Redefining parenthood

The ring of the phone or the buzz of an incoming text became a dreadful sound.

Steve and Melissa Kowgitz had become used to the rush of bad news that usually came whenever their daughter contacted them. She was in the throes of a heroin addiction and the Southport couple never knew if she’d be arrested or need money. Mostly, they lived in fear that she’d be found dead.

She had overdosed multiple times. She was homeless, living out of a cardboard box in downtown Indianapolis. Since the middle of 2016, Melissa Kowgitz estimates that her daughter has been out of jail for maybe three months total.

“You can’t believe that this is your life, that this is happening to me,” Melissa Kowgitz said. “When we got married and decided we were going to have kids, we had no idea this was where our life would take us. No one thinks that.”

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As their daughter has been consumed more and more completely by an addiction to heroin, Melissa and Steve Kowgitz have coped as best they can. Only through the support of other families, and their involvement in a group called Parents of Addicted Loved Ones, have they been able to understand the limited abilities they have in helping their daughter.

The couple have started a chapter of the parents group in Greenwood to give hope to other families in the same position. The Kowgitzes estimate that close to 80 percent of the people in their group have children or loved ones addicted to heroin. Opioids dominate the struggles that local families are going through, they said.

They work with them to change their thinking and behaviors to not only benefit their addicted loved one, but to reduce their own stress as well.

Their message to other parents is that even as they agonize over the decisions their children make in the midst of addiction, they can only do so much to help. Ultimately, if falls on their child to change their lives.

“It’s hard. They act like kids, because we treat them like kids. But we treat them like kids because they act like that. There’s this vicious circle that you don’t know how to break,” Melissa Kowgitz said. “You have to be the one to break it, because they’ll never break it on their own.”

Their daughter started using drugs and alcohol as a 16 year old, which led to heroin. Now 28, she is in recovery for her addiction to heroin. In November, she completed an intensive outpatient treatment program.

She has shown remorse for what she’s done in the past, and what seems like a genuine desire to break from her addiction, her parents said.

“She always used to say, ‘I like doing heroin. I like the way it feels,'” Melissa Kowgitz said. “She now says things like, ‘Heroin is the devil,’ or ‘I had a love affair with heroin.’ She’s saying that she wants kids, that it’s time for her to grow up. These are things that she’s starting to see, I think, because she’s acting more like an adult.”

The addiction not only took over their daughter’s life, but Steve and Melissa Kowgitz’s as well. Every conversation seemed to revolve around it. They constantly had to wonder where she was or what she was doing.

“All of our friends, whenever we met with them, it was all about our addiction and what we were going through,” Melissa Kowgitz said. “And we didn’t want it to be that way.”

The Kowgitz family points to one particular arrest that changed the way they approached their daughter’s addiction.

Following one of the arrests in 2016, someone had given the Kowgitz family a book on the Parents of Addicted Loved Ones organization.

The group was founded in 2006 by Michael Speakman, a substance abuse counselor in Arizona, and Joyce Page, whose son struggled with addiction. They formed the organization to give guidance and support to other parents whose lives were consumed by their loved one’s addiction. 

Since starting in Arizona, the group has expanded to include meetings in numerous states, including eight in Indiana.

The Kowgitzes attended a meeting in Avon for about a year, but even from the first one they attended, they realized they wanted to start something similar in their own community.

“We initially just went to that first meeting for resources. We didn’t think that we needed help. She was the one with the problem,” Melissa Kowgitz said. “But that first meeting, we cried. We left there, feeling like we’d been in a college class on how to deal with people. I said to Steve that I wanted to start a group like this.”

Starting in July, they formed a parents’ support group that meets weekly in Greenwood. They approached leaders of Vineyard Community Church, where they are members, to get permission to host the meetings there.

One person showed up to the first meeting in a small classroom at Vineyard. The Kowgitzes didn’t know this other parent, but they shared the common hurt that goes with seeing their child struggle with addiction.

The group has grown to include an average of 16 people each week.

Each meeting has an educational component, where organizers bring in experts focused on health, family counseling and other aspects of addiction to provide strategies and ways to cope with the situation.

“It’s different than a typical support group. We go in and have education, then about 30 minutes for people to share, a chance to let us know what’s going on in their lives,” Melissa Kowgitz said. “We can then give them suggestions on how to handle that.”

The goal of the organization is to prevent enabling loved ones in their addiction. By teaching how to respond to certain behaviors with love but firmness, parents can force their children or spouses to change the way they act.

“The results are, many times, your loved ones start making changes because of how you’re responding,” Melissa Kowgitz said.

One issue that they encounter often with parents is that they see their children as younger than they really are, and thus in need of more coddling and help, Steve Kowgitz said. While their son or daughter may be in their late 20s, they think of them still as an irresponsible teenager, he said.

“The issue with people with addiction issues is delayed emotional growth,” Steve Kowgitz said. “We’re teaching parents to treat their loved ones like adults, with adult responsibilities and adult consequences.”

People who are struggling with addiction are masters at manipulation, Steve Kowgitz said. They develop intricate strategies and networks of lies to help facilitate their drug or alcohol use.

Parents keep paying for rent, cell phones and other bills, believing that by cutting off that funding, their children will end up homeless or in even worse shape, Melissa Kowgitz said.

That support comes from a place of love. But it perpetuates the problem.

“A lot of these parents are stuck. They know things have to change, but they don’t know what they have to do to get something to change. What we teach them is to take baby steps, make some small changes and see what happens from there,” Steve Kowgitz said.

A large aspect of the program is changing the mindset of both parents and their children while dealing with addiction, Melissa Kowgitz said.

The Kowgitzes have stopped pushing her and peppering their daughter with questions. They don’t interrogate her about going to recovery meetings, or if she’s doing drugs.

Requests from their daughter, such as for help with money or transportation, have to be very specific. That was a process that took close to six months for the Kowgitzes, as they emphasized the need for her to change how she spoke to them.

They don’t respond to any of the requests right away; rather, they take time to think about it and consult with each other and friends before giving her an answer.

They worked to respond in neutral ways, such as saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or “That might be good for you, but it’s not good for me.” When their daughter would say she needed money to be placed in her commissary account, they simply said no.

“No” became a complete sentence in dealing with her.

“The parents in us wanted to say, ‘Why don’t you have money?’ or ‘What did you spend it on?’ or ‘How much money do you need?’ But we don’t do any of that anymore,” Steve Kowgitz said.

They meet with many parents who are completely lost, exhausted and without any idea what to do next about their child’s addiction. The despair can be paralyzing, which only exasperates an already bad situation, Steve Kowgitz said.

At weekly meetings, parents have the opportunity to support each other.

“Parents who are really struggling emotionally get help too. They are able to share their experiences, they start to feel like they’re not alone, and they get to have a little bit of hope,” Steve Kowgitz said. “A lot of them are in this desperate situation where they don’t know what to do next.”

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Parents of Addicted Loved Ones

What: A nonprofit Christian organization that assists parents who are dealing with their loved ones who are struggling with addiction. The focus is on educating and supporting the group member rather than the person who is using, although the approach often leads to behavioral changes in the user as the parent learns healthy ways to respond.

Local meeting: 6:30 to 8 p.m. Mondays, Vineyard Community Church, Room 2005, 512 S. Madison Ave., Greenwood

Organizers: Steve and Melissa Kowgitz

Who can come: Anyone dealing with a loved one or someone they care about struggling with addiction. Though the meetings were designed primarily for parents and spouses, all family members and friends of an addicted loved one are welcome.

How to get more information: Contact the Kowgitzes at 317-714-9856 or go to