Last week, Dr. Jason Brooks shared with us one family’s struggle in loving their son who is addicted. This week, their story of enabling and codependency continues with what it looks like to “love someone to death.”
Recognized as one of the most prominent emerging voices in personal and organizational transformation, Dr. Jason Brooks is also likely to be one of the most authentic, transparent and “real”. Viewed by many as the “youth pastor of personal growth and success”, his life mission of “bringing hope, healing, and inspiration to everyone he meets and leading on the journey for change, growth, and success” provides the foundation and focus where his purpose and passion are fully unleashed.
As a bestselling author, inspirational speaker, and Chief People Officer of Vertava Health, Dr. Jason brings a heart for helping others to achieve their greatest potential and success…one step at a time.
Enabling our Son who is Addicted
The next week when I met with Joe and Sarah, it was clear they were in better spirits and eager to share more of their story of the challenges with Michael over the last six years. My preferred approach to psychotherapy is a combination of dialectical behavior therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, solution-focused therapy, and narrative therapy…so I’m more focused on the future rather than understanding the past. But, in many instances, what brought the client to the point of needing my help is important to understanding the resources they have for moving forward, so I was excited to hear more about how they had approach the issue of their son, Michael’s, struggle with his growing addiction.
“When we first were confronted with the arrest of Michael when he was 18 for drunk driving, it was hard for us to believe”, Joe said. “We really didn’t want to accept there was an issue at all. It was easier for us to chalk it up to a stupid mistake rather than see it as the first step of an excruciatingly painful journey that almost destroyed our family.”
“Take me back to this first instance. Tell me what happened when you went to the police station”, I asked.
Sarah began. “When we went down there, Michael was brought to us. He was in tears, scared, and looked terrible. My heart broke. Because of the level of alcohol in his system, he was being held on bail. I couldn’t stand to see my “little boy” in jail, so we bailed him out and brought him home.”
“Was there any discussion of consequences for his actions?”, I asked.
“Well, we definitely told him how disappointed we were in him…but actual discussion of consequences, not really. We thought it was traumatic enough for him to have been arrested and thought that would scare him straight”, Joe said.
Based on my experience, rescuing without consequences is not healthy for the person struggling with addiction or the family. Often family members who give money think they’re doing the right thing because they don’t want their loved one to suffer. But, ultimately, it can be enabling where accountability to consequences for behavior is not experienced. As Joe and Sarah continued their story, I soon realized this was just the first of a pattern of enabling behavior they showed. It’s not that they wanted to hurt Michael, but through their continual rescuing, they were ultimately killing him with love.
“As you think back on the next several years of his continued alcohol and drug abuse, what other situations stand out to you as being decisions you made that were not best for him or the family”, I asked.
“Lots!”, said Joe. “If we only knew then what we know now…”
Sarah chimed in, “but we couldn’t see…”
“Or, didn’t want to see”, Joe interrupted. “Sarah and I both played a part. Over the next three years, problems popped up periodically, but not all at once to let us know how bad it really was. He graduated from high school, although his grades really slipped the last semester. We just thought that was because he was ready to graduate and move on to college and lost a little of his focus. During the summer between high school and college, he had a full-time job at the movie theater. He worked odd schedules, often coming home very late, sometimes several hours after the last movie. We’d ask why he was out so late and he would say he stayed to help clean, or some other reason. He always had an excuse, but we never followed up. Hindsight, he was getting off work and meeting with friends in the parking lot to get high.”
Sarah went on. “Yea, and he also was always asking us for money. We couldn’t understand it because he was working, but he would ask us at least once a week for gas money, money to pay his car insurance, money for a quick dinner with friends…whatever. We didn’t want him to worry about money, so we just helped him out. This continued even when he went off to college. When we would visit him, he’d make little comments about how much it cost to live on campus and we’d give him some money.”
“Then I’d slip him another $50 before we left without Sarah knowing, just to help a little more because I wanted him to focus on his school work instead of worrying about money”, said Joe. “If we only knew where the money was going…”
This is a loving mistake that many parents make. They don’t want “money” to be an anchor for their kids, but without asking the right questions, a free-flow of cash could actually be enabling drug and alcohol use. The reality is, as adults we’re all accountable to the consequences of where we spend but unfortunately, we’re not teaching this to our children.
“Thinking about money, what expenses was he responsible for when he was in college to help him learn life financial management skills?”. I could have guessed the answer, but I had to ask anyway.
“Well, really nothing. We paid for his car, we paid for his phone, we paid for his school, room, and board. He did pay for his own car insurance, but there were some months when he didn’t have the money, so we had to step in. He did have a part-time job when he was on campus working in the residence hall, but we really continued to pay for everything. It’s strange that when we would ask about his savings, he just always seemed to be say he didn’t have enough money to start his savings and he was always…broke.”
“Gotcha”, I said. “What else did you in his behavior?”
Joe began. “Starting toward the end of his sophomore year, we started to get a sense that all was not well. His grades, while average from the beginning, started to slip. He had an excuse for that. He said I needed to quit his job so he could study more because the classes were getting a lot harder. When we’d call him, he would be shorter on the phone and not share much about what was going on. We thought this was just him trying to be more independent and didn’t want to pry…but there was something in our gut that didn’t set well. He had an excuse for everything. And ultimately our acceptance of his excuses, lies, cover-ups, and half-truths were taking him further and further and further down the path of his addiction.”
“We wanted to believe him. We’d always been honest with him and expected he would be the same”, said Sarah. “We’ve only ever wanted the best for Michael. We have sacrificed so much…”
“So, when your eyes started to be opened, what did you see?” I asked.
“He’d been lying to us for years”, Joe said. “He was taking the money to buy alcohol, getting drunk three, sometimes, four nights a week. What started as alcohol in high school escalated to include marijuana, cocaine and heroin in college. He was getting high on our money and destroying his life in the process. He got fired from his part-time job because he missed too many days. He was skipping classes, not doing his homework, and failing out of college. We even found out when he would come home for summers, he was taking money out of Sarah’s purse and buying his drugs with it. He even found out about a savings account we had set up for him when he started high school that we had been putting money into through the years with the intent of giving to him when he graduated from college so he could set up a home and start fresh, out of debt, with his whole life ahead of him. He drained the account and you can imagine what he did with the money.”
“Not only that”, said Sarah, “but he was isolating himself from everyone. He wanted nothing to do with us and he completely abandoned his close high school friends and kids from his youth group. We couldn’t understand it and it broke our hearts.”
“His life was consumed and we had lost our son”, Joe said with a tremble in his voice. “Alcohol and drugs had taken over. This relationships, education, physical health, emotional self, everything was being destroyed. He was killing himself…our son was dying right before our eyes.”
I could tell both Joe and Sarah were feeling incredible shame, guilt, betrayal, and brokenness not only because of what Michael had done but their part in enabling his addiction by not asking the tough questions, not being more involved in their sons life to help lead and guide him into adulthood, not establishing appropriate consequences, and not seeing the signs. We continued to talk through some final parts and then I gave Joe and Sarah some homework…
At the end of our session, I said “you’ve learned a lot about yourselves and the pain that comes from codependency and enabling through those several years with Michael. For next week, I’d like you to make a list of some of the things you’ve learned and what you would share with others who are caught in a similar cycle that would help them avoid some of the pain you’ve experienced and put them in a position to help their loved one struggling with addiction sooner. Make sense?”
“It does”, Joe said. “We’ve learned so much…and had so much pain. If there’s anything we can do to help someone else, we’re all in. We’ll see you next week.”