I feel lucky in the fact that, for the most part, Jeff and I don’t have any additional outside influences to navigate and combat as we battle his mental illness and addiction. Maybe on the outside looking in, that’s a bad thing, as I could see how some could view it as furthering our codependent relationship. However, through my extreme self-awareness and reflection, I feel it’s much simpler, the two of us, willing participants in his recovery, committed to understanding the illness, without additional stressors.
I used to watch the show Intervention quite religiously. Intervention, for other voyeurs like me out there, focuses on addicts and their addiction, with the ultimate goal of an intervention being performed for the addict and subsequent treatment. Sometimes I wonder if my life now is my karma for being such a greedy spectator. I easily sipped wine and got drunk on pity for the unwitting participants. I wondered what egregious sin the unknowing families and friends had committed in some past life to earn this merit badge of honor. We took guesses on if the person would relapse or make it through to a new found sobriety, untested. After the hour was over, we returned to our tied-up-with-a-bow life and turned on some other mind-numbing reality show featuring seven strangers, celeb-chef wannabes, or money hungry competitors. I didn't realize how easy it is to change a channel, how selfish to trivialize someone else’s struggle, how convenient it becomes to turn the TV off and on. Just. Like. That. It’s pretty gratifying to go to the zoo when you don't have to be locked up inside, I guess.
Regardless, there was one part of the show that always was hardest to watch for me – and that was the occasional family member who was trying his/her best to help, but was only continuing to enable. Whether it was mom who allowed her son to continue to live in her basement while he was using and not in recovery, the grandma who provided money for the score, the sibling or friend who still used with or around the addict, I would always want to leap into the TV and grab them and say, “Stop! You're making it worse!” But two minutes later, I would return to whatever bad food we had ordered in that night, and the ugly mixture of charity and entertainment just swirled around in my mind. I imagine it as the ugly brown color that results when a little kid mixes too many finger paints together. I'm really glad I don't have to deal with those types of additional mazes, all of the time. Jeff’s parents live across the country, which is good for now because that could easily become a part of our story, too.
The dynamics with families are difficult to navigate. First, there could be untreated addiction there, too. I know that there is guilt, confusion, fear, blame, anger, and sadness. I also know that no one talks about these things. There is a lack of understanding of addiction, and while there are earnest attempts to try, parents sometimes cannot grow out of the mindset that this is a problem to be conquered, not a disease that the addict will need to manage and work at for the rest of his life. I see it in Jeff - I know he is not always honest with his family, but I am, so that creates additional problems. While Jeff is telling them, “I’m fine,” I’m telling them things like, “He relapsed again.” Who would you believe? Your son that you only see a few times a year, but a person you raised? Or the wife he married that you only see a few times a year, that you barely know? I get it. It’s hard to have someone who you love look you in the eyes and lie to you. They aren't at the point of understanding yet. How can they be? They don’t live this every day.
The things families can do are well-intentioned, but enabling. They also do these things against our wishes. Jeff's visited this week, which is why the timely nature of this blog. I told them, “Jeff has relapsed and has been drinking mouthwash. He spent the little money we have left to do this, so please do not give him any more cash. If you must give him money, please give him gift cards to places where he can buy lunch or coffee and not places that sell alcohol.” They gave him a $200 cash gift card behind my back. He told me immediately, and I asked him to express to them directly that he cannot be trusted with cash. He did, and they still tried to give him more cash.
The first time Jeff was in the hospital, he asked me to ask that they not call him because of the stress he feels from their relationship. When I spoke with them, I told them he needs some time to process and he will call you. They tracked down the line to the psychiatric unit, smooth talked the operator (who is not supposed to connect anyone to a patient without a code word to ensure anonymity), and got him on the line. Well-intentioned, but it was also not very respectful.
It’s even more difficult when they are here because of the fact that they, again, do not live this every day. They see Jeff as their son and me as his wife. They are mainly concerned with his health and well-being. They forget that I am also someone’s child and that this is hard for me, too. Jeff’s mom was a tremendous savior the last time he was in the hospital, coming here to help me take care of the household while he was committed. But her constant reminders that this is, “All about Jeff,” that I should, “Be strong for Jeff,” that I couldn't, “think about myself,” were all too much to bear.
Because of the pattern of dishonesty that has been established in his family – with each other, with themselves, coupled with Jeff’s addiction, honesty is the hardest pattern for him to establish. I've seen him slip backwards while they are here regarding that goal, and I see how he gets wrapped up in what other people think and do, rather than the necessity of being honest and direct about his own feelings. He called me at work, while I was in the middle of multiple problems, tough conversations, and stressful issues no less than a half dozen times, freaking out about how he couldn't please anyone. If he had just been honest with everyone, most importantly himself, it could have been avoided. The cycle needs to be broken in the place where it started, and until he can do that, his recovery will not be as strong as it could be.
But again, it’s easy for me to spectate and point fingers. I've also come to realize they aren't the only ones who sometimes don’t know any better. I could easily be sitting on that intervention couch, having the interventionist telling me all the ways I enable this situation. Unfortunately, we all can’t afford to go to the Betty Ford Clinic for Families, but we can take it, one day, and one step at a time, which is what any recovery program will say anyways. I’m trying to navigate, and I feel like I do a much better job than could be expected, but I still need to do a better job on my own of setting boundaries, discouraging and breaking the co-dependency, and letting go of Jeff’s choices and making my own.