When you are the parent of an addict there are so many 3:00 am phone calls. “Mom, I’ve been arrested for disturbing the peace – I’m in jail in Conway, South Carolina.” “Mom, I need you to wire me money right away – some guys are coming to kill me because I owe them.” “Mom, I’m on the street in Deerfield Beach, Florida, and I’m hungry and have no place to sleep.” “Mom, I’m really sick and in the ER and I can’t pay the co-pay.” “Mom, I’m going to kill myself right now if you don’t send me money, bail me out of jail, find me a place to sleep, help me (etc.)”
My Son Sam
My son Sam, now age 25, called me with all those pleas and demands and more, and I excused him, rescued him, and fixed things for him, way too many times. I was the classic enabler, and over time I became sicker and sicker, just like my beloved addict son.
Its completely natural – we as parents love our children. We love them passionately, beyond reason, from their very first breath. No matter their age, we look at their beautiful faces and envision the day they were born, their first words, their first day of kindergarten when they cried, their first date, every school graduation, and all the poignant little moments in between.
And with our love comes an overpowering, all-consuming drive to protect, to save, to do whatever it takes to keep them safe, and happy, and healthy. But when you are the parent of an addicted child, that same love, and that same drive, can literally kill your son or daughter. You really can love them to death.
What Is Enabling?
So what does it mean to enable an addict? As I began this article I looked all over the Internet, and a concise definition was hard to find. In summary, what I found is this: an enabler is someone who, in the case of an addict, does for the addict what the addict can and should be doing for himself/herself, and in the process prevents the addict from suffering the consequences of his (or her) own behavior. Over time the enabler often becomes more and more fearful, more and more “addicted to the addict,” trying anything and everything to save, to rescue, to control, to stop the addict from using drugs or other self-destructive behavior.
Of course, in reality enabling results in the complete opposite of its intended outcome, and in fact allows the addict to continue hurting themselves and/or others.
In my case, I made excuses, sent him money (lots of money), bailed him out of jail, found him lawyers, brought him to doctor to therapist to psychiatrist, pled with him, yelled at him, became completely obsessed with “saving” him, to the progressive exclusion of my other beautiful non-addict son, my patient husband, my job, my dear friends, my hobbies, etc.
Over time I became just as sick, and needed just as much help, as my addicted child.
Where Can Enablers Go For Help?
So what can we enablers do to break this cycle? Most of us, and other family members of addicts, need some kind of professional guidance to learn how to deal with the addict in a healthy way and to get our own lives back on track.
I know I couldn’t possibly have recognized or dealt with my own enabling behavior without assistance. I needed several different professionals and groups to guide me, and sometimes still do. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the many tremendous resources out there, but here are a few that helped me:
- Support Groups – Right after we discovered Sam’s drug addiction I began attending Nar-anon and Al-anon meetings. I encountered at these meetings many wonderful parents and family members, all of whom were dealing with situations similar to mine, and who understood all too well the compulsion to “save” their addicted children, or spouses, or friends.Hearing their stories, some way worse than mine, helped me to put things in perspective. In addition the Nar-anon literature helped me to educate myself about the dynamics within families dealing with addiction. There are also many helpful support groups online; I recently started one, and we welcome you if you are interested in joining us: the Amethyst Recovery Moms’ Corner, which you can find on Facebook.
- Trained Rehab Facility Personnel – The professional counselors and staff at a reputable rehab facility, such as Amethyst, are experienced at dealing with enabling family members, and usually have support groups and therapists who can help you understand and deal with your own enabling behavior. During the course of his recovery Sam attended two separate inpatient rehabs in Florida, along with two separate IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) and two sober living facilities.Some of the better-qualified counselors and staff were very helpful. Sam’s father and I attended support sessions with parents of other addicts at these facilities, and rehab counselors also met with us individually to guide us away from “helping” our addict son in unhealthy ways.
- Individual Therapy – I also decided to find my own individual therapist near my home in Maryland, and I found our sessions very useful. She allowed me to express my fear, and anger, and ongoing anxiety, and over time to figure out some healthy ways to separate myself from my addict son and focus on my own recovery.
A Final Note
I can very gratefully conclude by saying that Sam just celebrated four years of being drug free this past April. As I have mentioned in my other articles, I am incredibly, ridiculously proud of my son, for his courage, his strength, his efforts to maintain his own sobriety, and his tireless drive to help others with the same disease through sponsorship and by helping to establish a new drug recovery center.
Just like Sam, I too have to work at my own recovery, and just like for Sam, some days are still harder than others. Like most parents of addicts in recovery, I am still afraid he might relapse.
Even now, four years later, every time he calls me, even with good news, I still for a second go back to all those 3:00 am phone calls, and wonder: Is he stressed? Might he be using again? How can I make things right for him? I suspect that most parents of addicts, in recovery or not, experience at least some of those same reactions, and I doubt these thoughts and worries will ever go away entirely; after all, I am the mom of an addict in recovery.
This reminds me of a cute story about my sweet son. Sam once said to me when he was a little boy: “I don’t ever want to be a mommy when I grow up.” I laughed, and said I didn’t think that would be a problem, but asked him why, and he answered: “Because mommies have to worry too much.”
My best wishes and prayers go out to every addict, every parent and every family member who is dealing with the horrific disease of addiction. I wish each one of you success and peace as you navigate this life-long journey of recovery, both from addiction, and from enabling our beloved children.