being done. It is about change, slowly and methodically. It is also about removing addiction from the disease model of no-hope to a place of support and partnership where trust and respect is earned and unconditional love does not exist.
The statistics regarding drug and alcohol use in Australia are quite staggering. The Australian Drug Foundation[v] provides detailed statistics and whilst it is refreshing to know that 49% of drinkers have reduced their alcohol intake in an effort to improve their health, the infrequent use of ecstasy and cocaine is still fair too high for a society that supports a culture of child-raising and families.
Parents with an addicted adult child and family face a difficult and complex life stuck between dilemmas and hard rocks. The road is long and at times, unyielding.
The one shining light must be the beautiful grandchildren they shelter and support.
[ii] Frederiks L. Breaking the Cycles.com. Changing the Conversations. Secondhand Drinking / Secondhand Drugging (SHD). Accessed on line http://www.breakingthecycles.com/blog/2011/02/15/secondhand-drinkingdrugging-shdd/
[iii] Australian Drug Foundation. http://www.druginfo.adf.org.au/attachments/article/1101/Supporting_children_factsheet_260615.pdf
[iv] Family Drug Support Australia. Letter to Family and Friends. http://www.fds.org.au/letter-to-family-and-friends. Accessed online.