Once upon a time a woman moved to a cave in the mountains to study with a guru. She wanted, she said, to learn everything there was to know. The guru supplied her with stacks of books and left her alone so she could study. Every morning, the guru returned to the cave to monitor the woman’s progress. In his hand, he carried a heavy wooden cane. Each morning, he asked her the same question:”Have you learned everything there is to know yet?” Each morning, her answer was the same. “No,” she said, “I haven’t”. The guru would then strike her over the head with his cane.
This scenario repeated itself for months. One day the guru entered the cave, asked the same question, heard the same answer, and raised his cane to hit her in the same way, but the woman grabbed the cane from the guru, stopping his assault midair.
Relieved to end the daily batterings but fearing reprisal, the woman looked up at the guru. To her surprise the guru smiled.
“Congratulations” he said, “you have graduated”.
“How’s that?” the woman asked.
“You have learned that you will never learn everything, ” he replied. “And you have learned how to stop the pain.”
I borrowed this therapy fable from the book “Co-dependent No More”. I thought it was a great introduction to another cycle of addiction that co-exists with a spouse or loved one that is chemically dependent. Co-dependency is actually its own addiction by its nature. When your behavior is completely dependent on the behavior on another then you are a co-dependent. If my husband had a good day, then I had a good day. If he was having a bad day then my day was also bad but I kept that to myself because then my goal became to make his day better. To fix it. To turn it around. But really I was just trying to run interference because I didn’t want to turn it into another binge or trigger. In one word, this type of existence is exhausting. You can never break from being vigilant about your surroundings and what outside influence can affect them. I remember thinking if I made his favorite dinner and created the perfect relaxing atmosphere then he would not feel agitated. I also tried to do things like keep our schedule filled with activities so there was no “down time”. Any moments of quiet would be moments of thinking too long about drinking. Its amazing how much brain power all of this took. Did it help? No. Did it change our outcome? No, it actually got worse. It provoked. Like when you tell a child don’t and they proceed to do it anyway. To see if they can get away with it. There is no fear of the consequence. It just becomes about having that one thing and anything standing in the way is just another obstacle to get around.
When I finally got my hands on this book, Co-dependent No More, I was amazed. I was reading about myself. All of the characteristics about myself that I thought were helping him were actually preventing him from fully hitting rock bottom. I was delaying the process. It was a profound and liberating moment for me. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my issue to fix. I was standing in the way. I know we are programmed to want to help but in this case I wasn’t helping. I would try to get him to go to treatment, read books, talk to him about how he was hurting our future, but unless they are ready to change this all goes into a black hole. It doesn’t mean anything to them because they are fighting something within themselves. It wasn’t easy. It was really difficult because I didn’t feel right about it…at first. It felt unnatural and I think that was because I had trained myself to be the cleaner, the helper, the cover up. I had to let him make the mistakes. To not make any more excuses for him and his behavior. I got really good at thinking of excuses of why he wasn’t with me at different events “he’s sick” “he’s traveling” “he went to see his grandmother”…always something so I didn’t have to answer the questions. I got really bad at saving face. My friends new immediately what was wrong. So when I started to make the transition away from that life I started to have many moments of peace. A peace that I was doing the right thing. I knew that whatever the outcome would be, I would have to be ok with it. And when I say “outcome” you have to get real about the possibilities. With any kind of addiction, if they never get to that point then the finality of death is always there. And as much as you want to rescue them from that fate, if they don’t desire to change, then you cannot intervene in the process. If an intervention happens, if treatment after treatment happens, if they continually keep choosing that life then it is time to stop helping them go down hill. You see it all the time on shows like intervention. There is always somebody that keeps helping them. That gives them money to keep living in this life. That gives them a place to fall. Pays for their apartment, phone bills, transportation or keeps trying to include them in the families life. From an outside perspective you want to yell at the TV and say “stop helping them” but when its you, and its your loved one…its just not that easy. But just like when you see it on the tv you have to stop and look at what you are doing. Are you helping the addict? Or keeping them in the addiction. Usually, the answer is the latter of the two.
One word: Boundaries. You have to put up boundaries. Until they are ready to admit that they need help and really want to change then this an absolute for you, for your family, for your children. This is where counseling could be a great help in order to understand what these boundaries should look like. I think for a co-dependent you must seek counseling for yourself or you will find yourself slipping back into old patterns just like addicts do. You need that accountability. TO KNOW how to stay strong amidst being a spectator of the downward spiral. There are plenty of places to go like a church counselor, Al-anon, addiction specialists who can help you set up these boundaries and keep you focused. Once you get off track then you start to go down in the spiral with the addict. The point is to save yourself first. Is that selfish? In this case, no. It is necessary. And that’s as far as you need to go with the guilt of it all. If you are a person of faith, then all we are called to do is pray. Pray constantly. Pray without ceasing. But that is as far it goes. The rest is literally in the Lords hands. He will provide them with a way out but it us up to them to realize that this addiction is beyond them and they need to help. Period. I will leave you with this…The Serenity Prayer for the Co-dependent:
Grant me the serenity to accept the people I can not change,
The courage to change the person I can,
And the wisdom to know that is ME!