Help or hinder? Enable or detach? Empathize or criticize? Blow up or shut down? Set boundaries or build walls.

These dichotomies challenge loved ones. Depending on the circumstances, we may handle each differently. I’ve found that one of my most difficult struggles involves setting and maintaining firm boundaries.

Suppose that a loved one’s daughter lands a job but is unable to afford car repairs to get there.  Public transportation is not available since she lives in a rural area. She asks  for financial help to repair her car. Moreover, she promises to pay the money back. To decide whether or not to help, you might think something like this. Well she’s finally been able to land a job and is showing some responsibility by showing up and paying most of her bills. If she loses this job, how will she support herself? Then again, the last time I bailed her out financially she promised to pay me back , but she didn’t. This has happened more times than not.  Finally I told her in no uncertain terms that I would not lend any more money.  Then again if her car isn’t repaired she won’t have transportation to get to her job. Might there be other alternatives? Carpool with another employee? And if not, then do I go back on my word or do I cave in and rescue her? Am I helping or enabling? And how will this play out in the future?

This scenario illustrates the challenge of setting and sticking to boundaries. When I was new to my own recovery, a wise mentor advised me to be careful about setting boundaries. She said, “addiction and mental illness are moving targets and we can’t predict what will happen in the future or how we will respond. Try to avoid black and white thinking.” Good advice. Recently a friend reflected on the difference between a boundary and a wall. Over the years in dealing with his adult daughter, he discovered that his boundaries needed to be flexible. “A wall is rigid and intractable, while a boundary can be malleable depending on the situation.” He said years ago when his daughter phoned in a  frenzy in the middle of the night, he answered, listened, pleaded, worried and couldn’t get back to sleep. Gradually he came to realize that he had choices and set a boundary to not answer the phone and engage in those middle of the night dramas. Now years later his daughter is in recovery and he chooses to take a middle of the night phone call because he knows she’ll call only when there’s a genuine emergency.

Another friend set a boundary to not co-sign for a loan for her adult son. His old car was beyond repair and he needed to purchase another. Because his credit was poor, he didn’t qualify for a loan and asked his mother to co-sign. So she faced all too familiar boundary/wall dilemma. Luckily her son changed his mind. She was off the hook unless this happened again. .

I’ve faced this challenge as well. My adult son has been in and out of recovery for many years. I also have vowed to not co-sign any loan or rental arrangement. So far I haven’t been asked,  but I have vacillated many times on whether or not to provide funds for car repairs, dental bills, or a vet bill or two for his beloved dog. If he’s in recovery and struggling financially I usually agree to help, but I don’t give him money outright. Instead, I pay a bill directly with a check or credit card.  However, I’ve set a boundary to not help financially or otherwise should he be actively abusing substances. So far I’ve been able to stick to my guns.

All of this is not to say that at times setting and sticking to a firm boundary may be the best option for you and your loved one. Individuals need to be held responsible for their choices, good or bad. We learn from both our successes and our mistakes. However, addiction is a complex phenomenon. The decisions on how best to deal with our loved ones and also take care of ourselves aren’t easy. What works today may not work in the future. Try not to build walls. Instead remain flexible and keep an open heart. 

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