Updated: May 11, 2021
When our children go into a recovery center, we find ourselves hanging on every word the staff—therapists and counselors alike—has to say about our child. We are looking for a diagnosis, cause and effect. What is wrong with my child that they would do this to themselves?
I remember the first time my son went into a recovery center and I had a chance to meet with the therapist. His behavior, prior to finally putting himself in recovery, was criminal, shady, and manipulative. The good things I remembered about my son—that he was once generous, kind, sensitive, brilliant, and creative—were evidenced before he became addicted to drugs. And now those memories were colored by who he had become in his addiction. I remember asking her to be honest with me. Does he have a personality disorder? Is he a narcissist, a sociopath, bi-polar? She danced around my question and thankfully said she wasn’t sure. Only time will tell. I knew these disorders weren’t “curable.” That they were fixed and, at the age of twenty-two it felt hopeless to think he could combat both a drug addiction AND a psychiatric disorder.
Today a mother told me that after her daughter committed a transgression while at a facility (and duly suffered the consequences with loss of privileges) this mother was told by the director that her daughter was “co-dependent and shady.” First, I have to wonder if the director has a medical degree that entitles her/him to assign such dangerous labels. Furthermore, I’m disappointed that the director would assign such labels when these personality disorders are actually symptoms of addiction—not necessarily the cause of addiction. How disheartening for this parent to have to swallow this diagnosis from a professional in assessing her daughter’s chances of recovery. Imagine all this mother has dealt with and then the subsequent loss of hope that comes with hearing that your child, at her core, is damaged.
Here’s the raw truth about labels that often apply to those active in addiction: They are liars. They are manipulative. They are depressed. They are manic. They are destructive. They are their own worst enemy. They are narcissistic. They make bad choices. They are unreliable. They are thoughtless. They are cruel to those who love them.
These are the symptoms of addiction and they are at play off and on through the early journey of recovery. These are not the ways we should be defining our child and doing so is counterproductive to their recovery. One of the most damaging labels is “Bi-polar Disorder.” Most people with no familiarity with the bi-polar illness understand it to be a life-long illness requiring a lifetime of medications. However, The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM of mental health lists four subsets of bi-polar disorder, the last of which is a bi-polar disorder “due to another medical or substance abuse disorder.” That means that with a length of sobriety, the bi-polar disorder will often begin to ebb away and likely will not require medication.
These labels are shaming. Shame will be the highest mountain our child will climb as they move through recovery.
I implore counselors and therapists in the field of addiction to refrain from labeling individuals and, especially to refrain from sharing their own unfounded suspicions or real-time personality assessments with the parents and loved ones hoping and praying on the other side.
Recovery is a dance and what unfurls along the way is a new being—a new way of being. The work of recovery, especially when done in conjunction with a twelve-step program is work on the self, working on one’s selfishness and self-absorption, one’s arrogance, and learning to be of service. The results are remarkable when one commits to these efforts. The selfish become generous, the arrogant become humble. We as parents of someone who suffers from a substance use disorder know the symptoms of the disease all too well. Labeling our children by way of their symptoms while suffering serves no one. Allow us the miracle of seeing who they really are, symptom free and free of the destructive labels their disease and the addiction industry has imposed upon them. Don’t sow the seeds of hopelessness by applying labels that imply innate behavioral characteristics that are likely to heal in recovery. End the shame.