Addiction as a Hostage Taker

Addiction places unreasonable demands on the addict. Someone who cares for an addict will find their behavior constrained by the rigidity of the addiction and sometimes rigidity in themselves. I have articulated some of the predictable ways that people collude with or enable addiction and though I presented examples, the concepts are still fairly generic. The specific way that you may be colluding or enabling are shaped by your version of what it means to be a good husband, wife, sibling, parent, or, more generally, a person.

What you are doing in dealing with your addicted loved one is, for the most part, attempting to do what you believe a good person should do. In all likelihood the unintended consequence of your behavior is to collude with or enable the addiction. The problem is that the addiction is fairly intractable and over time your “good behavior” has become equally intractable. It’s not too hard to understand that addictive behavior is as rigid as it is but what sense does it make that your efforts to be a good person and do the right thing have become equally rigid.

To understand this we have to look at how you arrived at your idea of how to be a good person. Some of what we believe it means to be a good person is a product of having experienced a loving environment in our early life and modeling ourselves after the good examples we observed and experienced. Aspects of our behavioral repertoire that grow out of these kinds of circumstances are rarely problematic. Another way that we construct our idea of what it means to be a good person is through our efforts to transform painful events in our early life. When painful things occur in life, it is natural to try to transform these events into something positive. Perhaps an example from my clinical practice will help illustrate these ideas.

Brad was a handsome, intelligent, privileged, and profoundly-addicted 16-year-old when he first arrived in my office though no one knew it at the time.  His parents both had earned Ph.D.s in scientific fields, were over-achievers in every way, and deeply committed to doing everything possible to help this boy. I was the latest in a long line of therapists and other professionals through whose doors he had passed. The problem was thought to be learning disabilities and/or emotional problems. And certainly these played a role in his difficulties. I was brought in as a consultant in the area of drug addiction because his previous therapist admittedly had little background or training in addiction.

After a couple of visits, I realized I needed to meet Brad’s mother, who seemed to be playing the lead role in the family’s efforts. When I asked what sort of other help had the family previously sought out, Brad’s mother—impeccably dressed in a blue suit and matching shoes, her hair tightly pulled back into a ponytail—went on at length about how they had hired tutors to help Brad through school, listing the psychologists he had been to see, and the private schools he had attended. The costs had been staggering. Brad’s mother was all over every detail, a domestic field marshal in complete command of the battlefield.

“All I’ve ever wanted to do,” she finally sighed, “is be as helpful as I can. I love Brad. I want to help him.”

During her litany, Brad had picked up one of the drug-company scratch pads I keep on the end tables in my office and started doodling. When she finished, I asked him if I might see it. He shrugged and handed it to me with a sideways glance at his mother.

He had written: HELPING ≠ HELP. I showed it to Mom. She shook her head. “I don’t understand. How is helping not helpful?”

The phenomenon was familiar to me from years of treating addiction. Brad, however, had stated it about as succinctly as any patient. Helping can be more destructive to the addict than not helping. This sounds counter-intuitive, but I’ve discovered it’s true.

Brad admitted using “soft” drugs. The family did not see this as particularly problematic since they had experimented in their youth. I pointed out that in the context of learning difficulties even “soft” drugs could have a devastating effect. The family’s beliefs in this area clearly colluded with Brad’s behavior.

Over a period of time with persistent questioning of assumptions and challenging the family’s bias that there was “no problem” when it came to “soft” drugs, the parents began to put pressure on Brad to stop his drug use. When his behavior persisted, I helped them decide to get Brad drug tested and, then, the truth began to emerge. His testing came back positive for heroin.

It took some discussion before it began to dawn on Brad’s mother that her compulsive, controlling behavior around her son’s addiction encouraged Brad to continue to use. As long as she intervened and believed she had the power to cause the outcome she wanted—Brad’s restored health—Brad had no compelling reason to stay clean. Mom was always there to pick up the pieces. Brad would never truly fail. He might accidentally kill himself with an overdose. But he would never need to confront the reality that drugs controlled his life so long as Mom was in control, doing it for him, 24 hours a day.

The revelation that she had spent her life trying to control the uncontrollable hit her hard. She plunged into a deep, almost psychotic, depression. She needed medication and therapy.  Brad needed inpatient treatment but instead of her putting him there to help Brad, I encouraged her to think of it as helping herself. “You can’t control his addiction,” I explained. 

“And you can’t control whether he’ll respond to the treatment. But you can buy yourself some peace of mind by knowing he’s in a safe place and has a chance of success. Help yourself and let Brad figure out on his own whether he wants to help himself.”
I encouraged her to try to identify an event or other influence in her childhood that might have set her up for her compulsion to solve problems and correct every less than ideal circumstance. How did she come to feel so vulnerable, and how did she learn to express it in such an aggressive way?

One day she remembered a long-forgotten episode that she could still conjure up as vividly as the moment it happened, when she was about five years old. She had been raised by a neglectful mother who one day left a steaming coffee pot where her little brother could reach it. He pulled it down on himself and was severely scalded. So was she, in a way—she was left with lifelong scars on her psyche.

She responded to this and other incidents (her mother couldn’t be bothered walking her to her first day of school) by striving to compensate. She became hyper-vigilant about her brother and, as she grew older, began to interact with others the same way. She became overly-responsive to perceived dangers and assertive in her efforts to control them. All these tendencies are consistent with the normal response to unresolved trauma. She’d been at it for 40 years.

She was stunned, and then bewildered. “Now what?”

“The goal is to learn how to accept that you can’t control Brad’s behavior,” I suggested. “By trying to control it, you help Brad keep using. Instead, try to make a place inside yourself that allows you to suffer, and to survive the suffering.”

“But what if it doesn’t work? What if he gets worse?”

“We’re hoping that he learns how bad it already is. Either way, you suffer,” I pointed out. “This way, you suffer for yourself instead of both of you and you give him room to suffer as well. Your son may in fact kill himself with an overdose. But the unintended effect of your efforts to prevent that from happening keeps him from realizing the peril he faces.

“If you get out of his head, you’re giving him a chance to see that his life is at stake and choose whether he wants to live or die. You can’t make that decision for him.”

I encouraged Brad’s parents to stop thinking of their goal as wanting their son to succeed, and to start seeing their most valuable role as helping him face his own demons—helping him to fail in his own eyes. They began to learn to tolerate the reality of his addiction and to fail in their own eyes as well. They needed to come to terms with their lack of control, accept it, and prepare for the worst. They needed to hit bottom.

After 30 days in rehab, Brad declared he was ready to come home. Before this his parents, wanting to believe he was on his way to recovery, would have bought in to his claim. Now, however, they recognized that Brad had not yet hit bottom, that he had not had the epiphany that must come before recovery can begin. He was just tired of being in rehab and wanted to be home in a familiar environment where Mom was waiting to pick up the pieces.

With the support of the rehab staff, they gathered their courage and informed their son that at this point he no longer had a home to return to. Brad rebelled. As painful as this was for his parents, it was the first sign that he was in real distress. Without the resources to leave rehab on his own, Brad had no choice but to sit it out. With no one to insulate him from the reality of his addiction, he began to see how out of control and distorted his life had become. He stayed another 45 days and was discharged.  Meanwhile, his parents went through a similar soul-searching. They had always considered drug- testing offensive. It conflicted with the trusting atmosphere they had tried to cultivate in the family.
Now, finally confronting the reality of addiction, it dawned on them that their son’s chronic lying and manipulation was a function of the addiction and not symptomatic of a problem in the family relationship. They ended up embracing drug testing not as a judgment on their son’s character but protection for the family, and recognition of the power of addiction.  Because they were accomplished people, it was hard for Brad’s parents to accept the limits of control. They had been programmed to regard lack of control over important aspects of life as shameful. In a culture such as ours that worships self-reliance, needing is a sin.
When their son was discharged, Brad’s parents were able to welcome him into a home where there was a place for a recovering drug addict, where all the family members could continue to learn and integrate the lessons of addiction. Brad resumed high school and, as of this writing two years later, he has remained sober.

If we examine this situation, it is clear that for the mother to change her enabling behavior was wrenching. Her belief in control and ability to solve problems was fueled by her determination to be responsible and protective. These are fine qualities indeed. But in her case they were fueled by the unresolved pain of watching her brother’s scalding and the neglect she suffered from her mother. Because the pain of these events had not yet been fully transformed, she expressed her idea of how to be a good mother in ways that unwittingly colluded with her son’s addiction. In confronting her son’s addiction she had to revisit the pain in her own life.

Likewise the parents’ difficulty with drug testing was guided by their version of what it means to be a good family. Thankfully, their ideas about trust were not directly linked to early pain and they were able to respond more flexibly to the need for drug testing. They were able to see it as a way of protecting Brad and themselves as opposed to a sign of distrust. 

As a general rule, when the enabling behavior of the non-addicted other is resistant to change, it is because the change challenges a deeply held belief about how to be a good person. In order to change the relational dynamic between yourself and your addicted loved one, it may be necessary to unearth the painful events that fuel your behavior. 

One of the many ironies of addiction is that while the addict has to accept that a drug is more powerful than they are, you may have to accept many aspects of your life that are beyond your control. To the extent that your efforts to redeem your painful early life experiences are challenged by the addiction you may have to revisit unwelcome aspects of your own life. The pain that you thought you had resolved is often being reactivated in the relational struggles associated with addiction.

In this way addiction takes hostages. It makes demands on your life and the life of the addicted. It will keep you imprisoned until you learn the important life lesson the addiction is trying to teach.

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