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Detaching with Love

Loved ones need to let go.

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Like thousands before me who visited the Academia in Florence, Italy, I was astounded by the magnificence of Michelangelo’s statue of David.

Yet I was most taken with the artist’s statues of four Prisoners or Slaves, his “non-finito” (incomplete) works. The Prisoners consist of four nudes with only parts of their bodies, like the head or leg, complete.The rest of their bodies are trapped inside the marble trying to emerge. The Prisoners evoke the enormous strength of creative expression and the eternal struggle of humans to free themselves from bondage.

During that visit, I felt as trapped as those prisoners. For years, I struggled to control my adult son’s substance abuse. My efforts failed, but that didn’t stop me. I thought that if I tried hard enough, yelled loud enough, and threatened long enough, my son would stop the insanity that was destroying his life.

When his checks bounced, I covered them. When he stole money from my wallet, I ignored it. When he landed in jail, I bailed him out. When he failed to come home, I searched the seedy parts of town where the junkies and prostitutes hung out. I could not carve myself loose from co-dependency. Finally, when my heart became as heavy as a block of marble and my spirit as broken as shattered glass, I had to admit that I needed help. When a friend suggested a twelve-step program for loved ones, I decided to give it a try.

Cutting Loose

The program's tools helped shape my recovery. I had to abandon my rock-solid belief that I could fix my son. I had to learn how to detach.

But detaching felt counterintuitive. Aren’t parents responsible for nurturing and protecting their children? It’s programmed into our DNA, particularly for moms. Since control is a major stumbling block, program meetings begin with the Serenity Prayer, “God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” Not surprisingly, the first of the twelve steps involved admitting that we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable. In fact, the first three steps deal with abandoning our self-will and handing it over to a benevolent Higher Power. The slogan, "Let Go, let God" underscores this need to relinquish control. Or as my friend, Mary says, “We need to keep our spoon in our own bowls.” My sponsor often reminds me that every time I step in to take care of my son’s business, I deprive him of the opportunity to accomplish something and feel good about it.

Detaching with Love

Control is a central issue in addiction; it’s a big deal for addicts and their loved ones. Addicts convince themselves that they can control their use. Loved ones convince themselves that they can control the addict. When enabling fails (as it often does), loved ones face difficult choices. Continue the craziness. Let go completely. Detach. But how?

For me, detaching with love is not the same as “tough love.” Tough love is a stringent approach with strict, unconditional rules for unacceptable behavior: “If you steal from me one more time, I am kicking you out of the house.” Since loving someone with a substance abuse disorder is grueling, turning our backs on our loved ones can seem justified. That’s the approach doled out by the media in shows on intervention.

In contrast, detaching with love is less harsh and more flexible. We don’t step in and take responsibility for our loved ones' behavior. They must deal with the natural consequences of that behavior. But we do learn how to make wise choices rather than react out of anxiety, fear, and anger.

Early on in my recovery program, I was introduced to the slogan, “detach with love." While I grasped it intellectually, I couldn’t let go emotionally. As I learned more, I came to accept addiction as an illness that hijacks the brain. It can be arrested but not cured. This helped me develop compassion toward my son and recognize that my fixing was fear-based. I had to learn how to take care of myself and navigate that thin line between helping and enabling. Is this good for me? Can I live with the outcome of my decision? What are my motives? What are my choices? Is this a wise choice?

It took me a long time to slow down and not jump in to fix things. Now, when my son runs into a problem, I listen instead of offering unsolicited advice. I don’t act impulsively. I take time to think. Often, I’ll say, “Let me think about this and I’ll get back to you.” Or if we disagree, I don’t argue. A simple, “You might be right,” helps defect quarrels. The slogans “think” and “listen and learn” have become invaluable. So does the cliché “mind your own business.” As does a sense of humor.

Cultivating compassion and detaching with love have been important tools in my recovery. They’ve helped me chisel my way toward freedom. Unlike Michelangelo’s Prisoners, I no longer feel trapped in co-dependency. I am free to choose how to live.

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