Ask Andrea: I Want Happiness and Meaning

Hi there, I’m Andrea Arlington, and welcome to Ask Andrea where I answer questions and offer solutions to questions about relationships, family healing, and more. I hope you enjoy this episode.

“Dear Andrea, I’m an adult child of alcoholic and narcissistic parents. I also have a 32-year-old son who is married with three children ages 12, seven, and six. I try to be a positive presence in their life and love them all so much. Over the last seven or eight years, my son has become addicted to drugs. He was prescribed meds, which led to street drugs. He goes through a cycle of complete mania for two weeks and then is more himself. The entire family is affected by this cycling behavior. I’m 54 years old with the lesser half of my life left. I want to live it out with happiness and meaning and this is not that. It’s fearful and anxiety-ridden, and sorrowful. I know there’s no easy answer but I’m desperate to feel good again, but how?”

Hi, desperate to feel good again.

All of the trauma that you suffered and endured with parents who struggled with substance use disorder as well as mental health issues, and now dealing with it from your own child and seeing your grandchildren being impacted the way you were impacted as a little person – that’s really tough.

Feeling good again is something that I promise you is possible even while your son is using. So, if you can find someplace inside of you that can appreciate your son holding up a light for you to take a look at the unmet needs you had as a child and how they might still be impacting you today, how you might still be feeling pain from your own childhood, that if you decided to, you could work on and heal. I’d also like for you to consider that everything that we want for our loved one who struggles with mental health and substance use disorder issues, meaning a sense of inner well-being, a sense of self-worth, of being deserving, that it’s okay not to be perfect. All of them, the messages that would support our loved one in maintaining, or creating, or moving toward mental health and well-being and giving up their substance use, those are things that we also will have to do ourselves if we want to, like you have indicated you do, have a sense of mental health and well-being, that actually is the breeding ground for more positive emotions.

And I always tell the families that I work with that what we expect our loved one to do to recover their own well-being is likely what we need to be doing ourselves. So, let’s get started with some things that have worked for me that I believe will help you as well. So, I’m going to give you some tools and some strategies to start developing new brain circuits that are related to positive belief systems, positive thoughts, and therefore positive feelings which create those positive endorphins. And at the end, I’m going to give you some books as references as well that I’ve read that have made a huge difference in my life. So, let’s begin.

Choose Your focus

The first thing that will help you a lot is to take the focus off of what’s going on in the areas of your child’s life and in your grandchildren’s life, which I imagine is not going to be easy to do because you, again, have brain patterns, circuits that have been reinforced for years now about worrying, and being in fear, and feeling traumatized by the things that have been going on.

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And so, it’s important for us to quiet those down and that requires focusing on a new area of our lives. And in this case, what you’re going to do is every night before you go to bed, Sunday through Thursday night, you’re going to write down three things that you’re going to commit to doing the next day, so Monday through Friday you’ll be doing these things, that are going to help you move your life forward in a direction that you know intuitively you want to move toward. And that might include reading a couple of paragraphs from the books that I’m going to recommend. It might include getting exercise, it might include taking an online program to help move your career forward.

Whatever it is that you feel compelled inside of your heart to do to make your life feel better for yourself and focus on YOU is what we’re looking for. The other thing you’re going to write down, one thing that you’re going to do the next day to nourish your heart. And by that, it could be baking cookies, it could be going to the gym for a swim, it could be sitting in a jacuzzi. I don’t know what that will be for you. For me, it’s lighting candles, taking bubble baths, listening to my favorite music, maybe even doing a meditation. Every day, you’re going to, at night, write down those four things essentially. And the next day, you’re going to wake up, you’re going to look at your list and you’re going to schedule them in for your day.

That’s going to create a sense of balance and well-being in your life and it’s going to take the focus off of what’s going on in other people’s lives. On Friday and Saturday night, you’re going to write down the opposite. You’re going to write down three things that you’re going to do on Saturday and Sunday that are nurturing, nourishing just to make you feel good, and then you’re going to write down one thing that’s going to move your life forward. So, it might be, again, just reading a couple of paragraphs out of a book.

And all of this depends on what your schedule is like on a regular basis, so you’re going to have to determine exactly what those time commitments are going to look like for you. But you’re going to do the opposite, so you’re creating a sense of balance and self-care that’s going to really start to make a difference in the brain circuits that are going to be active in your life. Okay, so that was the first strategy that I recommend.

Square Breathing

The second strategy that I’m going to recommend to you is what’s called square breathing. And it is taught to our Navy SEALs in order to help them reduce anxiety and deal with the stress and trauma that they’re experiencing out in the battlefield.

And it goes like this. You breathe into a count of four, you hold for a count of four, you exhale for a count of four, and you hold empty for a count of four. Now, this calms down the nervous system and it helps you regulate the way you’re feeling. And I recommend for somebody who’s dealing with constant stress, at least in the beginning, that you set an alarm on your phone to go off four times a day, maybe even once an hour depending on exactly what you feel would be right for you. And when that alarm goes off, you’re going to do that square breathing multiple times during the day.

I recommend starting in the morning before you get out of bed. Because, again, you want to create an inner landscape that feels calm and relaxed, so that when things are difficult and challenging for you, which they often are when you’re dealing with family members who are struggling with substance use disorder, you’ll have a cool, calm internal landscape which allows you to be more objective and to have more of a eagle-eye view – a 30,000-foot above perspective on everything that’s happening that is not in your control. You can’t control it, you can’t fix it, but you can contribute to your own mental health and well-being. And when you show up, you will not be contributing to more trauma or drama in conversation and in your energy.

So, that was the second thing that you’re going to take into your tool bag if you will.

Gratitude Practice

The last thing that I’m going to recommend to you is a gratitude practice. Gratitude practices do a lot of good things for our body and for our mental health. Science has shown that it improves your immune system and it allows you to have a better perspective, to be more objective to what’s going on in your life. The kind of gratitude practice that I recommend is to do the following. Again, at night, before you go to bed, you’re going to write down just three things that you’re grateful for and try to make them different every day.

After you write the first thing down, let’s say it’s, “I’m grateful for the sunshine,” you’re going to write down three reasons underneath that why you’re grateful for the sunshine. And that might be because it grew the vegetables that you had in your salad for dinner or that it is warming to the inside of your body when you’re out and it feels nourishing. It might be that it provides light so that you can see the beauty in nature. I don’t know what your gratitude list will be, but when you write down three things underneath each one of them, it takes that experience to a deeper level. You get more of those positive endorphins released into your bloodstream and you start to feel better. All of these activities need to be practiced every single day or to the best of your ability practice every single day.

Because again, what we’re trying to do is create an eternal experience of well-being which allows us to feel happier in our lives. We’re trying to create new circuits in the brain, new neural pathways that lead to positive feelings inside, and those positive feelings and thoughts create those beautiful chemicals that get released into our bodies.

Book Recommendations

There are three books that I would like to recommend to you. The first one is called It Didn’t Start With You.

Based on the fact that your family of origin and now your child and grandchildren have all been dealing with mental health and substance use disorder, I would like to bring to your attention and perhaps you’ve already heard of this, something called generational trauma.

It’s a real thing and it can go on for many generations in a family system, that cause people to have all sorts of unhealthy feelings and beliefs, things that lead to a sense of being flawed, and unlovable, and lead people to want to self-medicate or live from the trauma response of fight-flight-freeze or people pleasing. And if you want to do a little bit of research about how this might be part of what your family is struggling with and also learn how to end this cycle, I highly recommend this book. It’s by Mark Wolynn. Again, it’s called It Didn’t Start With You.

The next book I want to recommend is called Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself. It’s one of my favorite books, it’s by Dr. Joe Dispenza. He really goes into depth how you can create new neural pathways in your brain and have a whole different biochemical internal landscape of feel-good biochemicals and to quiet down and shut down the thoughts and beliefs that lead to the stress hormones being more active in your life and in your body, and get the results that you want in your life.

The third book I’d like to recommend is called Beyond Addiction, and it’s about how science and kindness can greatly impact the people we love who are struggling with substance use disorder. There’s all sorts of tools, and strategies, and background, and research on how using a compassionate approach to loving your loved one into recovery is possible. And it’s based on the CRAFT model of family recovery, which is a science-based model of recovery that is very compassionate, it stands for community reinforcement and family training. It’s worked wonders for my clients, it worked wonders for me, and I want to recommend that you give it a try. The book is really transformational.

Lastly, I would like to say that you feeling good is going to be the greatest gift you can give to your son and your grandchildren. When your son sees you feeling bad, it reinforces his sense of shame and guilt. And when people feel shame and guilt, they tend to want to numb even more. So, let’s do, your whole family and yourself, the favor of finding a way to develop an inner landscape of well-being, and calm, and even happiness. And that’s what’s going to be the greatest gift you can give to yourself, your son and your grandchildren. Thank you.

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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