After stepping into a parental role for her siblings due to her mother's substance use, Jen is working to rebuild trust with her mom.


In 2006, when Jen was a senior in college studying psychology, the thought of her mother having a substance use disorder was the last thing on her mind. She was commuting from her home in Doylestown while her younger brother was just starting college and her younger sister was nearing the end of high school. 

“I got up one day to go to school and my mom was home,” said Jen, a graphic designer from Doylestown. “She was arrested, and I guess everything kind of unraveled from there.”

Her mother was arrested at a drugstore after a pattern of writing prescriptions for herself.

“They were there waiting for her when she went to fill it,” Jen said.

Since her mother was a nurse and her father was a doctor, not only were prescription drugs more easily accessible for her mother, but nobody ever suspected her to have a substance use disorder in the first place.

“It unraveled that she had been stealing from neighbors and family members,” Jen said. “And my father’s a doctor … so she got his prescription pads, and that’s how she was able to sneak in and do it.”

In retrospect, Jen noticed strange behaviors from her mom, like her falling asleep at the table or while making dinner, but she had never thought to associate them with substance use.

“You don’t want to believe it at the time. At the time, that’s the furthest thing from your mind,” she said. “You don’t think your parent has this disorder; you don’t think your parents struggle with anything.”

In the week following her mother’s arrest, Jen’s mother was admitted to Caron Treatment Centers for two months of rehabilitation. Part of the process involved couple’s and family counseling sessions, through which Jen’s family sought to understand the substance use disorder and what caused it.

“Part of her treatment and recovery was to go to counseling with my dad,” Jen said. “And in that, it came out that my dad is gay.”

This revelation was her mom’s excuse for her substance use, explaining that it was a coping mechanism for her. Soon after, Jen’s parents divorced, adding another major change to Jen’s family dynamic. With her mom in rehab and her dad working full-time, Jen found her focus shifting from student to parent.

“My first instinct was my sister because she was so young,” Jen said. “I have to step up and become kind of protective of her.”

While the siblings were attending counseling sessions with their parents to address their emotional needs, Jen stepped further into the parenting role to address physical needs as well. In the morning, she would make sure her sister had breakfast and got off to school. During the day, Jen was back in her role as a student and at night she would drive her sister to soccer practice and making sure dinner was on the table.

“It pushed me into adulthood [and] forced me into the parent role,” she said. “Even now… I still feel that protective bubble, like having to be there, making sure she’s going to be able to cope with it, and get[ting] her through college.”

"At the time, that’s the furthest thing from your mind. You don’t think your parent has this disorder; you don’t think your parents struggle with anything."

— Jen, Adult child of parent with substance use disorder

As a senior in college, Jen did the most to balance this new parental role with her education but found her career aspirations taking a backseat.

“I had a boss who used to say, ‘Everyone walks around with a toothache, and the most important thing to them is their tooth,’” Jen said. “And I feel like when you’re younger, you want your parents to take care of that toothache, whatever it is. So, when your parent had their own struggles, and they can’t help you focus on your toothache, you’re stuck.”

In Jen’s case, her toothache was being a senior in college, trying to graduate with a decent GPA, and figuring out her future plans regardless of her circumstance. Luckily for her, she was at an age where she could see past her toothache.

“And then it was like, ‘You know what? Your job doesn’t matter,’” she said. “What matters is your family. What matters is that they get through this.”

That mindset is what allowed Jen to not let her circumstance defeat her. Instead, she decided to not dwell on the negative and she focused on how she could best help her family move forward.  

“Once it all came out, it was just matter of fact,” she said. “You understand that she couldn’t help it.”

While Jen’s education, which gave her an understanding of substance use disorders and the brain, aided her coping process, one thing did have a major impact on her: trust.

“You think you can trust your parents, and then you’re shoved into this space where … you don’t have the protection of naivety,” she explained.

That broken trust led Jen to question her mom’s substance use and recovery, despite wanting to trust that her mother was taking care of it. When her mom had surgery and needed to be on pain medication, Jen found herself looking for red flags, despite her mom promising she was working with a doctor to wean herself off of them.

“You just can’t help in the back of your mind saying like, ‘Are you sure?’” she said. “But you have to trust that … they’re doing it and look for cues.”

In her own home, she is cautious about what prescriptions she keeps around and sometimes she worries about whether or not she can trust her mom to watch her four-year-old son. She attributes her caution and lack of trust to her mother using drugs in 2015 after nine years of recovery.

“When she relapsed in 2015, the first people I called were her siblings, because I felt like I needed support to help me figure out how to deal with it,” she said. “And I felt like the more people who knew, the bigger support she would have to recover again.”

“You have to understand that it’s a process. And as selfish as you want to be…you have to realize that they’re struggling with something, too.”

— Jen, Adult child of parent with substance use disorder

With Jen’s brother living out of state, her sister starting her own family, and her dad being in a new relationship, Jen felt lucky to have her mom’s big family to turn to for support.

After calling her mother’s doctor and discovering that they had missed the detection of a substance on a drug test, Jen was “thrown right back into” how she felt in 2006. Though she was focused on helping her mom and moving forward, she admits that it still impacted her.

“You feel betrayed you definitely feel betrayed,” she said. “Because you’re like, ‘Damn, I trusted you again. You just got this all back and here you go again. And it was right around the time of my son’s first birthday, so again, another huge milestone, and this is happening.”

Despite her frustration, Jen was able to quickly refocus.

“It’s like, ‘How could you do this to me?’ but then, ‘No, it’s not about you. It’s about her and what she needs,’” she said.  

Jen is still unsure of what caused her mom to use again, and how long she had been using. Wondering how she could have missed it a second time, she has become “hyper-vigilant” about looking for signs and being there to help her mom.

As for now, Jen believes that her mom is not using, but she stresses that she really can’t know for sure.

“It’s really hard, because the thing that’s gonna help the most is time, and knowing that it’s not going to be overnight,” Jen said. “You have to understand that it’s a process. And as selfish as you want to be…you have to realize that they’re struggling with something, too.”

Thirteen years later, Jen has a message to her younger self:

“The sun does come out. The sun will come up; it comes up every day,” she said. “There might be clouds, but the sun is still there…it’s just behind all this crappy weather.”

*Names marked with an asterisk are those of people who requested we use their first name only due to the sensitivity of the subject matter.