For anyone who has experienced the trauma of a parent with an addiction, it can cause a lot of pain, anguish, and distrust within the entire family. And for a child, it’s extremely hard to understand why a parent won’t stop using drugs or alcohol.
Even after a parent has gotten sober, the resentment and anger can easily become lifelong baggage and negatively influence your own life and relationships for years down the road. Furthermore, children are deeply influenced by their parents and the environment they create. 25 percent of American kids grow up in households where substance use is present, and those who grow up with at least one parent battling addiction are twice as likely to develop addiction issues themselves. In many cases, that stems not only from the learned behavior but also the fact that people are often drawn to people and relationships that emulate those they know — friends, significant others, etc. — who may also have issues with addiction.
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A small-town schoolteacher and a football and basketball coach, my father was, to most, a pillar of the community. But the version I saw at home was very different from the one everyone else saw. His addiction began while I was in elementary school and lasted until after I graduated from high school. During the most formative years of my life, could be angry, broken, irresponsible, and untrustworthy.
I love my dad dearly. But I didn’t love the man he was when he was using. When his addiction grew beyond his inability to control it, he eventually lost his job. This gave me such peace in my heart because we could finally talk about it, and no longer had to live with this massive secret. Sadly, it was liberating.
Losing his job started my father on the road to recovery, and after more than 20 years of living with addiction, he is now five years sober.
Determined to not be bitter and let my childhood experience define my relationship with my dad — or anyone else for that matter— I went to counseling and found forgiveness in my heart. I learned a lot about myself and how I could change for the better, to make better decisions and avoid the dark cloud that often follows kids who grow up with addictive parents. Here’s how I overcame the bitterness and anger to heal the relationship with my father and myself.
1. Recognize that Addiction is an Illness.
Children are especially prone to feeling as though a parent’s addiction is somehow their fault or a result of their overall behavior. Should I be getting better grades in school? Should I be doing more chores around the house? Maybe if my behavior changed, we think, mom or dad wouldn’t have to use drugs or alcohol to cope. It’s hard for children to understand why their parent is causing so much trouble for the family.
The hard truth is that addiction overtakes the people you know and love. The chemical and biological processes of active addiction often supersede rational thought, making it impossible for them to voluntarily choose to stop. That also means it’s never about you—it’s about the substance and the effect it has on their brain. You can’t control another person’s substance use and you can’t cure the disease of addiction. Recognizing my father’s addiction as a disease rather than a choice, helped me to understand just how difficult it is to recover, and it’s given me a newfound respect for those who succeed.
2. Live in the Moment. Don’t Dwell on Yesterday.
My dad is a great person when he’s sober. He is a kind and loving man, so dedicated to our family and wants nothing more than to take care of my mom and his kids. He is finally happy—truly and genuinely happy—now that he’s sober. There was a time during his active addiction when I didn’t know if he would make it another year or even another month. Now, I feel like every day with him is a gift. We talk daily, and I am constantly reminded that our situation could have ended much differently. While it took a while to trust that he was committed to sobriety (there were a couple of starts and stops along the way), we never gave up on him.
But, it’s important to note that forgiving my dad doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten. I still remember the warning signs, I know what his triggers are, and we do our best to “filter” people and situations that may cause him to relapse. We’re still precautionary, but also recognize that we don’t have to dwell on those old memories. Every day is a new opportunity to make a new memory, and we focus on that.
3. Remember That Forgiveness Is About You, Too.
Forgiveness is a journey, and it’s not necessarily neat and linear. I’ve had my share of resentment, but I went to therapy and found that there were parts of me that I needed to work on in order to have the relationship I wanted with my dad. There were things he had no control over. For example, I had to realize that I couldn’t always “fix” people in other relationships in my life.
While a parent’s addiction is in no way the child’s fault, the reality is that the scars it leaves behind can become barriers to forgiveness and holding onto those barriers can keep you from finally having the relationship with your mom or dad that you’ve always wanted. In fact, if I could give my 12-year-old self some advice, it would be to hang in there, because one day you’ll have the father you’d hoped and prayed for all along. If I had chosen to remain angry and resentful, I’d never have that opportunity.
I was an adult before I realized how different my childhood was from so many others. The constant turmoil, uncertainty of never knowing what each day might bring, and living in fear of word getting out about my father’s addiction. My mother and I spent a lot of time desperately trying to keep him safe and his secret within the confines of our home.
If you have a parent who is struggling with addiction, please don’t give up on them. I know you may feel like you’re running out of energy and that it’s easier to say that all hope is los, but every person has the ability to make a change and having your support can make all the difference. Every day is a gift and an opportunity for a fresh start.
Kassie Perkins grew up in rural Morgan County, Tennessee, and was crowned Miss for America 2020 last August after serving as Miss Tennessee for America in 2019. She’s an advocate for addiction prevention and recovery and childhood literacy. She recently partnered with American Addiction Centers for a special series – Recovery is Relative, as well as an organization called Page Ahead, and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. She has spoken with over 60,000 young readers across Tennessee and raised over $30,000 for the Imagination Library.