How To Respond To A Family Member Steeped In Addiction

A personal tale of two choices, and when the hardest decision is the honorable one.

On a recent blistering hot Saturday, I drove two hours to visit my biological Dad at a homeless shelter north of Brampton, Ontario, Canada. The dingy grey shelter is situated in an industrial park amidst trucking depots near the airport, far removed from residential areas and out of sight from the rest of humanity. My dad, Doug, sort of knew I was coming for a visit.

Doug is a self-professed drug addict (his words, not mine). And his poison of choice is crack cocaine. Several years ago, he owned and operated a tooling company and befriended someone who gave him the rock to sample. In a rapid turn of events, his life spiraled downward fast.

My biological dad and I met for the first time when I turned 40 after I requested a search through a Private Investigator. He, and my biological mom, placed me up for adoption as a newborn baby. Fast forward to today, I count my blessings that I didn’t endure the hardship and uncertainty of what it must have been like to grow up under Doug’s influence.

Despite the addiction, I find Doug utterly fascinating; how he continues to live is beyond me. Physically, he looks like he’s been warped through a blender; the man has one leg, a dangling colostomy bag, and one eye. Yet he manages to wobble around on a cane and remain mobile — with a cheeky smile!

Although we don’t get a chance to talk often, given his penchant for dialing relatives at 3 or 4 AM, I see glimpses into his true self and where some of my unique personality traits originate. Doug is a visionary, a big-picture thinker. When he dreams, he shoots for the stars, the moon, and beyond. Although my bio-dad (as I affectionately call him) is a storyteller on auto-repeat, he shares his desire to create the “Billy Fund,” a billion-dollar charity designed to eradicate poverty and pay for educational expenses for Canadian children. A noble aspiration. Doug wants to accomplish his goal by walking across Canada, following in the footsteps of Terry Fox. Whenever dad shares his heart with me, I feel the realness of his intention, despite Doug’s reality being a fantasy.

Doug is a man of the people, and they like him too. He learned the art of the street hustle, evident in the amount of loot the man brings home. Christmas is an especially lucrative time for filling the coffers with coins, bills, and snacks. The real draw is his infectious sense of humor; he’s hilarious and loving while existing on an entirely different planet. What I love about Doug is his unwavering faith in other humans, his family, his adoration of animals, and his belief in God almighty.

No amount of rehab will bring Doug back to his original form. I believe he has suffered too much damage to return to normalcy. And this is why on the stifling hot Saturday, I arrived at the shelter, and Doug was nowhere to be found — despite my brother Chris informing him I was going to visit. Doug didn’t pick up his phone when I called twice, nor did the shelter staff know where he was.

In the heat of the moment, I felt a flush of anger arise from the depths of my stomach. Didn’t he know Saturday is my only day off? That I drove two hours just to see him? Why can’t he be where I need him? Of course, Doug can’t; he exists on an entirely different plane of consciousness.

On the drive home, I had time to process my emotions and come to terms with our loss of missing each other:

  • In my first wave of emotion, I was overcome by selfishness, focusing on “I” rather than “We.” For some time, I allowed my feelings to be, observing the ebb and flow within my body. Over time, I asked myself — what did I expect would happen? That Doug would be standing at the entrance of the homeless shelter with flowers in hand?
  • Doug is a creature of habit, on a mission to panhandle, source funds, and procure his next fix. Deviating from the normal routine is not in Doug’s repertoire; his addiction will always trump familial relationships. And knowing Doug is consumed by his own needs, my rage melted into compassion towards his restless soul.
  • Through the newfound sense of empathy regarding Doug’s absence, I was able to switch my mindset and consider all the magnificent qualities I see in my dad; the beautiful shards of his soul shining through the darkness.

My story resembles the multi-millions of others affected by long-term heavy substance abuse. All we can do is try. I showed up to be with my dad, even if he couldn’t.

And here lies a choice as to how we respond when people don’t appear how we want them to. Either we allow anger, resentment, and abandonment to construct a permanent hornet’s nest in our hearts, or we can choose to “see” and “accept” people for who they are moment to moment, with all their glorious blemishes, flaws, and impurities. I choose love. What about you?


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Lisa Bradburn
Lisa Bradburn
Lisa is a student of Gestalt Psychotherapy in her third year of five. Spanning a twenty-year career, she has worked with Fortune 500 companies and start-ups coaching technology teams to be empowered, accountable, and purpose-driven. Lisa is naturally drawn to themes close to her heart; leadership, socialization, adoption, and conflict resolution. Today she lives at Rice Lake in the beautiful Kawartha area of Southern Ontario, Canada, with her German Jagd-Terrier dog Astor.


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Lisa currently studies Gestalt psychotherapy and is entering her third year of five. She works for Fortune 500 corporations and coaches technology teams to be empowered, accountable, and purpose-driven. Lisa is naturally drawn to themes close to her heart; tech addictions, adoption, socialization, conflict resolution.

Lisa is also a part of the Medika Life family. She is an assistant editor with Medika, offering invaluable assistance with Medika's social media platforms and the editorial process for BeingWell, our Medium publication. Connect with Lisa and follow her below.


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