My world was spinning out of control and I had no idea how to fix it. Of my four sons, one was dead of a drug overdose, and another was a severe alcoholic, although I didn’t really understand or believe that at the time. Relationships among family members were fraught with tension and unexpressed feelings, and my marriage had deteriorated severely.
Figuratively speaking, I clung to each of my living sons fiercely, leaving my talon marks in their flesh. I demanded that my oldest son, who lives out of town, call me weekly; and I spent most of my time overseeing the activities of my other two adult sons, who lived at home. I allowed my alcoholic son to live at home and continue using, because I rationalized that at least I knew what he was doing, and I feared what might happen if I told him he had to move out.
Our family was near the top of the scale of dysfunctional families, and I was at a loss as to what to do. The weight of my life was crushing me. I believed that I was a victim of the actions of the people around me and the adverse affect their actions had on me, such as the drug overdose that killed my son. If only they would stop doing these awful things, my life would improve!
I was afraid to ask for help, because I didn’t believe I could do anything on my own. I thought I needed permission and agreement for any action I took. Finally, as I sank deeper into despair two years after my son’s death, and with our family falling apart, I summoned the courage to find a therapist who specialized in grief, addiction, and family issues. After more than a decade of worsening family conditions, I had pretty much given up hope that anything would change. But for my own sanity, I had to try the only thing I could think of.
Finding a good therapist was one of the best things I ever did—for myself and for my family. What I hadn’t realized was that our family system operated they way it did because we each played our chosen role. If someone in the family begins to change what his or her role looks like, the rest of the family must also change, because the interactions among members change.
For me, change came slowly. Over a period of 18 months of therapy, reading several self-help books, and entering a recovery program, I slowly began to understand that it’s okay for me to make a decision and take action on something without needing to obtain anyone’s approval. It’s okay for me to have opinions about various topics without first taking a poll to see what other people think. It’s okay for me to let go of my adult children and stop trying to control their actions; it’s time for them to become independent of me.
My goal as a parent was to raise my sons to be independent thinkers, able to take action, make decisions, and find their own way in the world. But ironically, when they actually began to do just that, I freaked out and quickly tried to snatch the reins back. Of course, they resented my controlling tendencies. What I finally began to understand through therapy and recovery was that my attempts to control their lives were driven by fear. I feared what might happen if they made poor choices, and I did my best to see that they made good choices so they would never suffer the consequences of a bad decision. But in doing so, I stymied their growth and maturing process.
At last, I learned they needed to have their own experiences and learn from them in order to mature and become truly self-sufficient. If they made a mistake or a bad judgment call, letting them suffer the consequences would help them learn from it so they wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
As I continued my therapy and recovery process and increased my own independence, my family slowly began to change. I gradually peeled my talons off my sons’ arms; I stopped spending most of my walking moments at home monitoring their activities. As I began to respond to my family differently, they began to change—I was seeing firsthand how a family system must change if one member changes. And the differences were for the good.
Changing the way I thought and responded to people was very difficult, but it had good results. I learned that I didn’t need to fear confrontation; I didn’t need to fear the anger of other people. I learned about the damage caused by people who enable addicts. I came to understand that the best thing I could do for my alcoholic son was to set a boundary for myself; if he continued using, I would no longer allow him to live in our home.
From that point on, change cascaded rapidly through my life and the lives of my family members. The alcoholic continued using and therefore had to move out. He spiraled downward rapidly, which was terrible and frightening to watch. Finally, we were planning an intervention when he called one night and asked for help. He went to detox and then to BRC Recovery, and he is now in recovery, for which I am thankful.
My relationship with my other two sons changed dramatically too. I no longer monitored the every move of my son who remained at home. And I stopped expecting my out-of-town son to call weekly; instead, I let him set the pace for calls. Slowly, our relationships improved because they appreciated me letting them live their own lives.
My marriage improved steadily too. Eventually, my husband and I went to therapy together, and then he found his own therapist. We are now in a much better place than we were just a few years ago, and we are continuing to work on improving our relationship.
Best of all, I now have a life of my own. All my adult life, I have taken care of others to the exclusion of myself. Everyone else’s needs always came first, so I had no time to pursue my own interests. Now I have time to learn about myself and to explore my likes, dislikes, dreams, hopes, and plans for the future.
Now I understand that my life’s journey has brought me to the place I’m in today. And I’m grateful I found a good therapist who helped me find hope and develop healthy family relationships. Like my alcoholic son, I have entered into my own recovery program, and my life is so much richer for it. I believe the one, small step I took a few years ago of finding a good therapist was the catalyst for tremendous positive change in our entire family, and through that step, I’ve found help, hope, and health.
Bradshaw On: The Family: A New Way of Creating Solid Self-Esteem by John Bradshaw
Healing the Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw
Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children by Allison Bottke
Codependent No More by Melody Beattie: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself