Drug addiction coach and speaker Katie Donovan helps families with substance abuse lessons learned first hand: How to love but not enable, how to celebrate each success, and how to leave the past in the past
By Lauren McCaffreyDecember 17, 2020
Before the words drug addiction became a part of her daughter’s life, Brittany Donovan was an honor roll student, involved in activities including band, softball, and dance, her mom Katie Donovan remembers. Both her parents had successful careers and were the warm, welcoming household on the block in their Michigan neighborhood. It was the home where all the kids hung out.
“Growing up, we talked to our kids about the dangers of drugs, the dangers of alcohol, and drinking and driving,” Donovan says. “I think it was more of a general sense, just don’t do that kind of thing.”
Brittany’s substance use disorder developed when she was a senior in high school, Donovan explains, when there was minimal education on any type of prescription narcotics. Senior year, Brittany began dating a hockey player who had been prescribed Vicodin for a sports injury. Vicodin became their hobby drug during the weekend.
“Unfortunately, her body really loved it,” Donovan says. “And within a year, she was living in a trap house in Detroit and it just progressed from there. Throughout the past 12 years, it has been an absolute nightmare roller coaster, one that I would not wish upon my worst enemy.”
Initially, Donovan says, she thought it was a phase: Brittany had gotten involved with the wrong crowd. For many years, Donovan tried to control the situation. She says she tried to control the outcomes, the behaviors—and her daughter. What was actually happening, Donovan now realizes, was that she was losing everything else in her life by doing so.
“Everything was controlled by my fear,” Donovan said. “My fear that if she didn’t wake up for her job, she was going to lose her job. And she was going to relapse and then she’s going to die. There’s no in between.”—Katie Donovan, family addiction and recovery speaker, coach and founder, A Mother’s Recovery Journey
“I Became Addicted to My Daughter”
“I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat,” Donovan says. “I didn’t focus on the rest of my family. I was completely obsessed with saving my daughter. I was going into drug houses and pulling her out. I was believing everything that she would say: ‘Mom, I ran out of gas, and I need 20 bucks,’ and I would give her 20 bucks because I didn’t want her to be stranded.”
When your child is struggling, the normal reaction is to want to help, Donovan says. As a parent, your goal is to protect your kids from anything that can be bad, but when it comes to addiction, she learned she had to take a different approach.
At the beginning of this journey, she did everything for her daughter, including job applications. But still Donovan felt like a failure as a mother, friend and wife. Her daughter’s addiction was ruining her own life—she says she became addicted to her daughter.
“Everything was controlled by my fear,” Donovan says. “My fear that if she didn’t wake up for her job, she was going to lose her job. And she was going to relapse and then she’s going to die. There’s no in between.”
After a few years, Donovan sought help; she couldn’t handle it alone anymore. Donovan was told to give tough love and let her daughter hit rock-bottom.
“There’s Got to Be a Better Way”
“It was horrible for both of us,” Donovan says. “And I just thought, There’s got to be a better way, because this doesn’t feel natural. She’s my daughter and she’s sick. Why am I punishing her by withholding love? And so I started to write and really get educated, and that’s when I left my career and got trained in these different areas.”
She explains that she was grieving the vision of what she thought life would be like, but what she wasn’t practicing was acceptance. Once she began accepting her daughter for who she was, whether she was in active addiction or not, her healing process began.
Donovan is now a national speaker and author on addiction and recovery. She is also a professionally trained and certified family recovery and life coach. She and Brittany cofounded a blog, A Mother’s Journey with Her Daughter’s Addiction, where they’ve shared their journey. Their Mother’s Addiction Journey Facebook page has 13,000 followers. The need is great. “My website has had 3.4 million visitors in 146 countries, I have received messages from literally thousands of moms and professionally coached hundreds of families,” says Donovan.
When I do my coaching, I’ll ask families, ‘How do you define success?’ They say they just want their kids to be successful. What is that? What does that look like? Because sometimes success is just them getting out of bed that day and brushing their teeth. That’s success. Taking our own visions out of this and just accepting them.”—Katie Donovan
Now, their family is focusing on the positives, celebrating each success and leaving the past in the past. Brittany relapsed a few years ago, worked her way back to recovery and has been opiate free for almost a year.
It’s a family disease that everyone must recover from together, Donovan says.
“When I do my coaching, I’ll ask families, ‘How do you define success?’ They say they just want their kids to be successful. What is that? What does that look like? Because sometimes success is just them getting out of bed that day and brushing their teeth. That’s success. Taking our own visions out of this and just accepting them.”
If your family is facing addiction and drug use challenges and you or your child is seeking help, a useful place to start is our Find Treatment resource center. For inspiration and more resources specific to teens and 20-somethings, Young People in Recovery is another helpful resource.