Last weekend I did a much overdue task which was 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 books, hats, papers, just to name a few, I started feeling a sense of unburdening. While I do not like to have a messy house, I do have small messy areas! The area I was working on was in the garage where I have shelves and cabinets for various projects and activities stored. I have a tendency to do a big clean-up project and then slowly it gets cluttered as I zoom around in my busy life not paying attention to the little things that add up to bigger messes later on. When I was done and all was neat and tidy I realized how 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 for 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 when they are responsible. 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!
How many times did my daughter relapse before she committed to living a clean and sober life? I don’t know the answer to that question and I bet if I asked my daughter, she would be hard pressed to know the accurate answer – I’m guessing her answer would be ‘a lot!’ I remember early in the journey when I was very naïve about addiction and thought when she went into a 28 day rehab, ‘finally she will be okay!’ Little did I know that was just the beginning of a long journey of trials and tribulations. Not only for my daughter to overcome her addiction but also for myself to overcome my addiction to my daughter! That’s how my codependency manifested itself, like an addiction to my daughter and her every move. What is she doing? Is she safe? Where is she? Will she call? The questions and worry in my mind played over and over again like the obsession that it had become. I distinctly remember one of her counselors telling me, ‘she’ll start getting better when you stop enabling her.’ Huh? Excuse me…I’m not giving her the drugs!
But when I finally internalized what she was telling me, it became clear that I did not the power to control what my daughter did, I did play a key part in making it easy for her to continue in her addiction. When I started taking away the comforts and started holding her accountable for her actions instead of bailing her out, she started making progress. Not because of me but because she had to make difficult choices. One of the biggest turning points was when I made an agreement with her that I would pay for her sober living rent but nothing else. She had a job so she would have to budget her money for food and other necessities. She didn’t like it at first, but over time her self-esteem soared as she took responsibility for her life. It was so gratifying to watch. Having a job and responsibilities is very healing for those in recovery.
There was a time I used the siblings to debrief my anguish and worry about the other “one” – the child whose absence or drama was taking center stage and getting my full attention. Unaware of how damaging this would be to the remaining family members, I did this for a long time. The realization that my actions might have contributed to a form of suffering on them was a hard nut to swallow. I had to learn it the hard way; it seems to be a recurring theme for me. I first pondered the notion when listening to Alateens share their hurt, abandonment and other issues they kept to themselves while watching mom or dad get progressively worse in their futile attempts to straighten up the “affected” one’s life. I’d hear how some would become overly protective and sometimes take the role of caretaker, worried about the troubled sibling. Some would get resentful about all the attention given to the other. The entanglement of the family disease is cunning, baffling and powerful. To the “normal” sibling, the desire for mom and dad to get happy again would become their focus. So, in a sense, young co-dependents were forming as the family disease reached epidemic proportions. I wondered which role my children fell into.
Becoming aware didn’t actually help me with how to do better…the Al-Anon Family Group and 12 step recovery program was my road map for change. I had to start over with training wheels, in a sense, beginning with me and my contributions to the family disease. It began with accepting I had problems of my own to work on. The hope for me was that I could mend broken relations with all those who mattered in my life.
Today, with guarded mouth and awareness of the family disease, I try to keep the focus and be present with those who stand before me. I no longer ask prying questions about the “other” one whose lifestyle is concerning. I consciously choose to seize those opportunities with gratitude to be allowed the accompaniment of their presence. Most critically, I get to be PRESENT with no conditions and that is my GIFT to them.
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