Jill: Mark and I spent some time with friends recently. As the parents of several young adult children, they were struggling to make sense of their oldest child’s choices. Substance abuse and crime have landed their girl in prison for quite some time.
Mark: Jill and I understand that journey. With his permission, Jill first shared about our son Kolya’s (who now goes by Nicolai) struggle with mental illness several years ago. His diagnoses include Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD), Severe Clinical Depression, Personality Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder.
Jill: As commonly experienced in the mental health world, our son ends up hospitalized where he stabilizes with appropriate medication. Then he leaves the hospital and stays on the meds for a few weeks to a few months before he either abuses them (overdoses) or stops taking them all together and the spiral begins again. Over time he’s also added substance abuse to his issues because he self-medicates when he doesn’t continue with the medications that really do help him. Unfortunately, he has tried to take his own life on many different occasions.
Mark: At the age of 22, he is considered an adult by the healthcare system and has to choose to get the help he needs. About a year ago we allowed him to live at home for a time until we determined that wasn’t an arrangement that was safe for all involved. You never expect to have to require your child to leave, offer to drive him to the homeless shelter, but that was indeed what we had to do. He eventually checked himself into the psych ward at the hospital.
Jill: This is not what any parent expects to ever deal with. When you’re cuddling that little one, or sounding out words with them as they learn to read, or attending their school concerts…you never once think, “Wow…someday I’ll visit this kid behind bars.” We don’t expect it and quite honestly most of us don’t know how to deal with it. There aren’t a lot of books on the subject and most people aren’t posting “Wow, I’m so proud that my son just earned his first DUI.”
Mark: Jill and I have found that your child’s crisis can tug at the seams of a marriage. We’ve had to be very intentional to stay close and connected to each other when our child’s choices threaten to hijack our relationship. Here are some principles we’ve found helpful to guide us:
Pray Together–It may not be something you’re comfortable with, but praying together puts God smack-dab in the middle of the mess which is where you need Him to be. It moves your eyes from the mountain to the Mountain Mover.
Keep Your Marriage The First Priority–-It’s no different than when your kids were small and you had to make time for the two of you, prioritizing your marriage is a must. Take time to talk, to laugh, to do things that refuel you both and strengthen your relationship.
Lovingly Detach–Detachment is way we allow others the opportunity to learn how to care for themselves better. This is a term often used in the addiction world. When Jill and I first heard it, we bristled at the thought. After all, one of our son’s biggest issue is an attachment issue. However, what we learned is that lovingly detaching is how you learn to continue living YOUR life in the midst of someone else’s poor choices. “You detach from the actions, the crime, the drug use, the lying, and every other terrible thing an addict does to himself and others. You continue to love and support the person inside, not the addiction controlling the life.” (drugfree.org)
Talk and Pray Before You Respond–Sometimes I hear from our son. Sometimes Jill hears from him. If he asks for something, however, we always talk to each other before we respond. This helps us stay level-headed in our responses and makes sure we’re on the same page.
Be Compassionate With Each Other—Every person handles these kinds of challenges differently. I’m far more emotional than Jill is. It’s easy to think she’s way too logical and even uncaring. And I know she often feels I let my emotions get the best of me when dealing with our son. We’re different people who will respond differently to the curve balls of life. The temptation is to criticize each other during times of stress. Instead, we have to be compassionate with each other and allow for those differences while resisting the urge to criticize.
Play To Your Strengths–Jill is a researcher. Some of the best resources we’ve discovered for both ourselves and our son have come from her research. I’ve learned to trust her to thoroughly research whatever issue we’re dealing with. I’m very discerning and perceptive. Jill has learned to trust me when I sense that something is “off” in some way. By playing to our strengths we work together well.
Get Help–Jill and I have seen a counselor to help us stay steady during particularly hard seasons. A counselor, a pastor, or even good friends can sometime provide the sounding board and perspective needed to get through a tough situation.
Jill: When your child is in crisis, your marriage needs to stay steady. If you’re not intentional about making that happen, the crisis will likely draw you apart rather than bind you together. It doesn’t have to, though. You CAN stay together even when your child’s crisis threatens to pull you apart.
What about you? Have you had to navigate a crisis that threatened to pull your marriage apart? Would you add any suggestions to the list above?