Understanding Codependence: How to Help an Addict, Tips
Loving -- But Not Helping -- An Addict
Posted Sep 14, 2009
Not too long ago, Melody Beattie barged into a therapy session I was leading, knocked the door off its hinges and overturned the coffee table by my chair. For a long moment, I couldn't quite tell whether it was reality or its opposite that had let itself into my office. (Before I proceed, I should make it clear that it was decidedly unreality -- Ms. Beattie herself didn't explode all over our session, but her clinical surrogate most definitely did.)
If you're not familiar with Melody Beattie, you should be: She developed the concept of codependence as illustrated in her self-help juggernaut Codependent No More. The concept, embraced by the mainstream to the point of water cooler ubiquity, is one of the most important concepts to have emerged from psychological thought in the past fifty years.
In a nutshell, codependence describes the psychological process that ensues when an individual loves an addict. One of the takeaways from Ms. Beattie's book is that loving an addict is akin to hell on earth. She walks the reader through the various ways in which the supposed caretaker isn't actually caring at all -- but rather reinforcing the addiction, or, as they say in twelve-step groups, enabling.
In the session in which Ms. Beattie appeared (in spirit), my client described an episode in which her friend had once again been arrested for drug possession, and my client drove to the jail in the middle of the night to bail her out.
I asked her why she'd done it. Her answer seemed impenetrable in its simplicity: loyalty. My client's belief is that this is what you do when you love someone -- you help them when they're in need.
Thank goodness for self-helps books like Codependent No More and therapists who can serve as objective guides in moments of clouded judgment. I admit that I wanted to spring to my feet and shout, "No! You can't bail her out!" but I opted instead for something more neutral. In brief, I asked her to read Ms. Beattie's book and spoke to my client about the myths of "helping" an addict.
Let me be clear before I make a pronouncement that leads to unwarranted hate mail: If someone you love is addicted, it is important to offer your love and support. If your loved one ends up in the slammer, it is understandable that you'd bail him or her out. But my advice changes when it comes to loved ones who continue to screw up and whom you continue to bail out.
If you rush, on cue, to pick up the pieces every time, you're not doing anyone any favors. You must be aware of the long-term damage you can do to yourself in investing in something that might repeatedly bring dismal returns.
True love is not about repeated rescue, it's about productive mutuality - in other words, consistently and respectfully loving someone who consistently loves you back.
Feel free to explore my book on dysfunctional relationships, Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve, or follow me on Twitter!