More Than A Gift……………

I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts lately. No surprise since it is Christmas and we are all inundated with commercials advertising perfect gifts whether we celebrate Christmas or not. Frankly I have never thought of a BMW as a gift but that is just me. All year long I give gifts for various celebrations but nothing compares to the Christmas season. I’ve started to ask myself what motivates the giver to give what he or she gives, what is the relationship between the giver and the recipient, and what is expected of the recipient?  I’ve spent time reflecting on the many gifts I have given and received over my lifetime within the context of codependence and enabling. Here is what I have discovered.

Gifts are not free.  Appreciation is expected in more ways than one and it often goes beyond the hand written thank you note. Many a giver not only wants reassurance, but actually demands it. “How did you like the book I gave you?  I see you are not wearing your new watch. I bet you have enjoyed that scarf I made you; it’s been so cold lately!”   Givers can be a tad needy especially when they want something in return.  And honestly who is going to tell the giver what he or she actually thinks?  “Aunt Julie, that sweater you knit me doesn’t fit and is a color I never wear. What were you thinking?”  Not likely.  My niece is going to tell me she loves the sweater regardless of how she really feels!  I’ve been the recipient of such gifts  and I, too, know what to say.  Honestly is not always the best policy when it comes to showing gratitude for gifts.

Gifts are not without messages.  How about a book on managing your money for someone in the family who is always asking for loans?  Or a watch for someone who is chronically late; stationary for someone who doesn’t write very often; a cookbook dedicated to cooking light for someone who is overweight; tickets to the ballet for someone who could use a bit of culture.  I could go on and on.  A friend of mine had put on a few pounds that she constantly fretted about.  While she wanted to lose the weight, she was still taken aback when her husband gave her a year-long membership to an athletic club.  It let her know that he also thought she needed to lose weight and it stung. I have to admit that I have given gifts to family members that were laced with my interpretation of what it was they needed. You might say the gifts came with built in desired outcomes. Note that I am referring to ‘my desired outcomes.’  I’m probably not alone in giving such gifts.

Gifts are often disguises for less than admirable motives. For example, the parents who give their daughter a new car but only if she agrees to go to the college they chose for her. The parents who buy their son and daughter in-law a first home right next door! I call these gifts with attachments. Such attachments may be meant to enhance a behavior or to eliminate a behavior.  I’ll give you a new computer if you quit smoking. And no one is more likely to be the recipient of gifts with ‘attachments’ than children being guided towards a successful adulthood.  Think of all the gifts parents give their children in order to improve them! Addiction only ups the ante with the sole goal of enhancing recovering or eliminating the addiction.

When I look back on some of the gifts I have given my son, I cringe.  The majority were things I wanted him to like or do and most came with a big message. Private tennis lessons? Message: you could improve your game and maybe get a college scholarship. Clothes; message: this is what your mother likes you to wear and thinks you look good in. Books;  message: you should read more and this book in particular.  Portable file cabinet; message: you need to get more organized. I once bought him symphony tickets and he didn’t use them.  I was very disappointed. As he slipped into his addiction, I began to avoid any gift that I deemed as having the potential to further his addiction such as money or gift certificates. Always steering the ship, that was me! To say the least, these so called gifts were a continuation of the co-dependence and manipulation that penetrated our relationship except they were dressed up as ‘gifts.’  Gifts are a perfect venue for enabling and manipulating someone.

It is hard to confront myself, to acknowledge my less than stellar behaviors and to admit that I have been guilty of wanting some kind of reward or recognition for my gifts. But this is part of the journey.  I didn’t do these things on purpose or with malice. I didn’t recognize my own behaviors as harmful. My son isn’t the only victim. Do I buy my husband books I want to read? If I am honest, yes.  Have I sent not-so-subtle messages with the gifts I have chosen for others?  Yes indeed.  Do I seek praise and positive feedback unnecessarily? Culpa Mia. Can I do better?  Yes, I can.

So here is a story of a gift I was given when I was 22 years old, in my last year of nursing school, and home for the Christmas holidays.  My father bought me a set of Mickey and Minnie Mouse bookends from Neiman Marcus.  I know he did it on a whim. He remembered that, at age five, I was passionately in love with Mickey Mouse.  I watched the Mickey Mouse Show every day and wore my little Mouseketeer hat with the mouse ears. I sat in my special rocking chair. I’m certain the minute he laid eyes on those bookends, he had a flashback to my childhood. When I opened his gift, I was completely surprised and absolutely delighted. This was a gift that had only one message; I love who you are.  My father died unexpectedly the following May. I still have those bookends.

Where There is a Will…………

My husband and I saw a lawyer recently.  We are re-writing our will.  The last time we did it, our son was a boy and we had to consider his care if, god forbid, we both died.  Who would raise him? Who would manage his money?  Who would go to his graduation? It was an exhaustive exercise in what ifs.  What if I die first?  What if my husband dies first?  What if one of us survives but we are incapacitated (think head injury)?  What if the person we have named as our executer is dead?  It went on and on.

Now things are different.  We can focus on ourselves.  How do we provide for the surviving spouse? When we are both gone, how do we distribute what’s left to our grown offspring and to the charities that are dear to us?  I know my mother intends to leave me money when she dies and she is in her 90s.   She will also leave money to our son.  The reality is that money can undermine recovery and that obtaining recovery is neither a smooth ride or a constant.  Sometimes people with many years of successful sobriety relapse.  It happens.

We also know that lawyers who specialize in estate planning are often faced with complicated circumstances. For example, if a family must provide for someone with special needs (think chronic illness, a serious disability, or a mental incapacity), special considerations are in order.  The same is true for families dealing with addiction.  Historically, there have been two approaches to the addicted offspring. 1. Write the addict out of the will; after all he chose to be an addict;  2. Ignore the addiction, give him his inheritance and watch him self-destruct.  Neither approach is what we have in mind.

But you might say that having a member of your family who struggles with addiction is different than having a disabled child.  True. The family is completely justified in writing the addict out of the will. False. In truth, a family member has no obligation to leave anything in his or her will for any surviving family member.  As far as I am concerned, my mother has a right to leave her money to her church or a favorite charity.  She has chosen to leave it to her children and grandchildren. But then here is the question:  if a family member is an alcoholic or a drug addict does this mean that they should be written off?  Does it mean they are undeserving?  What if they have been sober for 20 years? Suppose this family member struggles, obtains sobriety for significant periods of time but does relapse off and on.  Treatment programs are expensive as are medications and therapy.  What if they need treatment related to their history of abuse such as liver damage or Hepatitis C? In other words, writing off the addict perpetuates the myth that addiction is a moral failure and addicts are undeserving.

I’m not going to say it is easy to write a will in these circumstances but it is important and doable.  My husband and I can always revisit our decisions in the future. But because of the nature of this disease, we have an obligation to protect him and ourselves.  You might say it is the ultimate boundary.  Does this mean he will get nothing? Absolutely not.  He is not less deserving than other family members because he suffers with addiction. What it does mean is that decisions made about the use of the money he inherits will be made by an independent agent along with a family friend who knows our son and understands addiction.  We can choose to allocate the money for particular things such as treatment, continuing education and housing.  We can also choose to allow his agent and family friend to determine how the money be spent.  There are many options when writing a will but the point is, it is important to take steps to insure that inherited money does no harm.  An infusion of a large or even a moderate sum of money could overwhelm someone trying to maintain sobriety.

Finally, it may seem unnecessary because parents or spouses believe there isn’t much to be inherited; but the definition of ‘much’ is what matters.  Giving an addict who is actively in his or her addiction $5,000 from an old life insurance policy could be fatal. If you don’t have a will, the courts will not decide that your addicted child doesn’t get his or her portion of the inheritance. In other words, the addict may suddenly have a large sum of money and little guidance on how to best use that money.

If your addicted child or spouse stands to inherit money, things like the sale of your home, your cars, your life insurance policies, your social security, your bank accounts, can add up quickly. You need a written will that will protect them from harm. Wills do not need to be complicated.  In fact, I know there are websites that walk you through creating a simple but solid will.

While my husband and I have spent years thinking about all the things our son should do regarding his addiction, we have spent little time thinking about what we need to do.  This is what we need to do.  We need a plan and we need a boundary.  We need to include him in our will with all the love and support we can offer regardless of the journey he makes towards recovery.  Where there is a will……there is a way.