Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What do You Want to Do?

That’s what I always ask when I get a call from a fellow Al-Anon in a crisis. The call usually begins with a lengthy explanation of their alcoholic’s latest drama, wrapping up with “I don’t know what to do.”

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of calls from parents of adult children. Usually, the adult child has a housing crisis. Either he or she is living with the parent or about to be evicted from whatever living situation they were in. Usually, the adult child’s situation is the consequence of actions they have taken or choices they have made.

When it comes down to that, I tell the parents that I’m going to give them the Al-Anon response, but it all comes down to this: What are you comfortable with, and what are you willing to do?

The Al-Anon response is very simple. Your adult child is experiencing the consequence of his or her actions. In Al-Anon, I eventually came to believe that it’s best not to get in God’s way by putting a cushion between my loved one and her consequences, no matter how painful. When I do that, I only delay her from making changes in her life. Because if I’m willing to give her an easier alternative, why should she change?

For me, the best answer is to be loving, but not offer a solution. I say something like, “That sounds very hard, honey. I’m so sorry to hear you’re having such a hard time. No. I can’t [let you stay here/give you money/whatever else] But I love you and I know you’re going to figure this out.”

Not every parent is ready to do this. Hence the question. What do you want to do?

Usually, the parent will tell me their adult child has no options. Usually, I point out that their adult child has other options, but has chosen not to exercise them.

One parent told me her newly sober adult son had been offered rehab but “that would be like jail.” His old network of friends were alcoholics, she said, so he couldn’t call them.

I asked if he had been to AA, a ready made support group with a mission, known as the 12th step, to help other alcoholics.

He is an atheist and refuses to go, she said.

I rest my case. What I hear is that the son prefers being homeless to going to rehab, and refuses help that is freely given. That’s a choice.

None of this makes the situation the problem of the parent to fix.

Another parent told me that her town didn’t have a homeless shelter. This is a suburb of one of the largest metro areas in the country. There might not be a homeless shelter in that suburb. That doesn’t mean the metro region isn’t crawling with shelters and half-way houses and social service organizations. But this is how we think. We think our kids will not survive unless we help them. It’s just not true.

So we’re back to the question: What do you want to do? What are you willing to take on?

There are two things I suggest in this situation: Don’t take on anything that will cause you resentment. And don’t set any boundaries you can’t enforce.

Sometimes, allowing an adult child to stay at home for a few days while he or she figures things out can buy both parties some time. The adult child can have a few days to research options, and the parent can have a few days to pray and meditate, attend meetings, talk things over with a sponsor, read literature and do whatever else they need to get some clarity.

But what the parent needs to do, IMHO, does not involve fixing the housing crisis. Even if the adult child is sick or unemployed or both.

I generally don’t recommend allowing adult children to stay under certain conditions (you can stay as long as you do this and/or don’t do that). Things may start out well, but an addict or alcoholic is bound to push those boundaries at some point, and then what are you going to do?

To me, that’s just offering them the rope for that old, familiar game of tug of war. In my case, for my own sanity, I had to drop the rope.

My own experience is that I had to get out of the way completely and let my daughter find her own solutions. When I did, she did. At first, her solutions included finding other enablers. It’s in the nature of addicts and alcoholics to find a “softer, easier way.”

But eventually, those enablers fell away one by one. Only then, when her options were either to change or to face the full consequences of her choices did she choose change.

For me, it was the only truly loving thing I could do.


  1. Great post, Kathy. It does show how different we as parents all are and how difficult is can be to not jump in and rescue our children. I like your bringing it back to What Do You Want To Do. Even with your sponsees, you don't jump in and offer advice. You treat them like the adults they are and by example you show how it can be to treat our grown children like adults.

  2. Another great post. I'm so glad to have found you.

  3. So, so true. Great explanation of the term enabling. My only trouble is that my daughter, as an addict, brought 2 children into the world. Of course I am not part of her life because I don't enable her anymore. However, I sometimes think about these kids and wonder how they are doing with both parents being drug addicts. I have to apply the same rules or else I will become codependent again.

  4. Great post, Kathy! Lot of wisdom here. And sounds like you've been through some painful, tough times to get to this point. I think the enabled also wants the softer path. What at first seems the softer path. Saying no is not easy and can be so painful when you're codependent. All those fears, all that assumed responsibility. It's so hard to see that by trying to "take care" of things and people, we can actually be making things harder and worse for them and us.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

  5. Oops, I meant the "enabler"

  6. Another home run! I now give myself time when my son calls or comes around. If he asks me for something to assist him and I am not sure what I want to do, I tell him I have to get back to him. He used to argue with that and go on and on. I would just keep repeating myself and he now doesn't constantly bug me for help. Strange how something like saying you need a moment to make up your mind can seem so foreign and not natural. I am happy that with the program it is becmoing more and more natural to me. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and hope.

  7. Kathy....amazing words here. Really this should be published somewhere. Would you be willing to send it to the Intervene blog over at The Partnership for a Drug Free America? This is an amazing post! Filled with so much wisdom. I am printing this one.

  8. On second thought would it be ok with you if I referred the Intervene staff to come and check you out? I would have done this through email...but couldn't find that info for you.

  9. Great post and a much needed reminder. Thanks!

  10. Thanks for the wisdom today.

  11. It's difficult to watch our loved ones make mistakes but like you said, they need to space to make their own choices. Room to grow.

  12. Thank you Kathy for sharing yet another wonderful post. Blessings.

  13. Kathy,
    This post has so much wisdom. At first it is hard to enact, but it gets easier.


  14. Awesome post. Thank you. I have printed this one to save. Blessings to you!

  15. I have a feelingI am going to come back and read this again and again. I want to drop the rope but I am not ready to except that the consequences could likely be quite dire. So I will pray to be stronger until I am ready.

  16. A great post and so full of Al-Anon wisdom. It is a fact that most alcoholics/addicts were perfectly able to get to a bar or get to their dealer but when it comes to finding housing, getting a job, etc. there is no effort expended. I don't have to be responsible for the choices that others make or don't make. They have a Higher Power and I'm not it.

  17. Kathy this is a great description of Al-Anon wisdom. I have found that it isn't hard for the alcoholic/addict to find a bar or locate a dealer but when it comes to finding a job or locating a place to live, it's just too difficult. I don't have to be responsible for the choices of others. I know that they have a Higher Power and I'm not it.