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Setting Boundaries for Loved Ones

Another relapse. Another midnight call. Another sleepless night. Another round of fear, frustration, and fatigue.

Fear. What will happen to my adult son? Will he lose his freedom, his apartment, his possessions, and his beloved dog? Will he become homeless? Will he stand at a street corner with a cardboard sign begging for food? That image haunts me. Can I let it happen? Is my faith strong enough to counteract my fear?

Frustration. Why doesn’t my son get it after all these years? Why hasn’t he taken advantage of the many opportunities that his father, sister and I have provided for him to get clean and stay well? And why can’t I stop rescuing him? Will I be able to set and keep boundaries this time? Is this the final straw? Have I hit my rock bottom?

It isn’t that I don’t know better. I’ve been involved in loved ones’ recovery groups and individual therapy. I’ve admitted that I’m powerless. (Admitting is one thing; following through is another.) I’ve embraced the 3 Cs: I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it. I’ve worked the steps. I have a sponsor who reminds me, “When you know better you do better.” I know better. Lord knows I’ve set enough boundaries over the years. But I keep moving them. There’s definitely a disconnect between my head and my heart.

Fatigue. My son’s recovery/relapse scenario has been going on for the past twenty years. Frankly, I’m sick and tired of the melodrama. Of one step forward and many more back. I feel like Sisyphus who was eternally damned by the Greek gods to roll a massive boulder to the top of a steep hill. When he reached near the top, the rock rolled back down again and he was forced to labor all over again. Like Sisyphus, I’m exhausted.

Did I play a part in this insanity? You bet. Have I waited too long? Absolutely. Am I the only one? Not likely. I’ve spoken to many family members who continue to enable even when they know better. “Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry…Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death”( It’s been described as cunning, baffling, and powerful. A perfect storm for crazy making. A speeding car without brakes. In a compelling video on (Recovery from Addiction: An Intro for Parents of Addicted Persons), a recovering addict shares his story and its effect on his family. He describes how once an addict stops he cannot stay stopped and when he makes promises he means to follow through. But he doesn’t. Then there are those blessed periods of quiet between storms when the addict appears to be doing okay. The family rallies with help (in my case often financial) and encouragement (“I’m so proud of you.”). This doesn’t last and things fall apart again. Fearing the worst (homelessness, prison, or overdose) family members may step in to pick up the pieces.This cycle has repeated itself over and over again with me and my son.

This scenario stops when the addict decides to embrace recovery and is willing to undertake its demanding challenges. That’s the hard part. Or if the addict continues use, then it stops when loved ones step back, establish firm boundaries and stick to them. That’s the hard part.

In “Setting Boundaries with Addicted Family Members”, Lisa Frederiksen writes, “Know you will always be triggered to fall back into your old dance, i.e., your old way of coping. BUT you don’t have to fall back into your old ways of reacting.” This time I am determined to put a stop to this dysfunctional dance which damages both me and my son. Spelling it all out in a recovery contract may not eliminate my fears, but it can relieve my frustration and fatigue.

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