The White Night Syndrome

Words matter.  Words not only have meaning but they can elicit emotion, mood,  memories, confidence or uncertainty.  Words can also cause confusion when there is a lack of agreement about what the word means or whether or not it conjures up a positive or a negative image in our minds.  I am taking issue with how the word enabling is used to describe behaviors of those of us who are the family and friends of persons suffering from addiction.  I have witnessed a lot of disagreement about what is and what is not ‘enabling,’ in part, because the verb to enable is, by definition, positive. If you look it up, you will find definitions like ‘to make possible or easy.’  Examples of enabling will go something like ‘his donation enabled the university to build a new athletic facility,’ or  ‘the scholarship enabled the student to complete her education.’  Synonyms for the word enable include empower, facilitate, invest, help, prepare, and make possible.  How can any of these synonyms be interpreted as a negative? And therein lies the problem.

People seem confused when they are told that enabling is undesirable. So while the rest of the world views enabling as a good thing, the world of addiction treatment views it as a bad thing.  When coping with addiction, loved ones are told that enabling means bailing someone out, denying them natural consequences, making excuses for them, covering up for the addict and sometimes even participating in illegal behaviors in order to shield the addict from legal consequences.  In other words, there is no mention of empowering or facilitating.

In my view,  the more precise description of what families do is engage in unsuccessful rescuing behaviors. The word rescue is defined as saving someone from danger or distress.  Examples of rescue include things like ‘the fireman rescued the child from a burning house.’  While rescuing is also seen as something positive, unlike enabling, it implies that something bad is about to happen and happen soon.  Rescuing, by its very nature, requires someone to be a victim of something ( a fire, a flood, an accident).  We ‘enablers’ tend to see the addict as a victim.  We often view them as helpless and we treat them as though they were helpless.  We sense a looming danger and respond with unnecessary urgency.  We are not thinking about causing something positive to happen; we are responding as though something really bad is going to happen.  And we are convinced that, barring our intervention,  it will happen sooner rather than later!  There is nothing wrong with rescuing someone from a burning house.  There is something wrong with rescuing someone when the house isn’t on fire.  And there is something wrong with rushing into the burning house when there is no one in the house to be rescued.  But that is what we do.  We try to rescue someone who does not wish to be rescued from a danger that only we see.   In fact, we spend a lot of time making up and playing out rescue scenarios in our heads. Our conversations are loaded with ‘what ifs.’  What if she doesn’t have insurance?  What if he doesn’t have a place to stay?  What if he gets mugged on his way to buy drugs?  Hey, maybe I should drive him to pick up his drugs so that he will at least be safe in that drug infested neighborhood!

So here is my question: why do we do it? What makes us anticipate every misstep and plot and plan how we will circumvent all undesirable or dangerous situations?   If we honestly assess our own history of rescuing behaviors, we might see a pattern that probably began long before our loved one started using drugs.  Rescuing has its own rewards.  Many professions attract people who are drawn to rescuing others (medicine, nursing, social work, fire fighting, etc.)   I have heard these professions referred to as “helping professions.”  Rescuing personalities can be found in relationships with an intimate partner, friends, colleagues, parents, children and siblings.  Psychologists label people who display rescuing behaviors in relationships as having the ‘white knight syndrome.’  Mary C Lamia’s published an article in Psychology Today called ‘ Rescuing yourself from your need to rescue others.’ I found it very enlightening.

Here are some key points that I believe apply to those of us who enable/rescue the addicts in our lives.  Lamia notes that people who rescue others generally have a consistent pattern in their rescue behavior.  They will go from one relationship to the next playing the hero to someone they perceive as needing to be rescued.  She says the repeated pattern on the part of the rescuer is an effort to repair a damaged sense of self that probably began in early childhood.  She points out that, with time, the rescuer becomes disappointed in and critical of the person they are attempting to rescue. The rescuer generally ends up feeling powerless.  Sound familiar?  I can certainly see that pattern in my own rescuing attempts.  Lamia doesn’t mention anger but, in my case, the critical me was definitely a version of the angry me.

If I look at my own family history, I wanted more than anything to be rescued from the suffering of my childhood.  But no one ever materialized to rescue me.  The damaging consequence to my sense of self was the agonizing fear that perhaps I didn’t deserve to be rescued.  Perhaps I didn’t matter.  For me, engaging in rescuing behaviors is about gaining control where I once had no control. It’s also about being in a unique position to try and orchestrate the outcome I longed for while growing up.  It’s about seeing myself as a heroine rather than an undeserving victim.

Rescuing differs from enabling in one other important sense; it is dramatic.  If nothing else, my childhood was dramatic.  There is usually little that is dramatic in enabling; people don’t rush to witness an enabling event but they will come out in hoards for a rescue event.   Families attending support groups perk up when someone begins to tell a dramatic story of their latest family saga.  And rather than focus on how we intend to take care of ourselves, the group dynamic can quickly disintegrate into an interrogation of the person telling the story along with a plethora of unsolicited advice.

So the next time I am in a support group and someone starts talking about what their spouse or teenager did last weekend, I will try to focus on the person telling the story rather than the story.  I will hold back on questions related to the story; I don’t need to feed into the drama.  If I ask a question, I will ask a question about the story teller such as: “what are you doing to take care of yourself?” I will try to be aware of my own response to the story.  Do I find myself kind of drawn to the drama?  Is my mind racing with all kinds of ‘helpful’ suggestions?  Am I looking for my white horse?  Because if I am, I guarantee that I am not enabling recovery.

What Prayer Cannot Do

In family meetings I hear many people talk about praying and they don’t hesitate to say what it is they are praying for; they want their loved one to get sober or stay sober or simply to stay alive so there is a chance they will get sober in the future. And this made me think about prayer and what it means to us. Why do we pray and are our prayers ever answered? I recently came across the following words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, highly respected American rabbi and theologian born in Poland in the early 1900s.

Prayer invites God,                                                                                           to be present in our spirits                                                                           and in our lives.

Prayer cannot                                                                                              bring water to parched land                                                                       nor mend a broken bridge,                                                                          nor rebuild a ruined city,

but prayer can                                                                                            water an arid soul,                                                                                      mend a broken heart,                                                                                   and rebuild a weakened will.

Abraham Heschel’s poem provides an interesting perspective on prayer.  He says that prayer isn’t to make external things happen such as mending broken bridges or, perhaps, curing our children of their addiction.  He says prayer is about inviting what is holy into our lives. That is altogether different than asking God to make something happen. Instead, he views prayer is an invitation to God to enter our inner self. He implies that prayer offers sustenance for our wounded souls. Mahatma Gandhi said that prayer is not asking; he said it is a longing of the soul.

So what does my soul long for?  I believe that it longs for connection. I long to love and be loved, to feel deeply, and to respond fully. I long to experience awe and wonder, to soak up the intellectual, emotional and sensory pleasures the world offers.  I long to feel centered and grounded, and to experience an inner peace that allows me freedom from the weight of trying to control, manipulate and force outcomes. Prayer, according to Heschel, is about the spiritual world, not the concrete world. Not everyone may agree. But in the future, my prayers  will ask for patience, understanding, wisdom and acceptance.  I will ask for courage and perspective.  I will not pray that my son will stop using or stay sober or finally see the light. I will not pray that he will do what I want him to do or not do what I don’t want him to do.  Instead I will sit still and focus on what connects me to the world.  I will not ask for happiness because I cannot define the word; and, even if I could, would I be asking for my own happiness or my son’s happiness?  This doesn’t mean that I cannot mend a broken bridge; it does mean I cannot mend it through prayer.

And if I say a prayer for you, I shall ask the same; that you find water to quench your arid soul.  I will not ask that you change or that I change or that the world changes. ‘God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…….’

Fear of Death

There is death and then there is fear of death.   In my mind, these are two very different things.  Death itself is final while fear of death is never ending.  In death, we must, by definition, continue to live without the person we have lost. But fear of death prevents us from living; instead we become paralyzed by our fears. Death, once confirmed, does not provide us with the illusion that we can undo it. But fear of death hoodwinks us into thinking we can intervene; we can manipulate the future and outsmart death.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  While we cannot undo death, we do have an opportunity to break the fear of death cycle.

Having worked in a pediatric intensive care unit, I am no stranger to the death of children.  I think we can all agree that the death of a child is, by far, a parent’s greatest fear. We can hardly speak of it without trembling.  I have handed dead infants to mothers to hold for the very last time.  I have watched grown men collapse while sobbing.  I have gently placed dead children’s bodies in the cold drawer in the morgue. I have thought about what these parents will face when they go home; the child’s room, the toys, the photographs and the memories.  I know that their homes will be deadly silent and that no amount of comforting arms will actually be comforting.  I recognize that many will end up divorced, especially if the death is related to an accident. But I also know, with time, they will come to terms with their loss. So you might find it odd when I tell you that death is not always as devastating as fear of death. Let me explain.

In our modern world, I have seen families desperately clinging to life, insisting on every intervention known to medicine in order to keep their child alive.  It doesn’t matter that their child is brain dead or will spend the rest of his life attached to a respirator.  And no one can tell them what’s ahead at the moment they make the decision to do everything known to man to save their child. They can’t see their future, but I can.  I know what happens to families with children who require care 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Often the child ends up in a nursing home until they die of one complication or another.  The guilt settles in and families are virtually torn apart.  So here is a question; are we obsessed with saving our children at all costs or are we really obsessed with saving ourselves from loss?

When I attend my parent meetings, I am acutely aware of this fear of death undercurrent in all conversations.  Parents say things like, what if I refuse to provide him with shelter and he freezes to death?  What if I don’t give her a ride to her meetings and she relapses and overdoses and dies?  What if I don’t give him money and he returns to dealing drugs because he can’t get any other kind of work and then he is shot by a ruthless drug dealer who, unlike my child, is a real drug dealer?  The ‘what ifs’ are never ending and I can’t help but admit that they do speak to creative, although morbid, imaginations.  Trying to anticipate every life scenario and projecting every conceivable negative outcome is not only futile but exhausting.  Behind these neurotic mental gymnastics lies an important question.  Is the primary concern that the child continues to be alive or is the primary concern to ascertain that the parent in no way contributed to the death of the child or or is the primary concern that the parent doesn’t suffer the loss of their child?  Is this whole self-defeating circle of irrational thinking really about saving our children or is it about saving ourselves?  Ask yourself this: if you could be guaranteed that your child would live to be 100 years old, would you be OK if they chose to live out their lives as an addict, on the streets, dealing drugs?

Here is a scenario.  Your husband is about to leave for work and you run after him to remind him to pick up something at the grocery store before he returns home.  You chat a bit about what’s for dinner. He leaves and is killed in a horrible car accident 3 blocks from your house.  Do you believe that if only you had not run after him and had that brief conversation, he would have missed being involved in the accident? Are you somehow at fault?  Let’s look at it another way.  What if you had the brief conversation and he had missed the horrible accident?  How much time can anyone spend scrutinizing the moments of their day as to whether or not those moments were the direct cause of actual outcomes?

Death is inevitable. We all die.  Some of us have short lives and some of us have very long lives.  Some of us can anticipate the end because we are ill or quite old but for others, death is unexpected.  Sometimes people cause other people to die and sometimes people save others from dying.  Those who are left behind will suffer; there is no way around that.  Losing a child is thought to be one of the hardest losses because we see our children as an extension of ourselves.  I understand this, but to spend our lives in constant turmoil about the threat of a  premature death is neither healthy nor productive. To spend our time attempting to manipulate and orchestrate their lives in order to avoid the possibility of death is insane.

Sit down and think about death.  How many people in the history of mankind have lost one or more children?  Millions. Fearing death will no more eliminate its possibility than fearing a tornado will alter its path.  If I guaranteed you that your child would die tomorrow, would you want to curl up in a ball and cry uncontrollably or would you want to hold your child and tell him you love him and you’ll miss him and you are so glad that he has been a part of your life? How will you mourn her death, honor her life, and cope with your sadness?   Go to the place you dread and sit there. Instead of thinking about all the ways you can intervene to assure they don’t die, think about how you will face their death. Go into detail.  Plan their funeral.  Write their obituary. Be there, sit there.

Now let it go.  Know that you will survive whatever happens.  Stay in the present. Take a deep breath. Be grateful for this day and this moment. Acknowledge that you have no magical powers. Nothing you do will be the cause of your child’s death in the same way that nothing you do is the cause of your child’s addiction and nothing you do will be the cause of his or her recovery. Whatever happens will happen. I have friends who have lost children.  One lost her two children to separate accidents 6 months apart.  One lost her only baby to H Flu Meningitis.  One lost her son to suicide. One lost her child to drowning. None of us are immune to this possibility.  It is the risk we take when we have children. It is the risk we take when we love. We are vulnerable, yes, but not responsible. Life is responsible.  This is life. We have no more control than all the parents who lost their children to pertussis or influenza or cholera or accidents or murder.

Courage is not the same as fearless.  Courage is about conquering our fears, stepping into our authority and facing them head on. We must not allow our fear of death to paralyze our ability to live life.  Nor can we allow our fear of death to paralyze the freedom of others to live their lives.  We are not the gatekeeper of death; we are the traveler in life.