Facing Fear and Letting Go
Originally published on www.psychologytoday.com on January 29, 2016
“Thou shalt not enable.” I need to tattoo that commandment on my forehead as a reminder to not rescue my adult son when he gets in a jam. And believe me he’s gotten into many during the past 20 years. He’s been in and out of rehab, entangled in the criminal justice system, landed in intensive care after a gunshot, in a psychiatric ward, and homeless shelter. Although there have been stable periods, none of the above has led to his sustained recovery.
An addict loves a sucker and hates a scrooge. I’m a sucker. My son can’t support himself. Jobs come and go, mostly go. He always needs money. To pay the rent, the car insurance, the cell phone and electric bill. “Mom, I can’t make the rent money this month. Can you help me out? As soon as I get some work I’ll pay your back.” “Mom, my car insurance bill is due and I can’t pay it.” “Mom, could you lend me $50 for gas so I can get to work?”
I’ve been involved in a twelve-step program for loved ones and sought help from counselors. I know that enabling harms both me and my son. Yet I persist. Why do I continue to do the same thing over and over and expect different results?
The neurobiology of my son’s brain disease was described in a recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine (click here). Moreover, my son has a dual diagnosis. It’s not uncommon. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI) (click here) approximately a third of all people experiencing mental illness also experience substance abuse. Conversely, about a third of alcohol abusers and over half of all drug abusers report experiencing a mental illness. This double whammy is a real stinker and has contributed to my enabling. The dual diagnosis confuses me. Is my son abusing drugs, off his meds, or both? I’m never quite sure. Do I use the diagnosis as an excuse to rescue?
I lost my husband (my son’s step-dad) to the disease of alcoholism many years ago. I’m wasn't about to lose another family member. No way. So I intervene during a crisis and think that I have the power to prevent the next one. I worry. I project. I imagine. Fear fuels my well-meaning but misguided behavior. Take the car insurance scenario. What if he’s responsible for an auto accident and doesn’t have any car insurance? Will he lose his driver’s license? Will I have to pay a hefty fine to reinstate his license? If he loses his driver’s license, then how will he get to work? And if he can’t get to work, how will he support himself? And God forbid, what will happen if he injures someone in a car wreck?
Between crises my son manages to pull himself back up, regroup and function fairly well. Sometimes this honeymoon period lasts for a year. Family members rally with encouragement and support (including financial) to bolster him. We hope that the latest recovery period will be permanent, even though we’re aware that relapse is part of the disease. Talk about denial. Surely he’s learned his lesson. Then another relapse occurs and we’re angry, frustrated and resentful.
All of the above have led me down the slippery slope of enabling for far too long. I want to stop. I need to shop. I am determined to stop.
In Baffled by Addiction? Successful Strategies to Help Your Addicted Love One (click here) the authors address worrying. “The more the rescuer worries, the less the addicted person worries and a consequence—worry—is thereby removed. Although this “care-taking” behavior is meant to prevent and remove undesirable events from occurring, it’s actually a powerful type of rescuing which assures that additional, more serious consequences will be encountered.”
The National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse (www.ncada-stl.org) created a list of 12 things to do if your loved one abuses alcohol or drugs. Interestingly eleven of the items begin with “don’t”. One in particular resonates with me and other loved ones. “Don’t do for the alcoholic that which he can do for himself or which must be done by himself. You cannot take his medicine for him. Don’t remove the problem before the alcoholic can face it, solve it, or suffer the consequences.”
In “Let Me Fall All By Myself” (click here) an addict shared another list of “don’ts”. “Don’t try to spread a net out to catch me.” “Don’t throw a pillow under my ass to cushion the pain so I don’t feel it.” “Don’t stand in the place I am going to land so that you can break the fall (allowing yourself to get hurt instead of me).” A brave mother included the entire piece as part of her son’s obituary.
And a recent 12-step meeting we read from One Day at a Time. “I have a right to free myself from any situation that interferes with my having a decent life and pleasant experiences. Every human being is entitled to live without fear, uncertainty, discomfort.”
My son and I have ridden the addiction roller coaster for many years. I am financially, emotionally, and spiritually depleted. I’m ready to step away and let him ride alone. I know it won’t be easy. Bad habits are hard to break. I can’t save my son. I can’t prevent another crisis. But I can replace fear with faith and move forward. I shall always love my son with all my heart and soul and hope and pray for his sustained recovery. But I shall no longer enable.