Dealing with addiction. Now that’s not a topic I thought would ever be on this blog.
Why? The story is too personal. It’s too painful. And it’s too darn difficult to talk about. Yet here we are. What does this have to do with personal finance?
Plenty! Read on to learn how and why this is the case.
(Eitor’s note: This guest post breaks with our usual career, finance and retirement content, but it deals with a crisis millions of people are facing right now. And by extension, we all are, even when it doesn’t strike our own families. Fred Leamnson is a brother in Jesus Christ, as well as a Financial Consultant in Virginia, and a fellow financial blogger at Money With a Purpose. This article chronicles he and his wife’s struggle with addiction in their own family, and it’s a story that needs to be told. It’s no longer an uncommon story, and we all need to stop struggling with it alone. This article is a summary reprint of the full version on his website. – Kevin)
Why I’m doing this
My wife, Cathy, and I collaborated on writing this story.
Our story is about dealing with a son or daughter that’s an addict. I know some of you have likely had the same or similar experience.
Even if you haven’t, it’s likely that someone in your family, your job, or your circle of friends has dealt with the horrors of addiction.
I know how lonely this journey can be. When you talk about it with someone who hasn’t experienced it, it’s hard to know what to say.
Or, they may think they have great advice and offer it to you unsolicited.
One of my hopes in talking about our experience is to educate.
In the end, I’ll tell you what we’ve learned from our experience dealing with a an addicted son.
I also want to provide tools to help you or anyone in your circle to avoid making the mistakes we made, personally and financially.
And there were many.
It’s not a pretty story. Addiction stories never are.
But it’s a timely story.
There are more people addicted and more deaths from addiction than at any time in our country’s history.
Check out the stats from the American Addiction Center’s study, Statistics on Drug Addiction.
According to the study, 21.5 million American adults (considered age 12 and older) struggled with substance abuse in 2014.
That number is much more significant today.
As hard as it is to tell our story, I want to let anyone who reads this that’s dealing with addiction know you are not alone.
With that background, here’s our story.
How it started
I’ll never forget the day.
It was Labor Day weekend of 2007. My wife Cathy and I always had our best friends from Indianapolis at our house for the week of Labor Day. This tradition has endured pretty much since we moved to Northern Virginia in 1998.
Our friends and I were sitting on our back patio enjoying the late afternoon weather when Cathy came outside, looking as if she’d seen a ghost.
She said, Freddy (her favorite name for me), I need to talk to you. I knew something terrible happened.
It turns out, Cathy had been having dreams about our son at night. I won’t give you the details of the dreams. Suffice it to say they were pretty bad. She never told me about those dreams.
Let me preface this by saying that Cathy and I are a couple with a strong Christian faith. We believe that Jesus is active to the infinitesimal detail of our lives.
On several occasions in the past, Cathy had dreams where she believed God had spoken to her about things that were going to happen. Several times, not just one or two, those things happened.
So, when she said she’d been having dreams about our son, I took her seriously.
In these dreams, God showed her that our son was likely using heroin.
Prior to coming downstairs, she called him to confront him with this. After first reacting in anger and denial, he called her back a few minutes later to confess that in fact, yes, he was shooting up heroin.
This began the journey through his addiction.
How it progressed
When Cathy confronted him in 2007, of course, Jason said he was going to go to the doctor and get help to kick the habit.
At the time, methadone was the drug used to help wean people off of heroin.
We thought he was clean. That is until April 2008 when we got a call from him after being arrested.
They found empty packets with the residue of heroin and paraphernalia associated with drug use.
The financial issues kicked into high gear then. Jason found an attorney who specialized in dealing with drug offenders. The cost – $8,000, which Cathy and I agreed to pay.
That was our first of many, many bad financial decisions.
A seemingly successful outcome
The attorney did a fantastic job for Jason. He got two years’ probation. At the sentencing, the judge told him if he so much as got a parking ticket during the two years, he would put him in jail to serve out the remainder of his sentence.
That fear proved a great motivator!
Every week, Jason had to call a phone number to see if it was his time to get drug tested.
He had a specific code that, if it came up, gave him something like 4 hours to get tested. If he was unable or if he failed to get to the test in the time allotted, he would go to jail.
He made it for the two-year period without incident and got released from probation.
We were very hopeful.
A year or so into his probation, Jason got the best job he’d ever had.
Unfortunately, he lost that job toward the end of the year.
The result? He started using again.
During the two-year period from 2010-2012, Cathy and I spent embarrassing amounts of money to help our son.
We paid for two recovery centers. He got thrown out of the second.
We also paid off car loans, student loans, and other sundry debts along the way. I know some of you reading this may be thinking, “why are you paying off bills of your adult son?”
And that’s very legitimate question.
All I can say is when you’re in the midst of it; it’s hard to think clearly. It feels like you’re moving from one crisis to the next in rapid succession with little time to stop and think.
Learning about addiction
We hear all of the time that addiction is a disease.
We had trouble getting our heads around this concept.
Even though we understand it, it’s still hard at times.
The symptoms of the disease are behavioral, which is why it’s so hard to accept and understand.
Addicts are desperate people. Desperate people do desperate things.
As parents, you try to prepare yourselves for the worst-case scenarios.
For an addict, that’s an overdose. We had talked about and, to the extent possible, prepared ourselves for that outcome.
Oddly, we felt better having our son in jail, rather than on the street. At least there we didn’t worry about an overdose.
Dr. Kevin McCauley, a doctor who became addicted to prescription drugs, decided if he was going to beat his addiction, he needed to learn everything he could about it.
A series of videos in which he lays out the latest research from scientist all over the world on the disease of addiction.
The title of the video series is Promise Unwoven. Click the title to watch.
These videos opened Cathy’s and my eyes to a detailed scientific explanation of what goes on in an addict’s brain.
Watch these videos to understand what happens to an addict’s brain chemistry and why it’s so difficult to stop.
Pass them along to anyone dealing with an addiction.
The choice argument
Addicts make the choice to use heroin initially.
Once that initial choice is made, and addiction kicks in, the choice argument is no longer valid.
Dr. McCauley explains what happens to the brain once addiction takes over.
Once a person becomes an addict, the brain gets rewired. The longer they stay that way, the worse the rewiring gets.
The brain chemistry gets flipped upside down.
Because of the change in chemistry, the addict’s brain associates the drug with survival.
In other words, if I don’t get my drug, I’m not going to survive.
When you believe your survival depends on getting your drug, you don’t have a choice anymore. Your entire life is planned around getting it.
For further reading: She Went to Jail for a Drug Relapse. Tough Love or Too Harsh?
Characteristics of a disease
A disease has 3 elements to it. First is the malady. Second is the organ the malady affects. Third are the symptoms.
The malady is the body loses its ability to produce insulin.
The affected organ is the pancreas.
The symptoms are things like poor circulation causing pain in the extremities. Loss of feeling in those extremities is another. Of course, there are many more.
Using this format to diagnose addiction, here’s how it would go.
The malady is the addiction. The organ affected is the brain.
The symptoms are behavioral.
Things like lying, stealing manipulating are symptoms of the disease of addiction. These are the things the addict does to get their drug.
It’s hard to see bad behaviors as symptoms.
That’s what makes it so hard to see addiction as a disease. When you’re on the receiving end of these symptoms, the last thing you’re thinking about is an illness.
It’s counterintuitive to look at bad behaviors this way. We’d rather punish them than treat them. For the most part, that’s how the system deals with it.
However, if we want to look at this from a 7scientific perspective, we need to look at it differently.
Financial lessons learned
Below are some of the lessons we learned (the hard way)!
Financial lesson #1
(I want to clarify something first. When I talk about a son or daughter, I’m talking about an adult son or daughter.
A teen or someone who is still your dependent offers you, the parent, the ability to have more control. That’s a different discussion for another day.)
Once you find out your son or daughter is addicted, I would advise not supporting them financially.
Once you start, it’s hard to turn it off. They are phenomenal at getting you to feel sorry for them. Their stories. Their logic. Even their excuses somehow seem to make sense.
Seeing your son or daughter suffer and not helping is one of the hardest things a parent will ever do.
I can advise you not to give them money. You probably will (obviously, we did).
If you’re going to help financially, my suggestion is to put a hard and fast dollar limit on it. When you reach that limit, stop the support.
Listen, this is hard. When we finally decided to cut him off, it was excruciating, especially for Cathy.
A mother’s connection to her son is special. He used that connection over the years in the times he was most desperate.
If you provide financial help with the expectation that this will speed the process to get your son or daughter better, you will likely be very disappointed.
Their recovery is up to them.
My advice, something we did not do – protect yourselves and your finances above everything else.
Financial lesson #2
If we could turn back the clock, we would not have let Jason and his family move into our house.
If an addict is living with you, it’s much easier to be manipulated into helping them.
Here’s another reason – they will steal from you.
Remember the disease and the choice argument.
Once the addict associates their drug with survival, they will do anything to get money for their daily dose.
If that means stealing. That’s what they will likely do.
Here’s a partial list of things they stole:
a gas power washer, a set of Calloway golf clubs, all of the inherited jewelry my mother gave Cathy. Inherited flatware (we found this item gone when preparing for Thanksgiving dinner).
The total value of these items was over $35,000! They probably got a few hundred for all of it at a pawn shop.
We never dreamed our son was capable of this.
Remember, drug = survival. Not having = death!
They will do whatever it takes to get what they need.
Financial lesson #3
Under no circumstances should you ever pull money from your retirement accounts to bail your addict out of trouble.
Look, I’m a financial advisor. I would never, ever advise anyone to tap into these accounts to bail out an irresponsible child.
But I’m going to be completely transparent about what can happen.
When you see your child in complete desperation mode, it is incredibly hard to not make emotional decisions to protect them.
How much did we put into them? It was well into six figures!
As I said earlier, we started over at a time when we were accumulating assets and getting closer to financial independence near retirement.
Understand that in the best of circumstances, your addict is going to relapse after attempts at recovery. The recovering addict relapses on average 4 or 5 times.
That’s’ why it is important to protect yourself. Because of what happens to the brain chemistry, it’s difficult to stay clean.
I know this was a lot to absorb. Addiction is messy. And as you see, it can last a very long time.
Final Thoughts on Dealing with Addiction
- If you’re in the midst of this yourself, you are struggling mightily with difficult decisions. Forgive yourself when you make mistakes. (and you will). And maybe, more importantly, forgive your spouse when they do.
- Each of us has a different psychological and emotional makeup and deal with things in our own way. Sometimes, we need to engage in the ministry of presence with our spouse, significant other or our sons and daughters. Just be there for them.
- The toughest decision you will ever make is to stop supporting your son or daughter. You love them. You want to help them. We did too. Please understand that the kind of help they need, you can’t give them. Watching them suffer, reel in shame, live on the street… I can tell you how excruciating that is.
- Don’t isolate yourself. There are a few support groups in place for family members of addicts. You can find some below in a list of resources Don’t let shame and embarrassment keep you from getting the help you need.
Please let me know what you think. I mean open, honest, gut-wrenching feedback, if necessary.
If you’re dealing with or have dealt with a family member who is an addict, please tell us about it in the comments below.
If you want to reach out to me or my wire Cathy, go to my Contact Page. You can send an email, fill out a contact request, or schedule a call.
For further reading