Mothers in Recovery | Overcoming Stigma & Shame

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By Alisa Sawyer
Right Side Up Recovery Center for Women and Children

Despite the wider acceptance of the disease model, and a growing understanding of the importance of treatment, alcoholism, and addiction still carry heavy cultural stigmas. 

When somebody is trying to come to terms with their addiction, messages they have heard their whole lives run through their minds on repeat. Addicts and alcoholics are lazy. They don’t have any morals, willpower, or self-control. 

Even though anyone familiar with the facts about addiction and recovery will know these statements to be false, to the person caught in the cycle of addiction, they feel absolutely true. 

Now imagine the double stigma that mothers caught in the cycle of addiction face. Not only do they carry the cultural shame that comes with having an addiction, but they also have to carry the even heavier label of being “a bad mother.” 

Over and over, they hear some version of the following message playing in their minds: What kind of mother puts their children through this? If I loved my children, I would stop drinking and using drugs. I am a terrible person, and I’m a terrible mother.

As one of the Therapeutic Child Care Coordinators at Right Side Up, these are the clients I work with—mothers in recovery who have internalized unfair and untrue biases about themselves and their illness.

The message we work to send to these women over and over again is this:  

“You are not a bad person or a bad mother. You made some bad choices in your addiction, but we are going to work with you on how to implement structure so you can make healthier, safer choices going forward.”

We tell them this in a thousand different ways, through our words and actions, until they can start to believe it. It takes a while to build the trust necessary for them to hear it, but when they do, the recovery they find is something truly powerful to see. 

It is a resilience and a power that inspires me every day and has kept me passionately working at Right Side Up for 15 years. 

The Necessity of Structure

So how do you communicate this message to women who have been hearing the opposite, shame-based messages their whole lives?

While all of our clients work with their individual counselors, take classes, and attend Twelve Step meetings to address the shame that comes with their addiction, the mothers in our program participate in our Therapeutic Child Care (TCC) program to work on the parenting part of the equation. 

Our primary focus in TCC is helping them develop essential parenting skills that many of them missed out on as a result of their addiction. We teach them this through a consistent structure and a routine that we hold them to in a loving, therapeutic way.

Structure, routine, and consistency are always important qualities for people in early recovery, but this is particularly true when children are involved. 

From the day that mothers admit to our program, we start working with them on concrete actions that move them toward a consistency that is healthy for them and their families.  

As soon as mothers admit to our program, our caseworkers start working with them to get them in to see a pediatrician. They also help to get them set up to receive the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) benefits and healthcare benefits they are eligible for.   

As far as daily parenting is concerned, we hold them to a strict routine that they can carry on with them once their six months with us is completed. For example, everyday moms pick up their kids from the bus stop. When they get back to RSU, they process what happened that day at school with their children. Later in the evening, moms sit with their children to work with them on their homework for an hour. After six months of practicing with us, our clients have the parenting patterns well established as part of their daily lives. 

We also work with them through parenting classes, where they learn about and practice disciplining children without corporal punishment, using redirection, natural consequences, and overall behavior management techniques. They also learn about different nurturing styles and the various parts of themselves, pleasant and unpleasant, that can come out of all of us when we are dealing with the stress of parenting. 

By focusing our clients’ attention on concrete actions that they can take as parents, they begin to shift their focus away from the unhelpful belief that they don’t love their children enough. Instead, they begin to focus their attention on performing loving acts for their children. 

As they say in the 12 Step rooms, “If you want to improve your self-esteem, start performing esteemable acts.”  

As these women perform the actions of attentive and consistent parents, they begin to have more and more evidence that they love their children and are showing up for them. 

They no longer need to wonder whether or not they are good mothers because they can see evidence every day through the actions that they take that they are. 

We All Need the Same Things

For those of us who work in this field, cultural biases can come up for us as well. In fact, one of my favorite things about my job is getting to see my own biases and growing past them. 

An example of this came to me when I was early on in my career.  I was in my early 30s and one of my clients was the same age, but the differences between us were significant. I was starting my professional career, whereas her whole life centered around drug addiction, and she already had 10 children.  

This shocked me. I wondered, How does someone’s life end up like this? 

It wasn’t that I had never seen families affected by drug abuse. I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Queens. Illegal drugs were definitely around, just not in my family or my immediate community. Our house was a hangout house for the neighborhood and was very structured, nurturing, and loving. The worst thing that we saw our parents doing was smoking cigarettes at the cookouts.

So I asked her about when she started using drugs and why. She told me that it started when she was 15 years old. She told me about how she and her friends were at her home where her mother had left crack cocaine out on the table. So they tried it. 

That’s when I had a moment. When my friends and I were 15, rather than sneaking crack, we snuck one of our parents’ cigarettes. That was how we rebelled. 

The differences in our home lives don’t completely explain the course our lives took. As they tell parents who attend Al-Anon about their children’s addiction and alcoholism: “You didn’t cause it, you can’t cure it, and you can’t control it.” 

Many people who grew up in structured homes like mine end up becoming addicted to drugs and many people in homes characterized by the chaos and risks associated with addiction do not become addicted.   

But this woman wasn’t able to grow, fail, learn, try again, and succeed in the same ways that I was as a child because she did not have the structure that I had. To add to that, her psychological development had been hijacked by drug addiction at an early age.

We are all still responsible for our own actions, but our environments play a major role in the courses that our lives can take. I look at what we do at Right Side Up as attempting to provide some of the loving structure that I was fortunate enough to grow up with. 

Just as the shame of addiction is bigger than a single person, lasting recovery needs to be grounded in something bigger than a single person as well. Healthy structure and daily routines, supported by a loving community, can help all of us stick with patterns grounded in something larger than our temporary feelings and false beliefs about ourselves that so easily pull us off track. 

To borrow another helpful phrase from the Twelve Step Rooms: “We are not bad people trying to become good, we are sick people trying to become well.” 

This phrase is one that I think we can all relate to because, at different times in our lives, we can all certainly identify with being sick and acting against our own interests and the interests of those we love, but at the same time wanting to become well. 

Who doesn’t want that? 


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