My mom and I spoke yesterday for the first time in a while. As in, really talked, not a quick check-in, how are you, okay, gotta go. She and I can speak for hours, on subjects ranging from all manner of depth to superficiality.
Yesterday, she wanted to ask me my advice about a situation she and her long-time boyfriend (for lack of a better term for a live-in adult partner) were facing. His son, my age, was having consequences (severed tendons) that seemed to refer to alcohol (after an altercation with a guy at a bar).
This apparently wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, and despite the stories he told about it (he slipped and fell on the sidewalk after the altercation), my mom and her boyfriend were concerned that this pattern of incidents pointed toward alcoholism.
So, she called me to find out what they should do.
I gave the best advice I know for the families and loved ones of someone in an addiction: Get the help for yourself that you wish the person had. I suggested Al-Anon, or CoDA (Co-Dependents Anonymous), which are geared toward the families of folks facing addiction.
Because, I told her simply: There is nothing you can do.
Apparently, the son had texted to cancel a brunch with his dad yesterday morning, claiming he’d not been able to sleep well, and would be a zombie. His dad texted back, Okay, but we need to talk.
I suggested to my mom that her boyfriend change his tactics. If the son is really in the grips of a disease and an addiction, then he needs to know he has allies. And, really, what would another conversation do about it, as they’d brought up A.A. already and talked about their concern? Play the tape: What do you hope to accomplish from a talk with him that hadn’t already been said? So, the son will say (again), you’re right, I’m sorry, I’ll do better, different. The dad will sit back in his chair with relief and triumph. – And then the son will do whatever he was going to do anyway.
I told my mom some things that sound harsh and even crass when speaking about a loved one in a hard place: That ultimately, the intention of a conversation like that is to get the result that the son’s dad wants, that my mom wants: relief and reassurance that the son be happy, be healthy. And if he is happy and healthy, then they two can be as well. Ultimately, these desires are selfish: I want to feel better; I want to feel relief. (And I know that’s a hard thing to hear when speaking about a parent’s love for a son.)
Furthermore, though, their desires for his changed behavior proclaim that they know the best course for the son. And they don’t. We spoke about “not robbing someone of their bottom;” that getting sober isn’t the way for everyone; and that the person very very much needs to come to the conclusion themselves that they need or want help.
You cannot tell someone to get sober. They have to want it themselves, or it won’t stick; and if you demand it from them, they’ll feel pit against you and your expectations, instead of aligned with you against the terrifying proposition of giving up the one thing in the world they know how to do.
To let go of the results of someone else’s addiction is a grave assignment; that’s why there are support programs for the people who are in that circumstance. It isn’t easy for the people on either side of the bottle.
I told her too, that the thing she does have control over is how she chooses to engage the situation. I talked about Loving Detachment, which I haven’t mastered at all, but have less antipathy toward. I told her she could “pray” for him, in whatever way that meant for her (the agnostic Jew), even if that meant sending thoughts of hippie rainbows toward him. I suggested using the phrase, “I pray that he gets the same peace love and happiness that I want for myself.”
Because it may not be this kid’s path to get sober, to stop drinking, to stop getting in bar fights. It may not be his path to live past 35, is the ultimate truth of it. And that’s where the enormous task of Loving Detachment becomes so painful. And, that’s where help for the loved one’s comes in handy. There are people who have been where they are, and some of them are not there anymore.
The thing about 12 step support, I told her, is that you hear others’ “experience, strength, and hope;” you hear them telling the same stories, not from 3rd person hearsay, or generalization: you hear your own story coming from someone else’s mouth, your own feelings being mirrored back at you, and you realize you are not alone in your struggle. That these folks were where you are, and they aren’t (hopefully) there any more. How did they do it? Stick around and listen. There is hope here.
The last thing I suggested was that the boyfriend amend his text to his son about “needing to talk,” and simply say, “You know what, I’m here when you need me, if you ever want to talk. Otherwise, I’ll just see you on Thursday for the game.” (or whatever.)
It’s not that people in their addiction need to be coddled or allowed to behave inappropriately toward their loved ones. They simply need to be given enough rope to hang themselves. To come to their own desperate conclusions in their own time.
And if you have the strength, or the exhaustion, to let someone you love do that – you all have a better chance to be helped.
* Disclaimer: Opinion and interpretation is only that of the person who gave it, and by no means representative of any other group or entity.