Coping with a Loved One’s Addiction: Lessons from the Mother of an Addict

By Meghan Vivo

Dr. Libby Cataldi is an educator, a breast cancer survivor and the mother of a recovering drug addict. Like any mother, Libby spent a lot of time blaming herself for her son’s addiction and investigating what she had done wrong. Although addiction remains a problem with no easy answers, she has learned many valuable lessons which she was generous enough to share in her book, Stay Close: A Mother’s Story of her Son’s Addiction.

Living in Denial

Because Libby’s son, Jeff Bratton, was able, at least for the first few years of his heroin addiction, to maintain a façade of normalcy – working, getting good grades in school and maintaining his personal relationships – he didn’t see himself as a “typical” addict, nor did his family recognize the signs of trouble for a long time.

Libby writes, “Yes, I was in denial. I lived in disbelief, and this is very common among those of us who love addicts. … You want to believe that your child is OK. … I didn’t know because I chose to believe that this was a passing thing and that all would be well.”

Because acknowledging Jeff’s drug problem would’ve required her to take action, and she didn’t know what action to take, Libby ignored signs like weight loss, a change in attitude, and dullness in her son’s eyes. She also ignored strange phone calls from Jeff’s friends expressing concern about Jeff’s drug use.

Having survived her son’s addiction, Libby now knows that denial prolongs the pain. She has educated herself about the warning signs of addiction and reaches out for support from other families through Al-Anon, and advises other families affected by addiction to do the same.

She began writing her family’s story because she “didn’t know what else to do with the heartache, the devastation, and the perpetual chaos. … I never wanted to expose our raw pain. … But if I didn’t, our anguish and our learning would stop there, and it would help no one else.”

Her book, Stay Close, is an opportunity to share what she has learned with other families experiencing the despair of addiction. As directed by the 12 Steps, this is her family’s opportunity to give back.

Staying Close Without Enabling

There’s a saying in AA: “Never deny an addict his pain.” Although this adage was once a mystery to her, Libby now intimately understands its meaning.

One of Libby’s most difficult lessons was learning to let her son feel the pain of his choices, rather than bailing him out of jail, giving him food and shelter, paying his bills and enabling his addiction. Only when the consequences of Jeff’s addiction became too heavy did he develop the motivation to seek treatment and choose a different way of life.
“Every addict has a mom and dad, and we parents suffer as we see our children dying a little at a time,” Libby writes. “We want to save them, jump into the fire, grab hold and bring them to safety, but we can’t. Tell that to a parent, that he or she can’t save their child – the pain is incomprehensible.”

But enabling Jeff only prolonged his addiction and added to her heartache. “By trying to protect him, we all suffered more,” she writes. “He needed to endure the reality of his decisions and the starkness of life on and in the streets. Only when he felt loneliness, misery, fear, cold, hunger, panic, paralysis – only when he was desperate, depleted, and broke – only then did he choose a different life.”

Libby now has compassion for her son and herself, and has learned to release her son to God and his own choices. Jeff has been clean and sober for three years and makes the choice to remain drug-free every day.

Although family members should be careful not to enable their loved one’s addiction, Libby also advises against withdrawing love. The main message of her book, as carried forth in the title, is to “stay close.”

“I believe, as firmly as I believe anything, that families and people who love addicts must stay close to them,” she writes. Libby wanted Jeff to know that he could always call her and speak openly and honestly and that she would never give up on him, even when he was his least loveable. She answered his phone calls and encouraged him to get help while at the same time knowing that sometimes she would have to stand by and watch without interfering, enabling or punishing.

Dr. Patrick MacAfee, an addiction specialist for more than 40 years who served as Jeff’s therapist while he was in drug rehab, echoes support for the “stay close” approach. In the afterword to the book, he says, “I believe that stagli vicino – staying close but out of the way of the insanity – is best. If you are dealing with addiction, offer the addict roads to recovery, not more money or bailouts. … For the addict, inescapable accountability needs to emerge and he must feel the consequences of his behavior; the family must begin to reflect reality.”

Preparing for Relapse

Despite receiving treatment at a number of drug rehab programs, Jeff was no stranger to relapse. According to Jeff, his relapses happened for a number of reasons: He missed the excitement and the reliable feeling of euphoria drugs produced. He thought he was different from most addicts – despite recommendations to stay involved with the 12-Step program, he believed he didn’t need AA meetings or long-term addiction treatment. He told himself drinking alcohol was acceptable since that wasn’t his drug of choice – but every time, drinking led quickly to using drugs.

Libby used to believe that relapse meant treatment had failed. But the addiction specialists at Sober Living by the Sea, the addiction treatment center Jeff attended for long-term care, showed her that relapse is a normal part of the recovery process. They also conveyed the importance of relapse prevention planning.

Libby writes, “If, during Jeff’s strong times, we had planned for relapse by working closely with Jeff and a therapist to set up a compassionate and supportive relapse plan, we might have been able to slow down or even arrest the progress of this fatal disease in our son.”

Dr. Kevin McCauley, a pioneer in the field of recovery who facilitates Sober Living by the Sea’s monthly Family Counseling Program, recommended that Jeff set up a relapse program that lasts at least the first year, better the first three to five years, and ideally for life.

“Recovery is forever and doesn’t end looking like a beautiful present tied up with a bow,” Libby discovered. “Sometimes like cancer, the disease comes back.”

Honesty First

Although sharing her family’s most intimate secrets has not been easy, Libby and her son know that recovery can only be achieved through rigorous honesty.

She writes, “Addiction is based in silence – don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t trust, don’t think, don’t question. Addiction can only exist in the lie – if the addict keeps the lie, he keeps the addiction. Addiction does its best work in the shadows. This book is an effort to bring it out of the shadows so that dialogue and education might happen.”

In addition to healing their family, Libby and her son hope that the book Stay Close will provide hope and healing to other families in similar situations. The 12th step of AA says, “Having had a spiritual experience as the result of this course of action, we tried to carry this message to others, especially alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

And that is what they are doing – carrying forth the message of hope and recovery. Jeff has been sober for over three years and is now living and working in Los Angeles. In his free time, he visits art museums, listens to music, and goes out to dinners, concerts and events with friends. He will always live with addiction, but “he is alive and productive … and is making up for the lost years,” says Libby.

Although no one can force an addict to choose to get well, refusing to enable the addiction, maintaining an open and honest relationship, and offering support and long-term drug treatment can be the encouragement they need to make the choice for themselves.