For many of us, co-dependency developed quite naturally and innocently. We were the moms who took care of others when they couldn’t care for themselves. We unselfishly did the work that others didn’t want do, picked up the pieces that others dropped. We are the fixers, the rocks, and when we are sometimes blamed for having generous souls, as if that caused our kid’s addiction– it really hurts. It makes me feel extremely misunderstood. Since when is it a liability to be helpful and supportive?
But I know now about that fine line between support and unhealthy enabling. As I’ve learned, the assistance that I freely heaped upon my son, often unbidden, started to cripple him. I crossed that fine line when I started to do for him the things he could do for himself. Or maybe he couldn’t do them, or couldn’t do them well enough, but I got in the way and pre-empted his growth.
I’ve come to the conclusion that we moms of kids who struggle with drugs often faced other issues that we tried to smooth over for them. Our kids had learning disabilities and floundered in the classroom, and we were their advocates. They had serious medical vulnerabilities, and we ran interference to make sure they were safe and had the medical accommodations they needed. Often, they suffered from depression, and we were there to blunt some of the blows that could pull them further down. These acts of kindness can often spiral into an unhealthy co-dependence, and that’s where healthy support turns into unhealthy enabling. Like the caterpillar that needs to wrestle its way out of the cocoon in order to survive, our kids need to develop their own muscles if they are to thrive. We can’t build those muscles for them.
When my son entered a 12-Step rehabilitation program after 19 months of using, I was naively thinking 30 days and he’d be back to normal. There was just no way he would use again, it was such a waste of his young years, and surely he saw this. Well, not only did he relapse WHILE in rehab, he subsequently relapsed many times over. I heard others say that with recovery comes relapse. This helped me accept unfavorable outcomes and not be so disappointed, angry or resentful. Later someone shared that relapse expectations can be dangerous and that perhaps I should not expect it or justify it. Think about the addict who may rationalize as do I: “Craig has relapsed a bunch of times before he made it, so what if I have a drink or two.”
What is minimized is that the last time Sabrina relapsed, she went into a coma and never came back; the last time James relapsed, his drug induced high for 3 days left a trail of armed robbery and arrest. The last time Joe relapsed, he hit a pedestrian while driving under the influence, and Sally? She nearly died from insulin shock, no longer in touch with her blood sugar monitoring.
Having this brought to my attention changed my behavior and attitude towards expecting relapse. Addiction is a deadly serious disease and any attempts to smooth things over, allow or assist the addict to justify relapse while in my sphere of influence cannot be tolerated. I will not expect it, but I can learn to accept it. And with love and prayer, a program of recovery from co-dependency, I have faith that a Power, greater than me, will guide us all toward a program of recovery.
One of the characteristic of addictive behavior is a lack in patience to wait for want you want. This is also characteristic of many people, but it is particularly prevalent when someone has the disease of addiction. It makes sense that when someone is struggling with drug addiction and they are coming down from the drugs that they have an ‘instant’ urgency to fill the void with the next fix. What can happen is that this also transcends to all aspects of the addicts interaction. Even as recovery from the addiction comes into play, the desire to instantly satisfy a craving or desire is a challenge.
As a person who struggles with co-dependency, I know that I play a part in this behavior. Early in my daughters addiction I didn’t understand that many times the urgency of something was not realistic or warranted. I would be convinced that the upgraded cell phone was absolutely essential to getting a job or the gas money was not enough because, because, because,…the list goes on. And while now it seems so obvious to me, at the beginning of the journey I wanted to believe my loved one. As recovery grows and sets in, I see these behaviors dissipate. Partly due to the upgraded conversation we have when a need is expressed. I know to not take on the issues or problems that are not mine and to let her know that she’s capable to fix them and I’m willing to give advice. It might sound like sound parenting to a young adult transitioning into a responsible member of society, and it is, but it can be a challenge to break old patterns and create new healthy boundaries moving forward.
There was a time I’d spend my waking moments hoping for a positive change in my sons. I would hope that the rehab people would do the trick and in 30 days. I’d hope that magic bullet would find the target and I’d hope that my sons would beat all odds to a full recovery and cure. Once I discovered the hope heard in the rooms of AA, I then changed my tactics. My focus was still on my sons, but this time I had answers! I wanted to make sure they were appropriately informed about AA, were going to AA meetings, essentially, were as excited and interested as I was about AA! I would cleverly leave pamphlets out or suggest a tape I had heard… I’d hope someday they would embrace the gift of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous and become a spokesperson, speaker, and well respected sponsor. I just knew they’d get their life back on track with employment, relationships and financial stability, if only.
I constantly had these hopeful dreams for them. Without hope, how could I have gone on? I don’t know why I continued to move towards a spiritual journey of recovery in Al-Anon for myself, but I did know what, when and where to get it. Perhaps it was because nothing I seemed to be doing was helping them. My focus was misdirected but I did not know that at the time. If nothing changes, nothing changes! I slowly realized if I keep the focus on me, my desire to achieve serenity is more likely to be obtained. I kept coming back hoping to hear more stories of hope! And it was not the stories of how their kids were doing well, though helpful and encouraging, it was how well THEY WERE DOING! Serenity was alluring and I was told, “obtainable.” For some reason, I believed them.
I have a friend who has a saying, “I have the right to remain silent, I just don’t have the ability.” While this always gets a chuckle, it also definitely hits home. As a co-dependent I have a tendency to get into other people’s business. But I know I don’t need to step in and solve problems for those around me. This isn’t easy for me, I want to help and relieve the discomfort of those I care about. The problem is that I create unhealthy dynamics when I do this. I teach the person who is responsible for solving the problem that they are not capable. And I put undue burden on myself.
With a loved one in addiction, the problems are never ending. My tendency is to jump in like a paratrooper ready to descend into actionI It feels good to help work through the issues and remedy the situations that arise. But what I have found is that the problems just kept coming and by taking them on, I am teaching the wrong behaviors to my loved one. There is no incentive to safeguard against these problems from coming again and again since they know I would step into action each and every time, they don’t work to avoid them. When I step back and remain silent when the next crisis occurs, my loved one has to step up and figure out how to solve them. But more importantly they begin to figure out how to avoid them in the first place. Sometimes no action when it is not my issue is the best action of all.
There’s a saying that has been very helpful along my journey through my daughters struggle with addiction – ‘Say what you mean, mean what you say but don’t say it mean’. Many times the first part ‘say what you mean’ is the easiest. I can often express what I mean to say, even in the heat of the moment when I’m upset or stressed. The second part ‘mean what you say’ is where the challenge starts for me. I’ll give an example. Early in the journey when my daughter was active in her addiction she had gotten out of rehabilitation and was going into a sober living house. I said what I meant, ‘You need to have a plan if you relapse and use drugs/alcohol again because coming home is not an option’. I truly meant this and I knew it was what was best for her. ‘Mean what you say’ is where you hold your loved one accountable to the consequences of their actions. Those consequences are among the very things that can help someone struggling with addiction to seek recovery.
I remember at one point early in my daughter’s journey while she was living in a sober living house that she called me late one night. She said, “I got kicked out, I messed up, I need to come home, I have nowhere to go…’. Short of getting a call that your loved one has been hurt or worse, this was the call we parents dread when we have said coming home is not an option. This happened quite a few years ago and I have learned so much since then about how the most loving thing you can do is stick to what you said. Late that night I couldn’t bear the thought of where my daughter would go or what might happen to her and I let her come home. Five days later she drove her car while seriously intoxicated and crashed into a tree. By the grace of God, she survived. I had been gently coached by a parent who had been through this when I told him that I let her come home. He said, “Your very actions to rescue your daughter from the consequence of her action may very well kill her one day”. While this seemed harsh at the time – it was 2 days before the accident. His words haunted me, he was so right. I did not hold her accountable due to my fears. I became very resolved from that moment on to ‘Say what I mean, mean what I say and don’t say it mean’ and it has made all the difference in our respective recoveries.
One way I have learned to improve my relationships with my adult children whose issues with substance abuse bothered me is to remember to keep my big mouth shut…tight! My friend says “I have the right to remain silent; I just don’t have the ability to!” Finally, I’m given a reason for my behavior – I’m powerless over the desire to comment! A symptom of co-dependency, it perpetuates my unhappiness with the outcomes. Even though I’m aware of the negative consequences, I forget the tools that help me behave differently. Slowly, I remember those tools before my tongue takes over and my ability to communicate with maturity improves.
I use to override or completely miss the signs that the other person doesn’t want to engage or is put off by something I have said. I tend to do this uncensored with the ones closest to me. For example, I want to offer advice that wasn’t requested from me or offer a better solution to something they share. Their reaction is silence, withdrawn or irritated outburst. Outbursts are unpleasant, but silence seems worse! The sound of silence triggers my need to break it with a question. Questions can be aggressive. Usually, I ask prying questions under the guise of being loving or interested. A question can put people on the defensive and coupled with substance abuse, there is also an open invitation for lying. Questions can also be perceived as prying and nosey. That is not the kind of mother I want to be and if I had continued without change, I would have pushed others further away from me – the exact opposite of what I desire!
Understanding my role in the family disease has helped me appreciate the significance of the slogan W.A.I.T. This is an acronym I picked up in Al-Anon which stands for “why am I talking?” A good reminder to keep my urge to say something in check. Another problem with questions is I’m usually not prepared for the answer! I’ve grabbed onto the saying, “Don’t ask if you don’t want to know!” Learning to listen and accept the situation, without comment, gets easier the more I practice. I have come to realize that silence is not unpleasant but rather a time I can compose myself to breathe, invite my Higher Power in, and be mindful of my own character defects.
To learn more about communicating successfully with your loved ones, explore Parent Pathway’s Meeting in a Box: Communication
Last weekend, I completed a much-overdue task: cleaning out the clutter that had collected in a couple areas of my house. I realized how therapeutic this activity was for me. I initially created more mess as I pulled things off the shelf and went through the pains taking sorting process: Attic? Donation? Keep Handy? Throw away? As I sifted through clothes, books, knick-knacks, just to name a few, I started feeling a sense of unburdening. While I do not like to have a messy house, I have to confess that I do have small, tuck away messy areas. I have a tendency to do a big clean-up project and then slowly it gets cluttered time moves forward in my busy life. As I was going through this process I realized this relates to life in general.
When I am organized and on top of the many responsibilities that I have, I feel peaceful and stress free. And when I am on top of setting boundaries and taking care of myself, then I can better care of those I love. In my co-dependency, I can let things get out of hand quite rapidly. Which in turn creates messes that I need to later clean up.
These messes are usually around letting a bad habit creep in – like jumping in and paying a bill for my child that is their responsibility. I may think, ‘oh, it’s just a small amount and she can really use the help….’ or ‘I’ll help by creating a resume since I’ve done so many…’ Yet, doing these small things can add up to a big message ‘you are not capable, I am’ and ‘why take responsibility when Mom will bail me out.’ I’ve worked hard to undo these types of bad habits and create healthy ones. Just like cleaning out the clutter around my house, I will continue to clean out the clutter of my co-dependency.
When I first heard that alcoholism is a family disease, I balked at that notion. I did not consider how all my thoughts and energy fields were directed on them: to get them to stop, to get them to see the light, to rescue or make excuses for them. I did not see my behavior at all – after all,they were the ones with the problem, not me! I might admit my stress level increased, but I’d justify “you’d be worried too if your kid was struggling!”
After I joined the Al-Anon family groups and started working the steps, I began to see how my actions, my feelings, my health and well-being were directly proportional to the degree of involvement with trying to control the addict. As the disease progressed, my obsessions increased and I started showing physical symptoms from the stress.
I had the opportunity to understand this from another perspective from a sibling of someone struggling with substance abuse. She shared how awful it was to see her mother spend all her waking moments worried about her sister. It seemed all her mother did was focus on the sister; wonder and wish she’d get better, always talk about her, often sad about her, …and if her sister was doing well, her mom’s attitude was better. She was learning to please her mom by being the “good daughter.” She believed that she herself could somehow make mom happy. When that didn’t work, she lost all sense of self-worth. The frustration she felt with her mom often made her angry. She wanted to scream “what about me?!! I’m here and I’m doing all the right things”! Then the notion that she could somehow control her addict sister in attempt to “smooth things over” in the family soon became her new obsession.
Hearing her story put things in perspective. In many ways I related. I was able to look at how my behavior towards the “problem” might have affected other family members and friends who cared about me. Was I so preoccupied that I closed them out? I was seeing proof from others who shared their experience. There is a commonality of the symptoms. With proof I no longer had doubt about this being a family disease.
A robin has woven a mossy nest in the crape myrtle tree not far from my kitchen window. I first noticed her several weeks ago as she shredded a nearby nest left over by last year’s Thrasher clan. Mama Robin was intent on eliminating any possible competitors or predators from her turf.
Today, I realized the eggs had hatched when I spotted both male and female perching around the nest, worms dangling from their beaks. They took turns plunging their beaks into the nest, depositing food into the clamoring mouths.
Later, as I watered plants nearby, I watched Mama Robin watch me. Her eyes were alert, and her beak gaped open in a fierce manner, conveying in birdie-speak her willingness to go to battle for her babies. I bet she would have swooped down on me, had I come any closer.
I felt almost nostalgic as I noted her instinctive protectiveness as a mother. What wouldn’t a mother do to keep her children safe?
The ironic thing about addiction is that in our misguided, fear-driven efforts to keep our children safe, sometimes we actually contribute to their vulnerability. We cover and compensate for their bad choices, and they don’t learn to make good ones. We protect them from the dangers they have created in a way that exposes them to even more danger. We keep them safe in their cushy nest, and they don’t learn how to fly.
Emily Dickenson wrote, “Hope is a thing with feathers,” and I’d like to add my footnote: “Trust is letting those feathered wings take flight.”