“The only help you should give an active addict is professional treatment. Any other answer arises from your own addiction to codependence,” I said in my Winter 2012 article entitled “Codependence 101.” Today I want to answer the question: Why do so many of us have this addiction to helping those who can and should help themselves?
We all help our children. We tie their shoes, run their bath water, and hold their hand when crossing the street. It’s necessary and it’s negligent not to do so, it makes us feel good to help and to teach. We are liked, loved, admired, and rewarded. Why should we not want to continue? If our child no longer needs us we may wonder, what we are here for. Healthy parents learn to take pleasure in their children’s independence and successes apart from them, to focus on their own life goals, and the activities that bring them satisfaction.
That begs the question: from what circumstance does your own addiction to codependence arise?
Codependence is passed on from generation to generation. If someone in your family, especially a parent, was emotionally unavailable to you as a child, you will be inclined to find people to fix throughout adulthood in order to rewrite your childhood. You may marry them, give birth to them, or adopt them. Parents tend to be most codependent with the emotionally unavailable person, which may be the problem child or the addict, who will be further crippled by codependence with the parents. Codependent patterns likely began during childhood and increase in severity though active addiction.
Helping or controlling?
Fixing people by helping them is a way of controlling them, by making them do right, your way. When the one you’re fixing/helping/enabling caters to you enough, as the controller you think that’s good, but the one you “help” usually gets angry about the control. If the addict breaks away or acts out, it causes you emotional pain. You think it’s still up to you to fix everything. The enabler typically feels worse about the addict’s behavior than the addict. This doesn’t stop the controller from trying to fix the addict because the controller is addicted to emotional pain; it is all he/she knows. The need to control is therefore a symptom of codependence.
Over praising, over rewarding
Perhaps a parent grew up with no acknowledgement of their good behavior and achievements. That parent may give a child with whom they are becoming codependent too much praise or reward for very minor achievements or for behaving well. Codependent parents are making up for not getting enough emotional support from their own parents. Moreover, our society reinforces excessive praise. For example, when every child in an activity is given a trophy, they are rewarded for the mere act of showing up instead of aiming for excellence.
A child learns to distinguish very early the difference between a realistic, moderate response and bullshit praise. For example, my six-year-old daughter Chloe recently gave me a painting she’d done that was mediocre at best for her ability. I acknowledged it with a slight “uh huh.”
“Do you like it?” she asked.
I replied, “It’s okay, but it’s not your best.”
“You can’t say that,” she complained.
“I just did,” I said.
She smiled slyly as if she’d been testing me, then went and painted a wonderful painting, demonstrating the talent she inherited from her grandmother as well as her own diligence. I praised this painting because she had earned it by doing her best.
If your children have behaved particularly well, better than expected, you might say, “I’ve enjoyed this afternoon with you because you have been so polite and we have gotten along so well together. I think it’s time to stop for frozen custard on the way home. How would you like that?” That is reinforcing good behavior. Remember that intermittent reinforcement is more powerful than regular and expected reward. If the children were demanding or begging that you stop for frozen custard and arguing or cajoling when you hesitate, if you give in, that’s enabling and reinforcing bad behavior. If they say, “But “Mom/Grandmom/Uncle Charlie always gets us custard,” and you cave because you don’t want to be the bad guy, but you feel manipulated, that is enabling. On the other hand, if it’s your idea and you take pleasure in doing something occasionally for the children, you can be reasonably sure it’s healthy rewarding, not enabling. Giving our children too much and doing too much for them sets up a troublesome pattern.
A parent who has been through hell with an addict child will be so thrilled with even the slightest sign of civility in recovery that he/she may praise or reward every minor gesture of politeness far beyond the response she gives to her non-addict children for their ordinary courtesy.
We at ROI are also tempted to over praise because we too are thrilled with progress, but when we overdo it, our guys bring us up short. Our guys will say, “You act like I’m so great, but I’m not.” Or “Bullshit, you tell me I’m great for everything.” Kids don’t trust us when we over praise. They won’t know when we acknowledge their acts of true greatness, and that is a great loss.
Many of our parents have been through trauma of some kind and they are trying to save their families from that degree of pain; they are trying to provide safety. These are worthy goals of course, but they can go too far. Some parents won’t ever let a child be scared or disappointed. They rush to console, distract, or compensate for every misfortune or loss. Without some experience of fear or disappointment, how can he handle life?
When your child is an addict, the choice between protecting and overprotecting may involve much more serious decisions than whether to rush over and pick him up when he scraped his knee. One of the most heart wrenching decisions arises when your addict is arrested. Do you get a lawyer to bail him out immediately? Is that enabling? Don’t rush to him. It’s okay to get him out the first time, hoping the shock of the arrest will be a turning point, but leave him long enough to sober up and face reality for a few hours or overnight. There is danger in leaving him in jail too long and also not long enough.
Then do you hire a lawyer to fight charges he deserves? Yes. The legal system is by nature punitive and not rehabilitative. The arrest record or label of felon lasts a lifetime. So you hire a lawyer to win him a choice of treatment or jail. As long as he is wiling to get treatment, get him legal help to give him the chance to work for his recovery.
Drawing the Line
The question of where to draw the line arises again when an addict in recovery continues unhealthy behavior or dependence, especially with an underlying mental illness. He may have been diagnosed as bipolar or borderline personality disorder. Then the family thinks the addict is off drugs but cannot do better because of his dual diagnosis. Maybe, maybe not. Drug addiction mimics mental illness. You cannot tell if a brain is normal until sobriety has been maintained for a couple of years. Even if there is a dual diagnosis, with treatment and without the enabling of negative behaviors, an addict can at least improve, if not achieve normalcy. Setting appropriate boundaries and expectations of independent behavior as well as guarding against unhealthy enabling are always important practices for families of addicts to learn and practice.
We have guys here at ROI who have been given too much help throughout their addiction, which has enabled them to stay in active addiction, and we have families that will have to be very careful not to return to codependence in their young man’s recovery.
Kim Castro Owens, MSCM, MAC, CAADC, CACII, MATC, CCS