Linda Clare shares with us again the battles she faces in her family with addictions.
A Mother’s Love
By Linda S. Clare
He was her baby, after all. Coming off a binge, all he wanted was a dry spot to sleep and some Taco Bell. For three days, the mom fed and sheltered her addicted adult son. Then, he’d melted back onto the streets, and she settled into familiar guilt and worry. Her biggest fear? By providing food and shelter, she’d enabled him.
His addiction had crushed her countless times, but loving nurture still guided her. A fast-food meal or three. A couple of days sleeping in the guest room. The inevitable fresh heartbreak the moment he said goodbye. And sadly, the guilt of being branded: Enabler. Codependent. Tough Love failure.
For decades, Tough Love has been standard advice to families. In theory, you kick the addict out, he hits bottom and asks for help. In reality, Tough Love is not a one-size-fits-all answer.
I can’t judge others’ circumstances—especially when Tough Love is used to ensure safety or sanity. Some recovering addicts say they couldn’t see the light until their wife, sibling or parent turned them out into the cold.
But it’s hard not to feel as if we’re at war. One side believes Tough Love is the only way, even when evidence doesn’t back it up. The other side argues for Just Love—staying in relationship—even when loved ones are mistreated or manipulated. Neither side wins.
It’s time for a ceasefire.
Addiction is awful enough without judging those caught in its crossfire. We’d make more progress if we stopped blaming loved ones for what they do or don’t do in dealing with addicts. Kicking out your addict may be right for you. But not kicking out the addict isn’t always wrong.
We’re all doing the best we can.
I’ll never forget the day a treatment center director looked at me and said, “You’re as sick as your son is.” In her eyes I was a codependent enabler—helping, rescuing, tolerating my addicted son. I deserved blame, the theory goes, because enabling makes possible an addict’s continued use and prevents him from “hitting bottom.” As if enablers feed off addicts’ failures and help the poor addicts so they can be heroes. As if enabling causes addicts to stay addicted.
Carrie Wilkens, PhD, clinical director of the Center for Motivation and Change in New York City, specializes in evidence-based therapies and sees it quite differently. “There’s an implicit assumption that the codependent is getting something out of it,” she says. “Like the desire to be a hero or rescuer or benefactor. But that could not be farther from truth.”
I’ve thought long and hard about my role in my three adult sons’ addictions. I believe in Just Love, showing mercy and compassion. I want my boys to get better, so yes, I feed them. I hate seeing them suffer but I need to know they’re alive, so I shelter them. I love them so, yes, I keep loving them. Do I make mistakes? Of course. But I don’t believe I’m a hero—or that I’m responsible for their decisions.
Where does loving Parent end and destructive Enabler begin? If you’re a parent of an addict or alcoholic, you know how blurry the boundary can be. You’ve tenderly cared for your child since birth. Now, he’s grown, but it’s hard to stop nurturing—to stop momming or dadding. Especially if you feel wrong no matter what you do.
All the choices are terrible. Employ Tough Love—toss out an addicted adult son or daughter, and the pain of not knowing where they are can be too great. Some parents suffer for years, not knowing where or even if their son or daughter lives. Too often, our worst fears come to pass without even a chance to say, “I love you” one last time.
Yes, sometimes Tough Love is the only way. An adult addict who behaves in ways that make a mom or dad fear for their lives can’t be tolerated. No one should be subjected to continual abuse from an addict, or anyone for that matter. But not every family is the same.
Whether you favor Tough Love or Just Love, labeling addicts’ loved ones as enablers only sucks all the hope out of the room.
And hope is really what this fight is about. It’s about holding onto hope when no answers emerge, or when people treat your family as if it’s diseased. For instance, a few years ago, a Christian woman told me that because my sons deal with addiction, I must not have raised them right. I was speechless, picturing a giant toilet flushing us worthless Clare addicts right down where we belonged. What I heard was, not only are your kids hopeless, you are too.
Since then, I’ve set some rules: I try to limit my “help” to basic needs like food and shelter. I don’t hand out money. Addiction is still alive and well in my family, but I can sleep at night knowing I’ve acted in love.
I’m still searching for the perfect response to my sons, but I’m surer than ever that each addict’s family is as unique as the addict. There may be no “right” method to parent an addict, but I take a few cues from my faith.
If God ever kicked me out so I could hit bottom, I’d have no hope. If you’re an addict and even your mom gives up on you, how much more difficult will it be to keep hope alive?
That’s why I venture into my sons’ jungle of despair—to reassure them of my love and blow on any embers of hope they may have left. I offer my addicts the same compassion I’d show a stranger or an angel unaware.
We who care about addicts should be able to provide a hot meal, a place to sleep, a kind word without being blamed as enablers. To gently offer open hands instead of closed fists. To stop blaming and start listening.
“Faith, hope, Love, these three abide,” the scripture says. “But the greatest of these is Love.” The mom who nurtured her addicted son with cheap tacos and a place to rest showed her son that her faith in him is alive. She still hopes for him and in him. And she loves him as only a mother can.