Does this sound familiar? Your son who abuses drugs and is living (who knows where) calls and says he was kicked out of his place and he doesn’t have anything to eat, money for food, and needs your help. Would you feed him and let him spend a few nights with you?
But then you think of how hungry he is and how you just cannot let people starve on the street. You think how he might be reduced to stealing some food or money because he’s hungry and wouldn’t it be better if you at least met his basic needs for a few days. Maybe you could even persuade him to get treatment if he were right there in front of you. You even do a quick cost benefit analysis thinking that it is not fair for his friend or friend’s family to have to support him. He is not their responsibility. You also start thinking of how he will cause less pain to others if he doesn’t have to steal.
So you say, well, okay but just three nights and you must not be using or bring drugs into my house. So he comes.
Whether or not he surreptitiously brings or uses a substance in your house, those three days are three days longer that he is going to go without committing to sobriety. Why should he? His bed is soft and his belly is full. He is probably using in your house anyway; how else could he go three days sober? When he goes, he may take your heirloom necklace with him. That is normal behavior for an addict.
The only help you should give an active addict is professional treatment. Any other answer arises from your own addiction to codependence. Treatment cannot be done at home. I have never seen coerced “home rehab” work. The only way they will change is when the consequences of their behavior are painful enough.
The beginning of giving up your own codependent behavior depends on recognizing it, accepting that you have a codependent role, educating yourself about it, committing to change, and maintaining your own recovery. No easy challenge.
The behavior that signals codependence is enabling. How are you to know the difference between enabling and helping? You are enabling if you are doing things your child/friend/relative, the other half of the “co” in “codependent, can or should do for themself. You are enabling when you put another’s needs and interests before your own. When you impoverish yourself to give another financial viability. When you figuratively starve yourself to feed another. When you make excuses for him. When you live in anxiety and chaos to assure the other doesn’t face the anxiety and chaos that are consequences of their own behavior. When you drop everything you are doing to attend to or fix a mess that you did not create, that is enabling.
The feelings that signal codependence are anger and resentment toward the other person you are helping, or the denial of your anger and resentment and subsequent passive aggressive behavior. Feeling manipulated is a big signal of codependence. Feeling like you “have” to do something instead of “wanting” to do something. Ask yourself these questions.
- Do I feel manipulated?
- Am I angry that I have to do this?
- Is the addict pushing the “urgency” of the situation?
- Can or should he be doing this for himself?
- Am I doing this only because I have done it for another sibling and am feeling that I’m not being fair if I don’t treat them the same?
- Does the addict not accept my “no” for an answer? Is his anger the result of “no”?
- Am I afraid of his reaction if I say “no”?
- Do I feel beaten down, that I just don’t have the energy to fight and that giving in is the only way out?
- Does the addict show signs of entitlement rather than gratitude
If you have answered yes to any of these questions, to give in would be enabling. If you answered yes to two of these, you are most likely enabling, three or more yes answers is a definite sign that you are indeed enabling. Write these questions down and keep them in your wallet to pull out at any given moment until you are able to naturally identify your own enabling behavior.
Whether or not to provide a car to your young addict is a good example of the choice between enabling and helping. Maybe you provided a car for your daughter so she could go back and forth to college; now your son wants one so he can go back and forth to school as well, but you know he goes back and forth to Marietta Street to buy drugs and is skipping classes. You say you won’t give him a car because he is using drugs, but he denies using or he says he’s using because you give his sister more and he feels second best, if you would just treat him equally, he’d stop using. You feel guilty, so you provide him a car, but are angry that you are being manipulated. You are aware that if he were going to his classes and not doing drugs, you’d be happy to get him a car. Your anger and feelings of being manipulated are signs that you are enabling. Moreover if you cannot afford to provide a car, you can be certain that you’re enabling because you’re harming yourself to save someone else.
When he is in treatment
Once your young man is at ROI and clean, the issue of enabling by no means disappears. He may be behaving badly here with us and is suffering the consequences, so he calls you to take him home. This frequently happens when he’s been in treatment for about three weeks. You don’t want to bring him home, but he persuades you that we are mistreating him and not helping, or that he already “gets” the recovery thing and you are just wasting money; so you take him back home where he soon is creating chaos in your life again. Both you and your son have relapsed. You were relieved when you left him with us, but you’re so accustomed to living in pain that you don’t know how to live without it. Or you are so hopeful with great expectations and promises of the perfect relationship as described in detail by your son.
After treatment, maintaining recovery
Perhaps you now are the parent of a young person who has recently finished treatment, is asking to move in with you, to have a car or for other help. What then? Isn’t that a different case? Yes, it’s different, subtle, more complicated, but it’s still important that you handle it well and that you not relapse in your own recovery from codependence. The best way to handle it: reread his discharge plan summary or call his counselor from ROI and ask for direction. Usually, we like to see how they handle a car while they are with us and other potential triggers such as a cell phone, when they reach a certain level.
Frequently, a young addict comes home to live with you in recovery because he can’t manage on his own. He can’t—that’s the key—not because he doesn’t want to get a job or he doesn’t want to manage the money he gets from a job or he isn’t willing to live in less luxurious surroundings. He can’t support himself because he has six remaining months of probation and no job skills. He needs to be in school or training, along with a part time job. He is, like all addicts, in danger of relapse. Relapse begins in the mind and addictive behavior before it actually involves substances. Because of the long term enabling you may have done during his using years, his addictive behavior is not necessarily using drugs, but using you.
First, if they are 18 or older, it is always better for them not to return home because of the regression that often follows a return home. While they were with us, they did their own laundry, daily chores, woke themselves up (if they were at the CARES level), etc. This is not to say that you should not help them while they are living away from home. They are probably not able to be completely independent, but more interdependent. Again, follow discharge plan and advice from the clinical team at ROI.
However, if your child is a legal minor, it’s a different story. It is good to set boundaries up front, upon his return home, boundaries about respecting your privacy and time, his use of your supplies, your car, and your computer. You may even have a written agreement or contract. It might require that he be actively looking for a job or be in school, that he not use your computer or that he do his own laundry. Come to an agreement that will allow you to feel comfortable living with him. Set up clear expectations using a “carrot and stick” approach. Notice when you feel tempted to help him by letting him cross a boundary or not keep up his end of the agreement, even in small ways because they soon grow. When your gut says you are doing something you’re not willing to do, you are likely enabling.
On the other hand, suppose your son is spending an hour on the bus to get to a downtown university and is actively applying for a part time job and is limited in where he can work by transportation needs, that is, he is taking care of himself and doing the right things but is having difficulty. You think it would make his school go much better if he had a car to get around in. You can afford it, so you offer him the use of a car. It’s your idea, he’s not manipulating, and it makes you feel good instead of angry. You are not putting his needs over your own; you are helping instead of enabling.
When your addict in recovery loses his money or his keys once and can’t get home, you go and get him. You hope he would do the same for you. When he loses his money or keys the second time, you ask how it happened and how he can prevent the same thing from happening again and you may offer suggestions; you may or may not come get him depending on your needs. When he loses his money the third time, you say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. What are you going to do?” He asks, “Will you to come get me?” You say, “I have been there and done that and now have other plans, but I hope you find a way home.” You add, “See you when you get here”, and hang up. What can he do, you fret? He can get a ride from a friend, or he can walk. He can spend the night in a shelter near the university or on a sofa at a friend’s house, whatever it takes. Every addict is resourceful; he has the ability to figure it out. It’s not your duty to figure it out for him. You must not save him from the consequences of his carelessness.
Or you take your addict to school on your way to work. But he always gets up late and is in the shower when it’s time for you to leave. You’ve been late to work once because of this, but don’t let it happen again. Tell him you are leaving at 7:45 a.m. whether he’s ready or not and then you leave at 7:45 regardless. It hurts you and keeps you from your own responsible job performance when you wait for him because he needs a ride. Once he misses a ride, he may get up earlier the next morning. Waking a kid up every day and going back two or three times to get him up, yelling at him through the shower curtain to hurry up, handing him a bagel in the car is driving you nuts and you are still late to work. That is unhealthy, enabling behavior.
Remember, the only time a person changes his behavior is when the consequences are painful enough that he’d prefer to change. So let him fall.
A common long-term pattern occurs after families do stop enabling and the recovering addict improves. As an ill-conceived reward or because of their own codependence, the family slips back into doing things for him that he could and should do for himself. He then regresses more and the family tries to stop enabling again by withdrawing help or setting up a boundary. The addict complains, ”Just when I am trying harder you pull the rug out from under me.” You may think that’s true, you cave and he slips into old behavior. When things get really bad, you curb your enabling, he behaves better, and you relax the boundaries, and he cycles down once again.
Because resisting enabling behavior is very hard, it is very helpful, even mandatory, that you go to Families Anonymous, Al-Anon, or Narcanon meetings to keep you strong in your own recovery from codependence.
Kim Castro Owens, MSCM, MAC, CAADC, CACII, MATC, CCS