Let’s be honest: loving someone with an alcohol/drug problem can be brutal. Fear, anxiety, hope, disappointment, painful truths, even more painful lies. And…as long as there’s still love, there’s a lot to keep fighting and hoping for.
But what to do? How to respond? What does “keep fighting” or helping really look like?
You may find that you swing from one end of the continuum of involvement to the other: very active versus disengaged. Sometimes this swinging is in response to the panic/exhaustion effects of loving someone with these problems. In moments of panic, you may get very involved in helping or even taking over in planning and getting things done for your loved one. And at times of exhaustion or anger, you may avoid any engagement at all.
You have likely heard the message that some believe the disengagement end of the continuum is the best place for loved ones to stay (e.g., distance with love). There are numerous reasons however that being in a position of disengagement is not actually helpful and in many cases often simply unrealistic. The reality is that each of the opposite ends of the involvement continuum can be helpful or harmful at different times, as we’ll see in the example below. While the swinging back and forth is completely normal, the problem is that when it is frequent and intense, it can be confusing, exhausting, and counterproductive for both of you.
Sometimes swinging back and forth – first taking over and then disappearing – is an attempt to correct a previously unbalanced position. For example, if you have tended to take on too much for the other person, you may attempt to re-balance by pulling back and inadvertently pull too far back. This is all too common when there are other issues present such as ADHD or depression. You naturally may have developed a pattern of doing a lot of things that your partner or child has had a great deal of trouble doing (in the case of ADHD, help with organizing, planning, scheduling – in the case of depression, maybe help with getting going in the morning or planning social activities). That kind of active involvement is often helpful, especially in periods of transition or greater stress. Over time, however, you may find that being in the helping role is not so helpful anymore to either of you. When you are doing too much you are likely to hit a wall of exhaustion or frustration (and your loved one is not learning to do things themselves), and respond by sliding too far on the continuum in attempting to shift this pattern, landing in a place where you suddenly give very little feedback or assistance at all.
It is probably clear that a dramatic shift like this isn’t so healthy, but when you are in your routines it can be really difficult to visualize what a middle or more gradual stance might be. And so you find yourself swinging from one pole to the other.
Let’s consider some specifics to envision another way: a mother with a 20-something son, longstanding ADHD struggles, now smoking marijuana more and more often. His mother has done a lot of supportive scaffolding for him over the years due to his executive functioning struggles (trouble sticking to a structure of planning, prioritizing, scheduling, and breaking larger tasks into smaller pieces). Her support was helpful in the beginning, but over time he did not naturally take over the responsibility for managing these difficulties as everyone might have hoped, and she continued to do it all for him. Now that the marijuana has been added in, she is more angry and exhausted and decides her help is getting in the way of him learning these skills on his own.
This is a helpful insight about her pattern of involvement, but a common polarized response might be to step out of active involvement altogether, leaving him to fend for himself on all fronts. This is problematic because although it may be true that his mother’s help is in some ways standing in the way of him having learning opportunities for increasing his organization skills, losing her help all at once is unlikely to result in him suddenly developing the skills on his own. And in fact, might result in him increasing his substance use out of feelings of frustration and helplessness.
A middle-ground response might be for her to get him a temporary coach for setting up structures of organization with him. Or better yet, have him sit with her as they both make phone calls to ADHD coach options – researching together what is available with an ideally collaboratively-created list of questions to ask. She might also (or instead) choose to identify specific organizational skills that she is willing to reward when he does them (such as turning in job applications or getting up on time a percentage of the week, putting his medication in a pill box for the week, etc.). These middle ground options allow the son to practice doing more for himself in a step-wise manner (getting some assistance at first, with the expectation of increased independence over time). They are also examples of a parent being present and attentive (i.e., not disengaged), but also not taking over in an unhelpful way: options more in the middle area of the involvement continuum.
The key is consistency – following through in a planful way, assessing situations for the individual characteristics they contain (rather than gluing oneself to a single spot on the continuum on principle). It is not helpful for a 20-something year old man to need his mother’s help in organizing his life, but it is also not helpful for her to pull out of that help in a sudden way. It can be confusing and overwhelming to have a loved one be “all-in” and then suddenly “all-out.” At the same time, when exhaustion, anger, and frustration build up, as they understandably can do when loving someone with these problems, that urge to jump out into disengagement can be strong.
Patterns of consistent responding – with more and more actions being in the middle areas of that involvement continuum – require really mindful consideration of one’s own needs and boundaries. How do you take good care of yourself so fatigue does not become exhaustion? As a parent or a partner of someone who struggles with substance use or other issues like ADHD, depression or anxiety, your love and desire to help are crucially important. But to stay balanced in your efforts and to consistently avoid swinging to extremes of over- or under-responding, you need to carve out time to tend to your own needs. Eating well, sleeping, exercising, unwinding, engaging in enjoyable activities, spending time with other family and friends who are nourishing – these are all ways to offset the stress of trying to help your loved one. If that priority falls off the radar, the risk increases for a return to swinging from one end of that continuum to the other.