About 20 years ago, a congenital condition in my back manifested itself with lots of pain in the lower back and numbness in my legs. Little did I know that this condition would be of significant spiritual and emotional help to my wife Susan and me when drugs invaded our family years later. Let me explain.

I complained a lot about my back and legs. I would not heed Susan’s advice to see the doctor. I thought I could fix it myself. I had no idea how, but I thought I could. Finally, one day Susan said to me, “If you are not going to see the doctor, do not complain to me anymore.” So, I went to the doctor and got the help I needed.

Neither of us realized that Susan was practicing a principle called detachment, something everyone must consider doing with an addicted loved one. It is not easy. But those who do understand addicts tell those of us who are the loved ones that the only solution is to love the addicts but turn them over to God’s care. In Susan’s case, she was no longer going to be “hooked” by my complaining, spend her emotional energy helping me, or take time to try to comfort and help me when I would not take any steps to be helped by the expert, the orthopedic surgeon.

Breaking a heart of restoring a life?

At first glance, detachment seems heartless. But ultimately it’s the most loving, healthy, and hopeful step we can take for our children. Here’s one way to look at it: As Christian parents, we understand that we can model Christianity for our children or loved ones but ultimately they must accept or reject Christ for themselves. We cannot make the decision for them. So it is with drugs or alcohol. (Depending on their age, there are different pro-active stances we can take, but ultimately the addicts must decide for themselves.) Detachment helps both the parents and the addicts face the responsibility for their own lives. For us parents, facing that responsibility puts us back on the path to mental and spiritual health.

While on the surface, detachment appears to be unloving, it is more unloving to deny the drug abuser the opportunity to grow by experiencing the consequences of his or her own behavior. Detaching may seem like giving up, but the only thing we give up when we break away from being controlled by loved ones who use drugs is the illusion of our being in control.

A Streak of Rebellion

Understanding that every addict or alcoholic has a rebellious streak helps us understand why it’s important to practice detachment. This is why Alcoholics Anonymous programs talk about breaking the will of the alcoholic. Our daughter Stephanie, who is a recovering heroin addict, explained to me that addicts have chosen or continue to choose to live their lives for themselves and without consideration for loved ones. They become self-absorbed and self-focused. Usually they do not care what kind of pain or discomfort they cause those around them.

Rebels do not listen to anyone—even those who love them. Solomon gives us solid commentary on the rebel or fool in the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 15 (NASB):

Verse 1: “A fool rejects his fathers discipline…”

Verse 10: “… grievous punishment is for him who forsakes the way; he who hates reproof will die.”

Verse 14: “The mind of the intelligent seeks knowledge, but the mouth of fools feeds on folly.”

Verse 20b:”…a foolish man despises his mother.”

Verse 21: “Folly is joy to him who lacks sense …”

Verse 26:3 “…a rod [is] for the back of fools.”

Many times as parents we hide a child’s addiction because we are embarrassed or afraid of people’s reactions. This is a normal response to having a drug user in the family, but we must be aware that this attitude can be the enemy of our own souls and of our spiritual and emotional health. We must remember that addicts have a particular way of thinking; it is called “addict logic” and it’s not the kind of logic that you’ll use. The main motivation for addicts is to get that next high or fix. So, if they sense that parents will not make them face the consequences of their use and abuse, they will manipulate their parents for their own ends—which is getting that next high or fix.

1. We detach first from assuming responsibility for our children’s actions. As the Nar-Anon Creed states: “I did not cause it, I cannot cure it.” We recognize that although we are not perfect parents, our misdeeds and mistakes are not the causes for our child’s use and abuse. Stephanie told us that one of her Alcoholics Anonymous discussion groups was made up of “street people, middle class people, wealthy people, and people who had been wealthy but lost all their money to their addiction. She said that in spite of their socio-economic differences, they agreed that the one common denominator among them was this: Until they quit blaming others for their addiction, they did not go get the help they needed.

2. We then begin to detach emotionally and spiritually. We put our stake in the ground as we realize that just as the addict is responsible to get clean, so we are responsible to get healthy, both spiritually and emotionally. As Nar-Anon says,

Your role as helper is not to DO things for the person you are helping but to BE things, not to try to train and change his actions, but to train and change your actions. As you change your negatives to positives—fear to faith; contempt for what he does to respect for the potential within him; rejection to release with love … as you change in such ways as these, you change the world about you….

By detaching spiritually, we focus on our own spiritual walk with Christ and we ask and trust the Holy Spirit to work in our children’s lives.

3. We then may have to detach physically from our children. This is tough. But, we must be motivated by what is best for them. Two stories from support groups for parents of addicts might illustrate the point:

One woman asked her group if they thought she was being too permissive to allow her adult son to live in her home, where he would cook his heroin and shoot up in his bedroom. In unison the group said, “Yes!!”

Another woman told of putting all her son’s things on the front porch for him to find when he came home. He rang the doorbell, because the locks had been changed, and asked, “What is happening?” She explained that he had violated her rule of no drugs if he lived in her house. He responded by asking where he was going to sleep that night. Her response was: “That is not my worry. You made the decision not to sleep here when you used drugs again.”

I think it is easy to see that the woman who manifested tough love was indeed showing more love toward her son than the mother who let her son cook his heroin and shoot up in his bedroom. Genuine detachment means parents are willing to break contact with their children in order to let them assume the responsibility for their addiction.

Is detachment hard? Of course it is. Is it scary? Of course it is. Is it right? Of course it is. Solomon, in the verses cited earlier, helps us understand that not all children listen to their parents. He also helps us understand that children need to bear the consequences of their decisions. As parents we do not want to accept this. We love our kids. We want what is best for them. However, it must be their decision to get clean. It is possible that their decision to use may take years off their lives or prevent them from getting a graduate degree or keep them from landing a better job. But those are choices and decisions they make. Our ultimate goal for them must be that they become “clean” and establish a relationship with God.

Adapted from Hit By a Ton of Bricks edited by John Vawter. Published by FamilyLife. Copyright © 2002 by FamilyLife. Used with permission.