We can’t control what happens to us or around us, but we can choose how we respond.
A friend who learned this lesson told me she had finally figured out she needed to get off her daughter’s addiction roller coaster. Instead of riding the coaster with her daughter, she now stands on the platform and waves as her daughter goes through the ups and downs of addiction. Of course, she still loves her daughter, but that is a great illustration of her choosing how she wants to respond. She is always there for her daughter, but is not enabling her or letting her daughter’s issues disrupt her own life.
When we have a loved one who is an addict or alcoholic, we often ride the roller coaster of addiction as each new crisis unfolds in our loved one’s life. Going to Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, or a similar group is one way we can take care of ourselves. Many of our fellow group members have stood in our shoes, or have had similar experiences, and their hope, strength, and sharing helps us hack through the tangled jungle of fear, anger, depression, and sadness that can feel overwhelming when we are surrounded with the disease of addiction and immersed in the codependency that often rides shotgun with addiction.
Before I started my own recovery program, I had crises in my life weekly, if not daily. I cancelled dinner dates and other engagements in the evenings so I could hurry home and prevent my loved one from using. But you know what? He figured out a way to use anyway. And I was so entangled with his life that I didn’t have time to have a life of my own. I felt exhausted all the time, and I stayed up too late many nights waiting for him to come home, to hear his car parking and the door opening. I stopped going to the gym because I couldn’t sleep; I was too tired to work out. I could barely stay awake at work and had a hard time concentrating on tasks. At night, I tossed and turned, worrying about what might happen. Would he get a DWI? Be in an accident? Injure himself or someone else? I lived in fear and worry, always afraid of getting a call saying I had lost another son (one of my sons died of a drug overdose in 2011; see A Parent’s Perspective: The Dreaded Telephone Call).
One day I had an epiphany. As I walked up the steps of my building at work, obsessing about my alcoholic’s latest binge the night before, someone said, “How are you?” I automatically replied, “Fine,” even though I was as far from fine as I could be. And then it dawned on me—I was fine; my life was going well; it was my loved one who was not fine. And in that moment I began to understand the value of detaching with love and choosing how to respond. I can care about someone deeply and have great sympathy for that person. But when that person’s problems become mine; when I can’t sleep because of what someone else is experiencing; when my life is affected by someone else’s actions and I allow myself to be sucked into their problems; then I have crossed the line into codependence and enmeshment, which is defined as not knowing where I end and the other person begins. And if they gave prizes for codependence and enmeshment, I would have won Grand Champion.
I’d been in recovery for about eight months when it dawned on me one day that I felt different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I pondered it, and realized that I wasn’t afraid and worried all the time anymore. I still had twinges of anxiety, but it was definitely much less than it had been just a few months earlier. I was learning to choose how to respond.
At first, as crazy as it sounds, I actually missed living in crisis mode. What would I talk about with my friends? My children and their issues had often been my conversation opener. And when I was introduced to people and they asked about me, rather than talking about myself and my life, I talked about my children. Anything they did trumped everything I did; I focused almost exclusively on them and their lives. I had a very difficult time putting myself first, learning to take care of myself, and talking about myself.
But I’m learning to do these things. And in return, I’m gaining calm and peace, and I’m backing away from responding to the ups and downs in my family’s lives by jumping in to rescue at every opportunity. I’m learning that I don’t need to have a crisis daily and that they need to have their own experiences without my constant “help.” One of the things that has helped me the most is to picture myself standing on the roller coaster’s platform as my family members live their own lives. I no longer try to leap from the platform, lunging frantically to grip the roller coaster car as it flashes past so I can fling myself into their lives and help them make the “right” decisions. Instead, I am learning to respond with love, which means I let them have their own experiences. And I’m finding that I now have more time to live and to explore my own life and interests. I can’t control what happens to me or around me, but I can control how I respond, and for that I am thankful.
No More Codependence by Melody Beattie
Bradshaw On: The Family by John Bradshaw
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You by David Hawkins
The Control Freak by Les Parrott, III, Ph.D.
Al-Anon Family Groups