More than those who hate you, more than all your enemies, an undisciplined mind does greater harm.~ Buddha from The Dhammapada
If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes.~ Andrew Carnegie
You could say this chapter is about the eighth toxic compulsion---co-dependency, otherwise known as being ‘stuck’---because the family system you grew up in is altered and dramatically affected by the addictive behaviors of any one of its members. If you don’t address this collective corrosion you may not be able to use the self-care tools in this book very effectively, or stay in recovery very long.
It was the founder of Alcoholic’s Anonymous, Bill Wilson, who once said: “you sober up a horse thief, you’ve got a sober horse thief.” By the same token, even if you clean up a person with a dependency of any of these toxic compulsions, there is probably still a co-dependent somebody in that person’s life who is stuck in a system of behaviors that can undermine recovery.
So this subject is the often overlooked holy grail of recovery. This is the issue that needs to be fundamentally addressed not only by the people who are affected by somebody’s disease of addiction, but by the addicts themselves. Even when you take the alcohol and drugs and other compulsions out of their life and out of the family structure, their system is still broken, still corroded by years of neglect. The relational toxicity is like a virus of attitudes and perceptions, of how you see the world, how you relate to life.
People come to me all the time and they say, “My daughter has a problem,” or “my son has a problem”, or, “my wife has a problem.” And I reply, “Okay, you want to know what to do? You're not going to like it.” And they go, “Oh, really?” They are sort of surprised. “You go take care of yourself,” I tell them. And usually they react with, “No, you don’t get it. My son (or daughter) has the problem, not me.” They simply don’t want to see how they are a part of the problem.
In AA’s big book on alcoholism there is the statement, “the root cause of our alcoholism is our defective relations with others.” That statement really applies to all of the toxic compulsions discussed in this book. We ruin our relationships and that makes us so uncomfortable that we further engage in the toxic compulsions to distract ourselves. This is at the core of how enabling behaviors evolve.
Most enablers believe they’re doing something for somebody who is in trouble and they wrap it up in this idea that “my kid is drowning and I’m going to save them.” What kind of monster wouldn’t try to save their loved one, right? The problem is they need to realize their family dynamic is probably at the center of why the loved one is drowning in a compulsion. Yes, there is a genetic component, and yes, there is a childhood trauma component, but everything is exacerbated by a toxic family dynamic. If that is unaddressed, it creates an enabling highway, and the enabler has as much invested in that highway as the person suffering with the active addiction.
Both of my parents had a problem with alcohol. My mother was a powerful and amazing woman in so many ways. Yet her life was a mess not just because of her circumstances, which included two brothers who were assassinated, and a divorce. I don’t diminish the importance of her circumstances. But her alcoholism never allowed her to process these experiences, and to ‘deal with it and move on from it.’ She was stuck and we children had to stand by and watch this person we loved in unbelievable pain and acting it out in all sorts of ways. We were powerless to do anything about it. There was nothing I could do that would help her and that affected me for the rest of my life. My dynamic in relationships became finding women who needed help so I could do something about it, which isn’t a healthy way to build relationships.
If somebody is engaged in their addiction and they’re not dying, and I mean like literally dying on a floor somewhere, the family and loved ones need to be firm with their boundaries. There was a time when I was dying on a floor and I couldn’t get up. I had pleurisy and pneumonia. I was on the methadone maintenance program. I was shooting cocaine everyday, and I was in law school. I was on the floor of my apartment and I couldn’t get up. All I could do was dial my mother. I didn’t want to dial 911 because I was afraid that might get the media involved. So I called my mother, the last person I wanted to call. She came over and I remember her stepping over my body to get to the phone. I'm crying because I literally can’t get up off the floor. My mother called somebody and an ambulance took me to a New York Hospital. They saved me and convinced me to go to rehab, and my only question was, “Can I get methadone in rehab?”
At that point, somebody had to save me. Otherwise, I would have died. If my mother had said, “no, you're a drug addict. I'm not coming over there,” I might have died. So you have to address the urgent life and death stuff. Once you've done that, what she should have done is said to me, “Look, these are your options. You go to treatment. If you don't go to treatment, lose my number. There's no money, there's no nothing, I will support you in your recovery for a period of time. then you're on your own. I really mean it.” And if she had done that, my drug addiction probably would have ended that day.
But my mother wasn’t healthy enough to do it. All of the stuff that she did, giving up her life for her kids, the family that she came from, her disappointments in her life, and her need to feel like the mother of the year, made her an enabler. It was all about her. She loved me and cared about me and wanted me to be healthy, but it was really all about her.
So I say to people in relationship with an addict, go take care of yourself and you will change everything. Most people don’t get it, or won’t do it. They don’t understand the connection. I am hoping this section of the book will help to make those interconnections much clearer and give the need to break free of them a sense of urgency.
You have to focus on yourself. You must take care of yourself. When you do that, everything changes in the family system because a sick system cannot tolerate somebody who is healthy. Either you leave the system, or the system changes. Many people think that seems too drastic. They don’t grasp how they are the product of a system that’s brilliant at obscuring reality. They don’t see how the attitude of family and friends that, “okay, let’s just get him clean and sober and we’re done,” is when the real problems start.
I am here to tell you there is no immediate gratification in this process. The process is difficult, painful, and it takes courage. The best you can hope for is that you’ll stop your enabling. But I can also reassure you that there is freedom at the end of this road, no matter who you are, whether you’re the toxic compulsion person or the victim of a toxic compulsion person. There is freedom awaiting you in terms of the way you live your life. That will be the best narcotic you’ve ever had.
The great Indian philosopher Gandhi once said something to the effect that a person who changes himself is more powerful than 10,000 armies. So recovery isn’t just about putting down the substances or stopping the compulsion processes. It’s about changing the core of who we are, and that’s a process that could last a lifetime and probably will.
So be gentle with yourself. Be as honest as you can be. Understand this as a process and your vision will change over time. Your vision will change if you have commitment. Once you see more clearly, you can’t do it anymore. The clarity will absolutely obliterate your need to engage in these toxic behaviors.