Supportive Friends?

Posted on February 12, 2010. Filed under: Addiction Resources/Support, Parent of an Addict |

An author friend of mine, Letty, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.  Aside from the initial shock of such frightening news and then somehow processing it, over the past few months she has been bombarded with a plethora of medical information in order to make important treatment decisions for herself.  It’s a lot to suddenly integrate in to a vital, busy life.

Letty just learned of my daughter’s heroin addiction and I’m including the last portion of her recent email to me, below:

I’ve started writing a book entitled “How To Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick.”  In that category, I’m including people whose loved ones are sick and whose friends therefore are meaningful in helping them through the ordeal.  Anything you might have to offer would be so appreciated.

And so, dear blogger friends, I am asking YOU to respond to Letty’s questions below.  I’m interested in your answers, as well.  If it’s ok, I’ll send your responses off to Letty.  I’m not sure she ever considered including information about the illness of drug addiction and how friends can be supportive to family members, but I think it’s important that she does.  Here are her questions:

•Tell me what words or deeds in particular you’ve found helpful.

• Which friends have been most comforting, and why?

•What friends’ behaviors have been distressing or unhelpful?

Here’s part of my response to Letty:

Letty – go to my post on October 5th:  “Unlikely Friends and Neighbors” to see some examples of both old and new friends truly stepping up to the plate.

Also, go to November 3rd’s post, “Comfort”.  My friend, Donna, regularly sends me poetry, song titles/lyrics and pearls from the Dalai Lama that she comes across and that she thinks might buoy my spirit or give me hope.  My December 7th post, Never Give Up lists a couple more of Donna’s gems. Just knowing that I have become a part of her daily mindfulness, is such comfort, let alone the tidbits of wisdom she sends me.  The regularity of her checking in with me is what feels so reassuring – like being wrapped in a warm, soft blanket.  It’s often just an email, once a week or so – but, it’s enough – and means alot.  She also reads my blog and comments regularly.  I met Donna in Al-Anon almost 8 years ago.  We both were there to learn how to deal with our daughters’ eating disorders.  Since then, we have become very close friends, outside of Al-Anon.

Here are a couple of other relevant posts, if you’re interested.

“Detach or Hang On?” gives a glimpse of the ambivalence I feel in regards to “experts’”/professionals’ and friends’ advice – most are conflicting and I guess, in the end, you have to go with your gut.
“Things I’ve Learned But Would Rather Not Know” and the blog readers’ comments.  Sharing relevant experiences and information is very helpful.
“Puss-y” Stuff”, about the stigma of drug addiction and subsequent mistreatment of drug addicts in medical care facilities.
“Safety First” – viewing drug addiction from a different perspective and giving addicts the dignity and real help they need and deserve.

You know – truly – – it has turned out that the news of my daughter’s heroin addiction is so shocking, devastating, and terrifying, that many of my (so-called) “good” friends don’t feel comfortable talking about it with me – or discussing it at length.  Or if they do mention it, they share a moment or two of condolence, but then that’s it.  I think a lot of it has to do with their lack of knowledge about the disease of addiction, no experience in talking about this subject with anyone and their inability to show some vulnerability themselves.  There’s such stigma associated with hard drug addiction, that I don’t always bring it up when I run in to a friend – and yet, I know that most of them have heard about it in one way or another.  It’s been my experience that it’s ‘easier’ talking to friends about breast cancer, or some other serious illness – and I think it has to do with certain myths and biases. One assumption is that the cancer/serious illness patient didn’t knowingly do anything to ‘invite’ the diagnosis.  However, with heroin addiction, there is the supposition that the addict is ‘at fault’, weak in character, brought it on herself, and, consequently, deserves to suffer.  I also feel some sensitivity, (which is my hang-up, I know) to friends thinking, “What the hell must have gone on in that family for that beautiful girl to have become a heroin addict”?  I don’t really blame some one for thinking that – I often wonder myself.  Yes, I’m a bit self-conscious about my (failed) parenting skills being so miserably measured and judged.  (don’t bother with the “you didn’t cause it” slogan – – – I don’t buy in to it entirely.)

In this post, I talk about the most hurtful question insensitive friends ask me:

Very good friends, and even more casual friends, always ask me this question: “How does she get her drugs?”  It’s a very insensitive question – and somewhat naïve – – – and, hurtful.  I mean – – – duh?  What do they think – that I’m sending her checks to buy her drugs?  That she has some kind of trust fund?  My daughter is somehow ‘earning her keep’ – and, it’s a knife in my heart.  The logical answer doesn’t occur to the questioner until after the ‘thud’, followed by my long pause. Hayley has most likely resorted to the oldest and most common means women have used to support themselves since the beginning of time – – – prostitution. Webster’s defines prostitution as:  “the misuse of talent for gains; to sell the services of oneself for low or unworthy purposes.”  I don’t totally agree with this definition, since many women have had no other choice to support themselves.  And, in some cases, marriage can be a legal form of prostitution – with women financially dependent on their husbands but trapped in an emotionally unhappy or even abusive marriage. OK – this whole topic could be another post of its own.

I’d like to see how you answer Letty’s questions.


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14 Responses to “Supportive Friends?”

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I will try to address each of Letty’s questions, but this is going to be kind of rambling. My friends have been a source of love, support and hope beyond any words. This goes for my daily life, my daughter’s illness, and my own diagnoses with cancer. I’ve learned through al-anon that I cannot choose not to go through the things life throws at me (Life on life’s terms) but I don’t have to go through it alone, and that is a huge relief. Sharing the pain inevitably lessens the sting. Of least help are comments that dismiss my suffering or that of my daughter. The most painful remark made to me about my daughter’s illness was actually made by my sister. As I shared my agony with her, she said “Well, that’s why ___ and I never had children.” I was so shocked I couldn’t respond. This comment was made years ago and I’ve obviously never forgotten it. It felt to me that her comment totally dismissed my daughter’s life and existence as unworthy and maybe a nuisance – this about her own and only niece!! I quit talking to her about the most important thing going on in my life. It wasn’t worth risking more pain. And, she didn’t inquire, either. So, that puts me in agreement with all the comments that have been made about the importance of gently asking about an ill person and not behaving as though they didn’t exist. However, the GENTLY part is critical. I have another friend whom I don’t see often. But, every time I see her, she asks about my daughter’s eating disorder, usually not in an appropriate time or place. Friends need to be careful of the context for their inquiries. Touchy.
Helpful things – food! I have been on the sending and receiving end for meals when a family member is in intensive treatment. This is a wonderful gift. During my 16 weeks of chemo, friends organized meals on wheels and took turns bringing a meal each Friday evening for 16 weeks. It was wonderful. My daughter (16 at the time) asked uncomfortably one evening how we would ever express our gratitude or pay people back. I suggested to her that she would have many opportunities in her life to do for others what was being done for us, and that was how. I don’t know if she remembers that, but it’s my motto for these situations – pay it forward.
Cards and notes – I didn’t realize the tremendous value of cards of condolence and hope until the sudden death of my mother. It was so wonderful to hear from so many people, sharing memories of her and letting me know they were thinking of her and of me and my family. The same was true during my own illnesses. I now try to mail messages to close friends and people who are just acquaintances. And email won’t do in this situation….it needs to be something to hold in the hand and be able to read and re-read.

I have a whole inventory of words and phrases having to do with cancer which I strongly dislike. These are personal and might not bother someone else, but here are some:

“survivor”: I consider myself a “veteran” of cancer and of a family member with an addiction. To me “survivor” implies barely hanging on by one’s fingernails. That does not come close to describing the joyful and happy life that I’ve mostly had since being first diagnosed with cancer 17 years ago.

“fight” “battle” “war” – all of these violence-tinged words are uncomfortable to me. I see myself (and my daughter) in an ongoing struggle with a disease we can’t control, but our struggle need not be violent.
“cured” – who knows? People who ask if a disease is cured leave me stumbling miserably to answer. There is no way to know. All I can say is that I’m “well”. Far better for them to ask if I (or my daughter) is well.

“remission” – this word always makes me feel as if the cancer is lurking behind some door, waiting to pop out. Again, my best suggestion is to ask about wellness. This I can answer honestly.

I agree so much with Peggy, that any tinge of judgment, is excruciating. I, too, am probably the one with the problem, but anytime I sense that someone is wondering what kind of horrible stuff went on in my home to cause my daughter to have an eating disorder, pains me terribly. This is where unconditional compassion and love comes in. I often think that the only people who can fully do this are those who have been through the ordeal themselves. I once heard it said that a person who has been through an illness or tragedy and is trying to help another, is like someone who is able to go into a dark cave and sit there in the darkness with someone. Everyone else can only stand outside and try to coax the miserable one to come out. So, I depend hugely on support groups with people who share my experience and I encourage others to try these groups in their time of need.
To help a friend, do something, don’t make promises or tell them to call if they need something. In a time of desperation, it is almost impossible to ask. A person doesn’t even know what they need, nor do they have the strength to ask. Don’t hesitate to say something like “Unless you forbid me to come, or lock the door, I am coming over right now to sit with you. I’ll see you in a minute”. People don’t want to inconvenience others – if it’s a close friend, you have to push sometimes.

Well, I’ve gone on a long time. I’ll probably think of other things and be back. Meanwhile, Peggy, please send my dearest regards to Letty, along with my message, and wish her health and happiness and the same to you, dear friend!

Thanks for this thoughtful, comprehensive reply. I’ve forwarded it on to Letty. You are so articulate, and your comments, so helpful. I especially like the cave analogy, and the observation that you sometimes have to push a good friend to accept help, love, and support – to insist on it.

Yes – – – I too, dislike it when people say, “Let me know what I can do.” It shoves it all back on me. I can’t deal with keeping track of who called when and who to call for what. My plate is already too full! It’s lazy on the friend’s part.

I don’t think that many people know how to be a really good friend. I’m learning from you. XXOO, P.

I’m a real Luddite so I don’t know how to post a comment on your blog but I’m so grateful for all the comments which I’ve just now read from top to bottom. Thank you for giving me access to the thoughts of these brave women.
I was deeply sorry to read that Hayley is back at the crack house. Those photos of her living conditions are devastating. They persuade me that you’re right, your daughter must be seriously mentally ill. I have felt powerless to help my children in situations much less frightening than the one you are dealing with so all I can say is I wish you strength to face the fact that though we are their mothers, we cannot always save our children from themselves.

Thanks for writing to me on my blog. I enjoy your writing and understand your pain. Our daughters are very similar in background and in their issues. I have been following your blog for awhile now.

Most helpful response from my friend Stella: I stopped judging my brother because of you. I thought it was his fault that his daughter was a heroine addict because of his drinking. But, I know you were an excellent Mom with no issues with drinking so I stopped blaming my brother.

My wonderful competent compassionate friend Jill: She can get better. Look at my arm. I used to shoot meth instead of paying my rent. I quit 20 years ago and never went back.

My Friend Nancy: It’s not your fault and there is nothing you can do about it.

My Mom: You don’t deserve this. You were a much better mother than me.

My friend De: Sometimes bad things happen to good people. This is no more your fault than cancer.

Not helpful: My boss: How does she pay for it?

My boss: It’s a tragedy that no one would hold against you. (Then she did hold it against me.)

Hint: Do not tell your boss! If you have to explain looking ragged blame migraines. You will probably get them anyway with all the pressure.

Anna – thanks for these comments – they’re very good. I forwarded them on to Letty. Question: is it more helpful for me to go to your own blog and respond to your comments that you made on my blog? I just realized that when I comment on someone’s blog post, I don’t receive their reply in my email – that I need to go back to their blog site to check for a reply to my comment. I’m fairly new to blogging, and want to respond to your comments in the most effective way.

This is hard to answer, because what I need from friends changes from day-to-day.

What has been helpful? I think friends that give me the opportunity to talk about my son and his stuff when I need to; and still give me the opportunity to focus on other parts of my life and own health and recovery when I need to. Sometimes friends force me to live life outside of addiction.

Which friends have been the most comforting? This one is easier, those that have remained my friends and reach out to me first (at least some of the time). There are people in my life that are very caring and say all the right things when I call them; when I reach out to them. But there are a handful of friends that occasionally reach out to me first; and that’s when I know they are truly friends and care about me; and allow me to care about them, again regardless of the fact that I am dealing with addiction in the family.

The most distressing actions or behaviors is the unsolicited advice from poeple that don’t have personal experience. I still find myself getting defensive about what they say, “Can’t he just stop?” “How Does He Get the Drugs?” “You Need to Just Write Him Off” which is certainly different than “detaching with love.” Anyway, unsolicited advice from “friends and family with no experience in this devastating world of addiction” is often the most hurtful for me.

I don’t know if these answers are too simplistic; but as I said at the beginning, it is somewhat complex because my needs change day to day, and really my best most caring friends understand that and pay attention. This is great and I look forward to seeing the final product.

Lisa – this was a great response to Letty’s questions. I agree about our needs changing daily. Different friends fulfill different needs. I need the friends that “force me to live life outside of addiction”. They’re often different from the friends who have initiated contact – and reach out to me emotionally, on a regular basis. Thanks for checking in with me on a regular basis – – – I consider you a ‘new’, yet very valuable friend.

I loved your post! The following is an inspirational message that my best friend sent to me soon after my son went to jail and really helped me that day:

“Sometimes only the step I’m on, or the very next one ahead, is all that is illuminated for me. God gives just the amount of light I need for the exact moment I need it. At those times, I walk in surrender to faith, unable to see the future and not fully comprehending the past.

Because it is God who has given me what light I have, I know I must reject the fear and doubt that threaten to overtake me. I must determine to be content where I am, and allow God to get me where I need to go. I walk forward, one step at a time, fully trusting that the light God sheds is absolutely sufficient.”

I have 3 close friends that I have had for many years. One lives far away and we talk about once a month and the other two maybe once every 2-3 weeks. My mother and brother live in the same city that I do and I am married (he is the step-father). I have other extended family in the area also.

I haven’t shared my son’s situation to many people, not because of the stigma so much, mainly because my son is a more private person than I am and I didn’t want to divulge his problems without his permission.

The most hurtful times are when you do confide to friends/family and they don’t check in on you or ask how things are going.

I think that many of us aren’t used to asking for help and we need to learn to be more vulnerable – I’m working on it!

Sherry – thanks for your response. I agree – the family members and so-called “close” friends who don’t check in regularly, are the most hurtful. I’ve learned that in order to truly connect with me and my situation, friends/family need to be vulnerable themselves. This is a risk, and many people just don’t have the skills or high enough ’emotional quotient’ (eq) to pull it off. Stay tuned.

What a wonderful and important book that Letty is writing! You’ve covered this topic really well, hit on a lot of the things that hurt the most to hear (or not hear) from friends. I think someone asking “how does she get her drugs” is so RUDE. Its like a curiosity for them, would they ask the cancer patient how she got her chemotherapy? As you mentioned, its the way people regard addicts that hurts the most. I think the most helpful of my friends are the ones who sincerely ask “how is Keven doing?” without judgment or condescending advise. My least helpful friend is one who is not a parent and knows very little about addiction but tries to tell me how to handle the situation.

Barbara – thanks so much for this response. My 92 yo mother is the consummate giver of unsolicited advice, with absolutely no experience or compassion as a context. In fact, her remarks to me are almost abusive. She says things like, “Maybe it would just be better if we found Hayley floating in the river.” Or, “I know why your daughter is a heroin addict – you made her take ballet lessons.” I pity my mother in many ways – she’s so ill-equipped to handle adversity; her own mother was an alcoholic, and my daughter’s drug addiction stirs up a lot of shame and anxiety; and, at 92 and facing her own imminent mortality, it’s very unsettling to not have any hope or resolution about one of her grandchildren. I’ve had to protect myself from my mother projecting her enormous anxiety and blame on to me – – – it’s very difficult. Often, I don’t feel strong enough to give her support, and, in fact, feel anger and resentment that she doesn’t give me any. But, I also feel compassion for her – – – and try to practice my best Al-Anon principles and more mature, emotionally healthy responses to her angst.

I have old friends who act like I don’t have a son. They pretend he does not exist, they never ask about him. I ask about their kids…like you say, it is very hurtful.

Me, too. I can hardly believe it when it happens. This horrible tragedy is so revealing, in a variety of ways – don’t you think? My ranking of friends has shifted enormously. Now, my true, genuine, close friends are fewer in numbers and somewhat of a surprise to me. Even though my daughter’s heroin addiction has been so devastating, it also has provided me with some opportunities that I may never have been able to experience. I need to remember this – – – and put it in to the “!/2 full” column.

i have four main friends who have been here through thick and thin. their reactions were…

friend #1 of 21 years. – SHIT !!!

friend #2 of 18 years. – want me to beat her up for you?

friend #3 of 7 years. What can I do to help?

friend #4 of 16 years. – So is my husband.

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