Holidays can be tough for children when parents battle addiction — but there’s hope

An estimated eight million children live with at least one adult with a substance use disorder. I was one of them.

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The author, Josephine Hassler, with her father.

The author, Josephine Hassler, with her father.

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As a child, my holidays were surrounded by chaos and mayhem.

I remember my parents arguing as I hid near the Christmas tree. Quarreling is common in families, but, for me, it was a daily occurrence because my parents struggled with addiction. 

My story isn’t unique. An estimated eight million children live with at least one adult with a substance use disorder — that’s more than one in 10 children. 

When you’re young, it’s hard to understand how people who are supposed to take care of you spend more time and energy feeding their addictions. I didn’t know why drugs and alcohol had so much control over them. 

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In the final weeks of her life, my mom gave up — and was bringing me down with her. She asked me to lie for her. She confided in me like an adult. But I didn’t want to be an adult — I wanted my mom. 

Meanwhile, my dad struggled with something dark. He drank and used heroin, but even so, he was more stable than my mom, whose addiction was compounded by mental illness. When I spent time with my dad, he made me meals. I had a bedtime. I was treated like a kid. 

I only heard from my dad a few times a year, mostly when he was in rehab. I supported his sobriety efforts. But I feared he might never get better, especially after witnessing the final hours of my mom’s life.

One morning when I left for school, she was passed out, face-down in a bowl of soup. My step-father was asleep on the couch, oblivious. I woke him up and he laid my mom down in bed as she moaned in pain. When I got home, she was dead from an overdose. 

Soon after, I moved in with relatives. I threw myself into school. I had a straight-and-narrow group of friends who didn’t use substances. Even then, I knew I wanted to do better than my parents did. 

But some things I couldn’t escape. I was never taught how to regulate my erratic emotions and feelings. I self-harmed when I was 13. At 16, I attempted suicide and was hospitalized for four weeks. 

Around this time, my dad entered another addiction treatment program. He’s been sober ever since.

Just like my dad, therapy saved my life, helping me process all this childhood trauma and pain. 

Now, seven years later, at age 22, my relationship with my dad is as I always hoped it would be. We both live in Chicago and see each other often. Although he wasn’t there for me at times when I needed a parent, he is sober and supportive now. 

My dad works as a recovery coach at Gateway Foundation, an addiction treatment center, using his own experience to help people get and stay sober. I’m so proud of him.

But my mom’s death still haunts me. I don’t know if I will ever make peace with her passing, but I do accept the reality of the pain, and I’m working to mend that.

For children with families battling addiction, they should know their lives can be different from their parents. It takes work, but it’s possible. I hope they don’t blame themselves for their parents’ struggles. There are so many people who can relate and offer support. I know. I am one of them. 

As I start 2023, I’m optimistic. I can’t change the past, but I can continue steering my life in a positive direction. 

That’s the greatest gift I can give myself. 

Josephine Hassler is a graduate of Palatine High School and currently lives in Chicago. She channels her love of animals working for a pet care company.

Looking for help with addiction? Call Gateway Foundation’s 24-hour hotline at 855-925-GATE (4283). Gateway Foundation is Illinois’ largest statewide provider of addiction treatment services for clients diagnosed with co-occurring mental health disorders.

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