Am I enabling or helping? Should I say ‘no’? How do I know the right thing to do?
How many times have I asked myself these questions over the years? As the mother of an addict, I spent years lost in self-doubt – questioning my every move.
I felt heartless when I set boundaries, but I felt so abused when I didn’t. My son could twist me into absolute knots. When he was trying to get my cooperation, he would paint such detailed verbal pictures of his suffering. The guiltier I felt, the better chance he had of controlling me. I wanted so badly to do the ‘right’ thing, the thing that would make him get sober, but it was hard to push back against his unrelenting pleas and demands.
After seventeen plus years, I’ve finally developed the confidence and strength to stop second guessing myself. I now know that there is NO ‘right’ thing to do. Just ‘effective’ and ‘not so effective’.
Finding the most effective response to my son’s pleas is always difficult. So, the first lesson I learned was to never answer quickly. My standard response is, “I need to talk to your dad; we will get back to you.”
My raging, emotional son waiting on the other end of the phone did not make for good decision making. If my son fought me, yelled, or demanded that I answer him right away, then I said, “If you insist on an answer right now, then the answer is ‘no’.” Once I started doing that, he stopped demanding immediate answers.
The next thing I learned was that my first question should always be, “How will this affect me?” I had to separate myself from the crazy drama filled picture he was painting and approach his needs as I would anyone else’s. Do I have time? Do I have the money? Do I have the energy? Do I want to do this?
Just because he was panicking and acting irrationally, did not meant I should. There needed to be a rational adult in the conversation, and by default, it had to be me.
Next, I had to learn to think long term. Addicts are always in the moment. They always need it right now. Often it felt so much easier to just send him the $20 and make the craziness stop for a while. I desperately wanted it to stop. But each time I gave in, I rewarded his panic and drama.
When I first started saying “no” he would always escalate the situation. The more he persisted and the crazier he got, the harder it was to say ‘no’. I finally realized that I was teaching him to make his situation worse to get me to respond. It had to stop. I had to say ‘no’ and NOT CHANGE MY MIND WHEN HE ESCALATED THE SITUATION. It was the only way to get the insanity to stop.
At first, it was awful. His anxiety, fear and insistence went through the roof and then of course mine did too. He tried so hard to get me to rescue him. As kindly, and lovingly as possible I had to say ‘no’, in spite of what he said or threatened.
My personal method of saying no, in order to keep the “you’re a horrible mom” demons at bay, was to say ‘no’ but offer an alternative. The alternative always required him to take action to improve his situation. He needed to stop looking to me to rescue him.
When he called complaining of hunger, I refused to send money, but offered to drive him to a food bank. When he refused repeatedly, it became clear that it really wasn’t about hunger, just money.
When he called wanting to move home, I sent a list of phone numbers for rehabs and sober living I had gotten from the SAMHSA hotline and kept saved in the notepad on my phone. I sent it to him many times. He got furious every time. He swore he’d die before he’d go to anyplace on the list.
We just kept saying, “You need more help than we can give you, but we love you.” Of course, he told us we couldn’t possibly love him if we would leave him on the streets. But we kept saying ‘no.’ Knowing he didn’t have to be on the streets, but chose it over the available facilities.
I think what I’ve learned is that I have to be as stubborn as he is and quit assuming he’s helpless. I’ve learned to say ‘no’ and mean it. Not to be mean, or tough, or to force him to find his bottom, but because as long as I rescue him, he’s knows he’s just one crisis away from mom and dad jumping in to help him.
Before we learned to say ‘no’ and mean it, we were rewarding the crisis. When he escalated and we eventually gave in, we were rewarding his persistence and horrible life choices.
He needed to own his problems and start taking responsibility for fixing them. It’s easy to make bad choices, when someone else has to solve the problems you create.
It was extremely hard but I could not continue being held hostage by the unending crisis that was his life.
The month before my son decided to go into the sober living – the one that he swore he would die before returning to – was one of the hardest times of my life. I had to say ‘no’ so many times while my son yelled, threatened, cried and let his life deteriorate to sickening levels. My husband and I were very afraid we would lose him during those awful days. We had to face that possibility and deal with our feelings. But we had to let him find his way without rescuing him.
We were able to stay the course because we really, truly knew that we could not save him; we had tried too many times without success. We knew that he had to save himself.
He eventually did.
He called one day and asked me to let him come home, just to take a shower he quickly added. Then he wanted a ride to the sober house for admission. He had called and made all the arrangements himself. So, he came home showered, ate a good meal and then my husband drove him to the sober house. After threatening to die before going there, his reversal was shocking, but such a huge relief.
Later he told me that he almost overdosed in a parking lot. He realized he could have died alone and not been found for days. It scared him. That’s when he changed his mind.
Allowing him to find his own way was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But this is the first time he’s ever gone into a program by his own choice.
He’s currently five months sober, attending meetings, building a network of sober friends, working a job, and living at the sober house. He’s the happiest I’ve seen him in years.
Dena, your story is such an inspiration for me. My story with my addicted son follows the same trajectory as yours. It’s just so uplifting to read another parent’s story – especially one that has lovingly reinforced their boundaries with their addict. God Bless you and your family. I know we are on the right path to recovery.
My heart goes out to you. It’s such a hard life. If my story helps it makes me happy.