The Accidental Addict/The Accidental Enabler

Photo of a woman.Real Simple magazine featured an article, “The Accidental Addict,” about a young woman who inadvertently became addicted to prescription medications.  Aren’t all addicts accidental?  Who would intentionally choose the life of destruction called addiction or alcoholism?  No addicted child that I know said, “Gee, I want to open a Pandora’s box of destruction and quite possibly put my life on the line.”  Instead, I imagine he or she thought, “ I’d like to  fit in/ hang loose/ have fun/ not be the oddball/be popular/feel comfortable in my own skin” or something of that nature.

By the same token, enablers come by their craft quite honestly.  Love First, A Family’s Guide to Intervention highlights the genesis of two distinct types of enablers.  One type is the  “innocent enabler” who can’t even imagine that drugs or alcohol underpin a loved one’s inexplicable behavior.  The other variety is the desperate enabler who cannot bear the thought of the decimation of substance abuse.  My own enabling started innocently and then became desperate as I worked tirelessly to prevent the family boat from capsizing while keeping my child out of harm’s way.  That balancing act made me crazy, made me sick and didn’t solve the problem.  In fact, it made it worse.

The distance I’ve put between me and my child helps me take a clear look and how we got to where we are.  That’s been a very good thing: understanding the accidental origins of addiction and  co-dependency  helps me find forgiveness for myself and for the beloved addicts in my life.


Choices in RelationshipsI find the distinction between enabling versus helping difficult – especially in the heat of addictive behavior. You are witnessing your self-destructive child, no matter how old, and there is nothing more frightening. I wanted to definitely stop enabling because I realized I was helping further addict/alcoholic destruction.  But how?  It got to the point where I was paralyzed – I could not do anything, fearing I was enabling. This, it turns out, was OK because I could begin to identify what I was willing to do in support of RECOVERY.  A baby step measurement, or boundary, of acceptable “helping.” Gradually I came to realize the difference and found key points that help me balance ever-changing situations because I often fall back to old ways.

  • Addicts lie – If their lips are moving, they are lying, so asking them why they are out of money or lost the job or in a crisis will satisfy our own behavior problem: Denial, which encourages enabling.
  • Co-Dependents don’t see the situation clearly and tend to use speech versus behavior as our road map. I can easily justify “giving” as “helping” because I believe what the addict tells me.
  • Is there an ulterior motive behind my wanting to help? Often I catch myself “helping” with an expectation in mind. I have control issues too.
  • Did they ask? I am often quick to jump in and offer something – without even being asked. I know this is usually enable-based behavior because I’m feeling uneasy.
  • Help, if unconditional, feels better than enabling. Sounds simple but it’s not. Helping support recovery doesn’t necessarily mean one gets RECOVERED.
  • I don’t have to answer a request, or do anything right away. BUY TIME!

Lastly, my greatest lesson of all: there are other co-dependents out there. Just because I stop enabling, many will pick up where I left off. That’s OK. I accept that I am powerless in other people’s matters.


Pushing your addicted/alcoholic child out of the nest

bird that brings hope to addicts and alcoholicsA 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. According to the laws of “Survival of the Fittest,” we sustain weakness and vulnerability in our children when we cushion their every fall.

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.”

Mirror, mirror on the wall…I’m the problem, after all

mirror on the wallWhen you look in the mirror, who do you see? If you spot an enabler peering back at you, maybe it’s time to look more closely to see how your behavior makes it possible for your child to keep drinking or drugging.  But first of all, what does an enabler look like, anyway?

Enablers may look physically exhausted because they are running themselves ragged trying to keep their child from failing or getting hurt. Enablers often want to protect their loved ones from the hard truths of life by wrapping them in a protective cocoon that protects them from the consequences of their poor choices. So we pay their bills, shore up their failing grades in school, run interference with the law and otherwise clean up their messes.

This enabler acts out of fear that  his or her child will be hurt.  Of course, we all want to protect our addicted or alcoholic children from themselves.  But we can’t. We can only get in the way of the natural consequences that might motivate them to change.

An enabler may look perfect, with everything in place, at least on the surface. This type of enabler is often trying to escape the stigma and shame associated with parenting a chemically dependent child.  Or they may be trying to deny to themselves that there is a problem by maintaining a veneer of calm and perfection.  “If we look normal, then we are normal!” is part of this façade.

We are human, and it’s only natural to want to fit in, to be respected. The need to be accepted may drive this type of enabling. The need to look in the mirror and be able to say, ” My kid is OK, so I AM a good mother (or father)” may also underpin this type of enabling.  But maintaining the façade only masks the truth that the family is hurting and needs to change course.

Parents don’t set out to injure their children by unintentionally making it easy for them to drink or use drugs.  So a good look in the mirror can help parents understand what motivates their enabling.

That look in the mirror can be both an epiphany and a relief.  I get to stop doing all the heavy lifting in my child’s life!  And then parents can change. They can learn—baby step by baby step– to let their children experience the consequences of their choices. When we change, we give birth to the  possibility that our children can change, as well.

The Parallel Path Recovery from Addiction and Co-Dependency

When I was early in the journey with my daughter and her struggle with addiction, I was unprepared for the turmoil that would be thrown my way. It was crisis management; I dealt with what was before me. Along the journey things begin to change, not just with my daughter but with me. The road to recovery is not one easily followed by a well mapped plan; it is road of trials and tribulations. As my daughter worked through her issues I also worked through mine. I knew that each decision I made would either enable her to continue into her addiction or help her to face her situation. I knew that I was not responsible for her actions, but I can be a partner to them. I had to make sure that I kept my distance while letting her know that I loved her but would not rescue her.

My daughters focus was on her recovery from addiction and I was on a parallel path focusing on my recovery from co-dependency and enabling her. These parallel paths are very common in families where there is addiction. It is so easy when we love someone so dearly to want to jump in and help them. We want to spare them any pain and suffering, yet by sparing them we are actually keeping them from facing the realities of their situation. My co-dependent behavior was not only harmful to my daughter but it caused a tremendous stress for me. I did so many things that were out of fear of losing her when I needed to help her take ownership for her actions. Working on how I could overcome my desire to constantly fix and rescue was the absolute best thing I could do for my daughter.

Picking up the Pieces of addiction – Caring for everyone in the family, not just the loved one struggling with addiction

Sometimes I wonder if setbacks in our lives are there to test our resolve.  When we have loved ones that relapse into their addiction, it is an opportunity for us to evaluate our part in it.  Overtime I have grown and changed.  Going through multiple relapses with your loved one makes you start to feel just a little less devastated than you might have in the beginning of the journey.  I believe part of this is sheer exhaustion from the situation, but another part is the personal growth that comes to us as we travel alongside our loved ones journey.

Many people think that it’s all about the person with the addiction.  And at times entire families become obsessed and focused on the one struggling with the addiction.  But there is so much more to look at when you go through a time like this.  I had to consider my progress…was I still enabling?  Was I letting go of trying to control?  Was I living my life and moving forward or was I stuck?  Was I paying attention to the other important people in my family?  How was I coping and taking care of myself so that I could take care of my family?  These are the questions that I needed to ask myself and be critical with my answers.  I’ve found that it isn’t all about the loved one with addiction – it’s about the whole family. I needed to take stock of how we were all doing and how I could best support everyone in our collective journey.

Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

Photo of a woman.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 kids’ 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, I might add, 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 proverbial 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.

I resurrected and re-posted this blog because I needed this reminder today.  If you want to stop enabling, please think about using the “Boundaries” or “Letting Go” Meetings in a Box to help you detach with love.

The Gift of Addiction

Addiction, a most ingenious teacher, gives you many opportunities to hone your appreciation for the moment.  The moment– the now– is all that any of us truly have, whether your child is an addict or not. I was a willing accomplice to my son’s addiction every time I anticipated the worst, and I’ve squandered so much precious time. I anguished over car accidents that never happened while my son safely kicked back and watched TV; I envisioned disaster when he didn’t answer the phone, only to learn later that he had left it in his car overnight.  In fact, I worried about his health and well-being so much more than he did, which illustrates the folly of addiction and co-dependency:  he was footloose and fancy free, while I labored over how to fix him and his world.  Where in that equation is his incentive to take care of himself??

I also used to worry that I had somehow caused my child’s addiction. At the onset, I knew nothing about the disease of addiction, which afflicts almost 10% of Americans age 12 and up.* It is a physical disease of the brain, not a deficit of character or willpower.  I was relieved to learn that I didn’t cause my child’s addiction, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it.  I know now that I did not make my child an addict, and, by the same token, I cannot make him stay sober. It’s his call, and I have to trust that he will make it wisely.

But I can reign in my own frantic meanderings and focus on the here and now. I work hard to follow the words of the sage who noted, “Yesterday is but a memory, tomorrow is a dream. Today is a gift, and that is why it is called ‘The present.’”

*statistic is from Moments of Clarity by Christopher Kennedy Lawford, a powerful account of addiction’s grasp by the brave people who speak openly of their recovery.