by Patti Fish Stephens
There is a small pamphlet used in 12-step programs called “Just for Today.” I readily admit that this type of literature never appealed to me before I joined Nar-Anon, but I have found that no matter how Pollyanna-ish some of the writing may sound and no matter how many cliches it may repeat, it also usually contains a significant portion of wisdom. Cliches are, more often than not, true.
Just for today, I will adjust myself to what is, and not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my “luck” as it comes, and fit myself to it.
Recently I have been thinking a lot about this part of “Just for Today” as it pertains not only to dealing with my daughter’s addiction, but to all of the significant relationships in my life. “And since,” as my literary hero Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, “I think best with a pencil in my hand, I started naturally to write.”
I will adjust myself to what is
This phrase is just another way of describing acceptance. Nothing could have prepared me for having to accept that I had a child addicted to heroin. Before my daughter’s addiction came to light (and for a while after as well), I thought that I could change any situation in my life if I just tried hard enough. After all, isn’t this the American Way? To better myself through hard work and dedication? Isn’t this what every self-help tome extols and every motivational speaker preaches? Don’t like your job? Work harder! Visualize it and you will land that dream job! (Horatio Alger was a fictional character, my friends. Stop with the blasted bootstrap metaphors.) Unhappy marriage? Use these tricks to improve your relationship without your spouse even knowing! Want more money? Say this prayer and believe hard enough, and it will appear!
But here’s the thing about all of that self-help advice: it’s mostly bullshit. And for an adult child of an alcoholic, it can be downright toxic.
It’s one thing to try to better yourself. It’s quite another to take on the responsibility of everything in your sphere and try to manipulate it to be the way you want it to be or think it should be instead of accepting the reality of a situation or relationship. There is nothing like living with an addict to drive home this point. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make my daughter want to get better while she was in active use, and my efforts to do it for her very likely only prolonged her active addiction and delayed her decision to get help for treating her disease. It took multiple relapses for me to understand that although I said I accepted my powerlessness over her disease, I was only giving it lip service. I was still, at times, trying to “fix” it for her. The only way to accept the situation was to stop trying to fix it, because it wasn’t mine to fix no matter how badly I wanted the crisis to end so that I could go back to my peaceful, carefree life. Part of my yoga mantra for the past year has been I will accept what is.
and not try to adjust everything to my own desires.
I grew up in a home where alcoholism and depression were the norm. Screaming matches which occasionally turned physical were a major source of stress for me as a small child. My coping mechanism was perfectionism; my escape was reading. I thought that if I was just quiet enough, if I was just good enough, the adults in my life would stop yelling and our family would be happy. This type of coping mechanism, which is very common among adult children of alcoholics/addicts (ACOAs), leads to behavior patterns which can be very harmful later in life. The child knows something isn’t right about her atmosphere, but no adult is making it right, therefore the child takes on this responsibility, resulting in a skewed perception of boundaries and influence.
I have done this my entire life. I have never accepted the reality of a “bad” situation or relationship because I always thought I could–and should–change it. And if I couldn’t fix it? Then the bad situation or relationship was my fault, which then added a layer of guilt to my unhealthy perception of responsibility. Add to this the fact that ACOAs often develop an abnormally strong sense of loyalty “even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved” (see Janet Woititz’s book, Adult Children of Alcoholics), and the result is disastrous for an ACOA’s self-esteem. A strong sense of responsibility is fine as long as it really pertains something in my sphere of control, such as my own decisions or behavior. The problem is, an ACOA thinks everyone’s problems are her own. This is not hubris; it is desperation. She is still trying to fix what could never be fixed in her childhood.
This most often manifests itself as trying to influence or change the behavior of the people closest to us in our network of relationships. This is why the first step of Nar-Anon’s 12 step program is: We admitted we were powerless over the addict — that our lives had become unmanageable. This is especially difficult for parents to accept, because we have spent our lives trying to shape our offspring into decent human beings. It’s our job (up to a certain point) to make sure they behave in socially acceptable ways, according to our particular set of societal and family values. But when addiction enters the picture, everything changes. The old models of parent/child relationships no longer work. We must cease trying to change our addict’s behavior and control our addict’s disease in order to survive the ordeal. That doesn’t mean we don’t love or offer assistance to our addicts, but it does mean that we stop trying to emotionally manipulate our addict into getting clean, or manipulate situations or other people to help our addict avoid the consequences of their addiction, or otherwise try to change their behavior to fit our idea of who they should be.
Learning, in such a visceral way, that I can’t control or change another person’s behavior–even in the face of a life-threatening illness–is having a profound impact on how I relate to family and friends. I have, necessarily, had to focus a great deal on my own recovery, especially over the last year since my daughter’s nearly fatal overdose. This has given me a lot of time to reflect on past and present relationships and what I can do to improve them (there’s that ACOA behavior again), or, in some cases, to recognize what I can’t fix. Trying to truly practice the principles of the Nar-Anon program has helped me to be more sensitive to the types of situations in which this kind of controlling behavior occurs. Initially I learned from dealing with these situations with my daughter, but over time, accepting powerlessness over others and responsibility only for myself has led to another epiphany: no one else can–or should–try to control or change me. And I don’t have to let them. If someone doesn’t accept me exactly the way I am, it is not a healthy relationship for me.
Want to know how an addict feels when we try to “help” them? Think about the exasperation you felt the last time someone tried to talk you into something you had clearly stated you didn’t want to do (like the pushy telemarketer, door-to-door petition collector, or proselytizers trying to convert you with their pamphlets). Or badgered you with instructions on exactly how to fix your problem because they “knew better.” Or dropped what they thought were subtle hints about something they thought you needed to do or change in your life. Or gave you unsolicited advice instead of empathy during a crisis. Yes, we’ve probably all been guilty of doing this at one time or another, and we’ve all probably been on the receiving end of it as well. But if this behavior becomes a pattern in any relationship, then it is time to look for some help in setting boundaries. Nar-Anon, Al-Anon, and private counseling can all help, whether you are the giver or receiver of this type of behavior. (Stepping down off soap box.)
I will take my “luck” as it comes, and fit myself to it.
For me, this means, first and foremost, accepting that my daughter is a recovering addict; this is the reality of my family and my life as I now know it, and I cannot change that.
Secondly, “fitting myself to it” means choosing how I let that reality impact me. As much as I want to take responsibility for it, my daughter’s addiction is not my problem, therefore it is not my job to “fix” it. My job is to decide what recovery looks like for me and to live in that truth. That means that my recovery comes first for me. Only when I am healthy can I help anyone else. Right now, I have decided that my role in my daughter’s life is to support her recovery while not trying to manage it or change her.
But I can apply this principle to nearly any situation in my life, realizing that it is no longer my responsibility (it never was!) to try to change a given situation, only to choose my response to it. Sometimes “fitting” myself to a situation may mean to step away from it. Other times it may mean to dig in and fight for something I believe in. But it never, ever means that I am to be a doormat for others or take on the role of victim. And that, my friends, is liberating. You are only responsible for you, and I am only responsible for me. And that’s the way it should be.
If this post has resonated with you, please share it. And if you want a humorous (albeit profane) take on setting boundaries, check out The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight.