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Addicts in recovery get better… they aren’t cured. There is a spectrum of what constitutes better. Many addicts in recovery stop acting out with their drug of choice as a result of working a diligent program that involves peer support, therapy, and family reconstruction. However, it’s not 100%. Some never stop using and at best learn to reduce the harm of their addictive behavior. There are national coalitions that help develop strategies for overdose prevention and harm reduction education that are helpful in all forms of addictive behavior.
Even when an alcoholic puts the cork in the bottle, many migrate to other more acceptable destructive behaviors like obsessive work, rage, or pleasing others. Addicts become obsessive in their attempts to craft a cocktail of addictive behaviors to fill in the hole that exists in their soul.
Enmeshment is a common underlying issue in the treatment of addictive behavior. It is a result of boundary violations in relationships. It is the absence of differentiation and autonomy. Children in dysfunctional families become enmeshed in the pathology and are unable to individuate. Enmeshment becomes the bond that holds the family together. It is the personalization of another’s reality, problems, feelings, beliefs, and so on. Enmeshment grows from storied belief systems, family rules, and premises that provide protection and loyalty through denial and sometimes threats in a family system. It is the result of poor role modeling, abandonment, and neglect as well as other forms of abuse that exist in a family. Addicts repeat symptoms of enmeshment as an underlying attempt to resolve childhood dilemmas. It is repeated throughout life without conscious awareness. It becomes a significant obstacle in recovery that stymies an addict’s journey toward establishing self-esteem and intimacy.
Enmeshment is intergenerational. In other words, the family problems that existed in your family of origin are most likely to appear in your nuclear family and relationships. You may do the opposite from some problematic behaviors but essentially the dysfunctional behaviors are passed from one generation to another through denial and minimization. Here is an example, my grandfather (on dad’s side) died from alcoholism. He was a raging, mean alcoholic. My dad got religion and was a teetotaler. My brother David, died from alcoholism and cocaine abuse secretive to members of his family of origin. It was fueled by the denial of his nuclear family. Through denial, it is likely that the dysfunctional strategy of embracing the improbable and denying the obvious will be passed onto future generations. The thread that keeps the dysfunction alive is enmeshment. It is the primary basis for codependency, isolation, spiritual bankruptcy, and addictive behavior.
Enmeshment runs deep and is unlikely to be curable. My father learned to deal with his fear of abandonment from his father by protecting his mother. My grandfather would get drunk, come home, and try to kill my grandmother. My dad would try to protect his mother but was inevitably helpless. When his father finally left the household my dad quit school in the 8th grade to work to provide for his mother and siblings. All of my lifetime my dad had two to three jobs. He lived his life with the scarcity of never having enough. This became the intergenerational connection to my own workaholism.
My mother tragically was involved in an accident at age 9. While playing with candles with her little sister who was 6, wind blew the flames onto the dress her sister was wearing and before help could be found her sister was badly burned and later died from her injuries. My mother believed she killed her sister. She became a very good baseball player in an attempt to seek her parent’s approval. Later she gave her life for service to the poor in an attempt to seek the approval of God. Both behaviors were pursued with extreme intensity. It’s the serious magnitude of pursuit that marks enmeshment. She needed to be more to keep from being less. She never learned where she stopped and others began. Though impacted by dementia in her dying days, one of her last statements of confusion related to being on time for a baseball game and a reference to having killed her sister. My mother’s compulsive care toward others became a root trigger of my own codependent behavior as a partner, parent, and professional. These roots are deep and most likely will take a lifetime to address.
Enmeshment is manageable. While I seriously doubt that the depths of enmeshment will be cured, I do experience dramatic improvement toward
self-management. I think the management of enmeshment is a proper focus and not a cure. I have been able to stop sexually acting out and curb my workaholism. I have not cured my enmeshment that is expressed through codependent behavior. I have been influenced by over one hundred years of codependent behavior from parents and my own practice. It is unlikely that I will have a “born again” experience around enmeshment. That said, I do not give license to allowing enmeshment to run hopelessly amok. Here are some considerations that have been helpful in my recovery.
1. Practice setting internal boundaries around issues and areas of life where you are prone to lose yourself. In consultation clarify the achilles heel life experiences that trigger enmeshment. It could be your partner’s behavior, your kids’ safety, other people’s problems, etc. Internal boundaries focus on your recognition of limits. Verbalize those limits and your defined boundaries to others so they can hold you accountable as you manage your tendency to enmeshment. You will need their support to remain clear and remind you when you have crossed an internal boundary. Visualizing internal boundaries is like adjusting the focus on binoculars. You must pay attention to the pull of enmeshment or you will quickly lose focus. Recovery from enmeshment is a practice not a peak for perfection.
2. Make Step 3 an everyday lifestyle practice. In the Big Book, Step 3 is “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” Whether you identify with God or another energy source, managing enmeshment requires surrendering what you cannot control. It is a struggle simply to recognize your enmeshed behavior. You might be convinced that you are compassionately caring or standing for principle. However, upon reflection, you realize that you have got out of your lane and need to surrender your care or your insistence of being right because it is not about you. This will not be a one and done humbling experience. Some days it happens with multiple issues. It can be discouraging but it does require “turning it over” and getting back in your lane.
3. Practice humility. When your kids tell you they experience you as disconnected and absent when you spent your time worrying about money, profession, and the like—believe them! Don’t get defensive and try to help them understand. Just accept your shortcomings. You don’t want to hurt your kids but you did. It’s not always black or white. It doesn’t mean you are a schmuck even if you didn’t prioritize them when you were enmeshed with your work, seeking approval, or trying to fix something. I have learned that the best response to children’s experience is to validate and ask “How can I be supportive now.” Validation is not a brush over. It involves a genuine honest acceptance of your son or daughter’s experience of you.
4. Accept that you are not perfect while being accountable. Mentally you can accept that you are not perfect in your recovery. However, translating this reality to your heart is no small chore. Recovery is about the journey and not about arriving. Your enmeshment behavior will teach you to embrace your real self if you will allow yourself to be accountable and coachable.
5. Poise and perspective is the result of recovery practice. There is a tendency to look to wise old sages in recovery rooms with the perception that they have arrived. Yet, perspective that cultivates poise is gifted to the addict who understands that recovery from enmeshment is a journey, not a place to arrive. Recovery creates your own identity separate from what you do for others. The antidote for enmeshment is identity. Recovery is a journey of recognizing that you are an unrepeatable miracle of God as you separate your being from healthy and unhealthy behaviors. The more you identify being separate from your behaviors the less you will be stuck in the muck and mire of enmeshment.