Our emotions, emotional connections, and living membership as part of a team or family system where there is an addictive disorder are overwhelming. Our old scripts, shame, guilt, fear, and anxiety can drive us into dark places. It is our natural desire to help. Whether it is a wounded animal, a person injured, or a child hurting, it is rare for one not to feel, to offer help, to want to race to help. Within the team or family system of addiction, codependency develops.
We all seek homeostasis, a big word for balance within a system. The system has an established norm, predicting responses and a system of declaring how things are to operate.
When an addictive disorder enters, we shift. We shift to compensate or make up for problems. We assume duties and responsibilities. We can move into a broken record stage where our desire to help is so great, we revisit the issue with great passion. The addict tunes us out for he believes we cannot comprehend his pain.
We create a new norm for ourselves, so powerful that logic, decision making, and rational thought disappear. It is common when an outside member or someone without that strong emotional connection to tell us what we should do.
The reaction of the co-dependent is to, in fact, step it up. We suffer, we take the hits, we do things that are outside of the rational self. We begin to fragment into small pieces, holding up the mask of managing it all. In doing so, we lose pieces of ourselves.
Personal and internal boundaries dissipate- all to prove the love and commitment. The trap deepens and one can become as sick or sicker than the addict. Events such as critical money losses, thefts, infidelities, emotional taunting, beratement, and fear of that person disappearing from your life feel very real.
Responses to friends or close family members replicate the same justification and reasoning as the addict projects.
The changed addictive relationship, although critically damaging and destructive is less frightening than admitting one needs help and initiating the call for help. We literally can love the addict to death. It is hard to continue the cycle of addiction without caretakers and helpers.
If we look at co dependent’s internal reward system, it may show us a great deal about our willingness to continue to enable.
- Are we afraid that this love or attachment could be the very last we might have and so we must guard and preserve it?
- Is letting it go too frightening because we will no longer be needed?
- Is fear of asking for help related to one’s own guilt and all the “wound/coulda/shoulda”scripts and mental tapes playing in our heads?
- Is it our way of keeping some degree of control over the relationship?
- If he/she changes, will I have to look at my own stuff?
Attachments to people and to our norms provide us security- in a very dangerous way, give us a mission, identity and some sort of maladaptive security.
There is grief for the addict in the addictive disorder, grief in letting go of the use, what he/she believes is the most effective coping skills to deal with the pain of life, grief of letting go of the lifestyle, the rituals, the encouraging peers users, the tremendous sense of relief when the fits hit is felt.
There is the cycle of family grief and enablers as the disorder becomes so critical one considers asking for help.
This addiction norm is familiar as one knows what to expect. One gets caught up in catastrophic living, but like being stuck in a giant glue pot, it feels like there is no hope.
- Recognition of the totality of addiction and its impacts on the family and team is essential to move toward change. You cannot do this by yourself.
- You become as wounded as the addict. You have become highly conditioned to responding to the addict’s needs, his tirades, his tears, his blaming and accusations, his anger, and try to fix the pain-at the cost of self.
- There is freedom and joy in change if you will let go of the rope.
- The addict is not the person you love. It is impossible to have an authentic relationship with an addict. The disorder drives him. Letting go is scary.
Be mindful to feel in the moment as you struggle and consider saying “I need help.” You are not alone. You are not a fool, you are stuck in a system of raw pain.
Step One: What kind of life do I want? I can no longer accept this, I hurt, I need, I feel. Help me.”
The fable relates to being stuck, living with and surviving an addictive disorder with someone you love.
After much contemplation, he achieves great clarity and is excited about the vision he can see for his life. He starts off on the journey to his future. He must travel to another town where an amazing opportunity has presented itself but he must get there by the next morning or the opportunity will pass. He travels many hours, each step getting more excited about the life he is creating. As the full moon rises, he is alone in his thoughts as he starts crossing a bridge.
The man sees out of the corner of his eye a stranger coming towards him. He thinks the man approaching is putting his hand out to greet him. However, the stranger has the end of a rope in his hand with the other end wound around his waist.
The stranger asks the man to hold the end of the rope. Although perplexed, the man complies.
The stranger asks the man to hold on tight with two hands and then promptly jumps off the bridge toward the swift running deep river below. “Hold on!” the stranger cries.
The free-falling body hurtled the distance of the rope’s length, and from the bridge, the man abruptly felt the pull. He held tight despite being almost pulled over the side of the bridge.
Peering down at the stranger who was close to oblivion, the man yelled, “What are you trying to do?”
“Just hold tight,” said the other.
The man tried to haul the stranger in but he could not. He could not get enough leverage. His strength was almost perfectly counterbalanced by the other man’s weight.
“Why did you do this?” the man called out. “Remember,” said the other, “if you let go, I will be lost.”
“But I cannot pull you up,” the man cried. “Just hold on. I need you,” the stranger yells.
The man looked around for help, but no one was near. The man holds on for a while, and then calls, “Please, I cannot hold you. Please climb up.”
“I am your responsibility,” said the other. “Well, I did not ask for it,” the man said. The stranger cried, “If you let go, I am lost.”
The man tried to invent solutions, like tying the rope to the bridge, but could not find any that would work.
Fearing that his arms could not hold out much longer, he tied the rope around his waist.
He thought if he just waited long enough, someone was bound to come and help pull the stranger up. He waited many hours, but no one came.
“Why did you do this?” he asked again. “Don’t you see what you have done? What possible purpose could you have had in mind?”
“Just remember,” said the other, “my life is in your hands.”
Time passed and a decision needed to be made. The man could not hold on much longer.
A thought occurred to him. If the stranger hauled himself up and he kept the end steady and pulled a bit, together they could get the stranger back to safety.
But the other wasn’t interested.
“You mean you won’t help? But I told you I cannot pull you up myself, and I don’t think I can hang on much longer either.” “You must try,” the other shouted back in tears. “If you fail, I die.”
More time passed and finally, the point of decision arrived. The man said to the other, “Listen to me. I will not accept the position of choice for your life, only for my own; the position of choice for your own life, I hereby give back to you.”
“What do you mean?” the other asked, afraid.
“I mean, simply, it’s up to you. You decide which way this ends. I will help you if you help yourself.”
“You cannot mean what you say,” the other shrieked. “You would not be so selfish. I am your responsibility. What could be so important that you would let someone die? Do not do this to me.”
The man stated again, “I will not stand here and hold this rope. If you want to live, you must start moving now, and I will help you. Please, start now.”
He waited a few minutes, but there was no change in the tension of the rope. “I accept your choice,” the man said, at last, and freed his hands.
(Fable written By the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman)