I Left My Kids to Go to Rehab and Here's Why I'd Do It Again

When I was suffering from addiction, I made poor decisions. But choosing to be away from my two sons for 90 days to get help is not only the best decision I ever made, but the one my children remember.

The author and her two kids.
The author and her two kids. Photo: Courtesy of Laura Giffin

I’ve always sacrificed for my children. I put my career on pause for years to be at home with them and hurled myself headfirst into “momdom.” I was the room mom, school benefit chair, and volunteered each week for hot lunch and library duty. I attended my sons’ soccer and baseball games, and was there for every fever, bruised knee, scrape, cut, school play, and art show. You name it, I didn’t miss it.

I was entirely committed to their well-being, in part because of my own upbringing. After my parents’ divorce, my mom struggled with alcoholism and my brothers and I often felt neglected and unloved. I was determined not to let that happen to my kids, but truth be told, despite my desire to be an amazing mom, there came a time when things started spiraling out of control. I’d been in denial about my growing drinking problem, and things worsened when I began taking pain pills after an injury. Somehow, I convinced myself the effect I got from combining substances made me a happier, more playful, and more focused mom.

As time went on, the happiness faded and I found myself in a dark place. I tried to stop, but I experienced severe and frightening withdrawal symptoms. It finally got to the point where I realized I couldn’t live this way anymore. I knew I needed some help.

I considered rehab, but leaving my boys for 30 days seemed out of the question. I worried they would feel abandoned like I did as a child. I couldn’t bear the thought of them thinking their mother was too sick to care for them. But deep in my heart I knew I had to do whatever it took to straighten out my life. I finally found the courage to go to rehab and I’ve never looked back.

For any parent struggling with this same decision, I want to share five lessons I learned on my journey to recovery.

Your kids know more than you think.

My children were 9 and 11 years old when I went to rehab. I thought they knew very little about what was going on, but it turns out they knew something was terribly wrong and my behavior scared them. Like so many others in recovery, I later learned that despite heroic attempts to cover up and minimize my behavior, my drinking and drug problem was far more obvious to others than I knew. Even if your kids are too young to fully understand your drinking problem, they still pick up on small nuances and sense something is wrong.

Ten years later, my oldest son remembers how both my addiction and subsequent recovery impacted him. Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote from his experience: "Growing up as a kid in an alcoholic home was incredibly difficult. The only thing that made it easier was to have a mom who had the strength and self-awareness to realize that she had to take care of herself before helping anyone else. After my mom got sober, my brother and I finally felt like we had an advocate and a leader in the house."

If you don’t get help, things will only get worse.

I’ve learned that once it starts, it will never get better. What began as an occasional night of hazy memories, led very gradually to drinking wine every night and with lunch every day, and continued throughout the night. What followed was more blackout incidents, fighting with my husband in front of our kids, and ultimately a DUI and incomprehensible demoralization. It happened so fast that I hardly recognized myself anymore. Now that I work in addiction treatment, I see it time and time again with others who thought they had it “all under control.”

A sober parent is necessary for the well-being of a child.

When you are addicted, you will make poor decisions. You will almost inevitably get behind the wheel of a vehicle, miss or come late to important events like soccer games and school performances, and you’ll say and do things you don’t remember. You are rolling the dice with your life every day and putting your kids in emotional or even physical peril. This doesn’t make you a bad parent, but this means you’re no longer in control. By the time the alcohol and/or drugs take over your decision-making, it’s an emergency situation and you must get help.

The long-term benefits outweigh the short-term sacrifice.

Once I realized alcohol had taken over my life, there was only one choice left: go to treatment and get help so I could stop drinking permanently. At the time, it was difficult. Leaving the kids, worrying what people would think, and the fear of missing important events all worked to threaten my resolve. I’m thankful I found the courage to think long-term.

My substance use would have gone one of two ways. It might have continued, therefore deepening over time with worse consequences including jail, injury, or even death. The only other path was treatment and recovery. Looking back, there is absolutely no doubt that the short-term sacrifice was a small price to pay for the necessary and eventually beautiful transformation awaiting me later.

My kids realize the inner strength it took to turn my life around, and now we’re closer than ever. We have a rock-solid foundation of admiration, trust, respect, and affection for one another. They watched me turn my life around and understand the value of integrity, and moving past the fear of the opinions of others to do what’s best for you.

Recovery can be passed down.

By investing in my own sobriety, I was able to realize when one of my sons started showing signs of addiction. Addiction can run in families, but so can recovery. I doubt I would have had the courage to pull my older son out of tenth grade and send him to treatment if not for my own experience. It turns out I may have saved his life; he later admitted he was hiding a much deeper drug problem. It’s been heartbreaking to see other families lose their kids to drugs, and I'm glad I guided my son into sobriety. Now eight years sober, he is graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in June 2020, and studying the MCAT so he can go to medical school and help others. According to him, I saved both of us.

My 30 days in rehab ultimately turned into 90 days away from my boys. I stayed longer because I wanted to be strong enough to go back home. Rehab ultimately changed the course of my life and was the best decision I ever made for my children. Once I got into treatment, I came to terms that I had an addiction and it exposed everything I was trying to hide. It was the most liberating and freeing feeling I’ve ever experienced. Yes, I missed my boys during this time, but I soon realized that getting better meant I could be the absolute best mom for them. They deserved that.

Laura Giffin is a mother of two and an alumni services manager in California's Laguna Treatment Hospital. More than 10 years in recovery, she regularly speaks to community leaders and parents throughout Orange County. She is passionate about ending the stigma surrounding addiction and helping more people get into treatment.

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