Letting go of someone you love, but who uses you, is the hardest thing to do. My friend, Jackie, asked me for some advice last week. Her 29 year old son, Brent, was angry because she didn't pay his bills or seem to care about him at all. He told her he never felt loved by her. Jackie is confused and hurt and was now considering giving Brent, who couldn't keep a job or girlfriend, money to ease his pain.
An Ungrateful Child Happened To Me
I have been in Jackie's shoes. I knew she wanted me to tell her, “Spend money on him, and he will suddenly wake up and realize how great he has it and stop being a self-centered adult.” Instead I said, "Let him go." Her eyes filled with tears. I knew it was not the answer she had wanted and yet it was the answer she probably needed.
If I have learned anything over these past 6 years of being a single widowed mother of five children, it is that the quicker I let go and let them experience the consequences of their choices, the quicker they are to take charge and improve their lives.
Letting Go Is Being Brave
My mother’s heart has betrayed me more than once. I didn't think a group or therapy could help me. I was wrong. I've used both to guide my actions. The help of Al-Anon, my friends, my sponsor, and my therapist I have seen a better way to live my life and let my children live theirs. Yes, it is counter intuitive to let adult children struggle when they beg for help him "just this once." Which is never just once.
Learning To Swim Before It's Too Late
I told Jackie a story that always stops me from enabling my adult children. I picture my child struggling to swim in a calm river. He flounders and begs me again and again to give him an inner tube, or a boat, or a yacht. He feels he shouldn’t have to work this hard. I may be tempted to give him everything he wants and bask in the temporary glow of his relieved smile. While my child may be safe right now, the real danger for him is downstream with its boulders, rapids, and waterfall. He needs to get stronger before the real problems arrive. My helping would only harm him.
The "What If"
My friend, Jackie, wasn’t satisfied with this story. “What if Brent dies because I didn’t help him? What if he kills himself?” I had the exact same fears and feelings. I told her what my therapist had told me. “Have the funeral.” If Brent's death or suicide was the absolute worst outcome of Jackie's not enabling him, then she would need to face that fear. I told her to picture the casket, the flowers, the music, all the people crying. Give each detail her full attention. Feel what it might feel like to lose her son this way.
This exercise helped me a great deal when I faced my greatest fear of not enabling my children.
There are no guarantees whatever you choose to do. Not helping often yields better results in a far shorter time. When I think of the years I poured money, time, and excuses into my children with no real change, I'm sad. The real changes came when I stopped enabling and let them fall into their messes. It sounds easy, but my gut always ached. My knees shook, and my heart felt felt torn in two. The only certainty was pain.
The Hardest Decisions Can Be The Best Ones
My heart goes out to Jackie. I know my hardest decisions were the best ones I could make. I know I wouldn’t have been able to let my children go without a support group encouraging me, taking my calls, texting me to stay strong, and patiently loving me as I formerly gave into the temptation to “fix the problem just this once.” The crises will keep coming, but not enabling will get easier. Part of me will always yearn to dive in and save my child, just one more time, but today I resist the drama machine and everyone benefits.
I hope Jackie will find the courage and support to resist, not only for herself, but also for her son. Recovery and treatment are for everyone, not just the person who is using. Find family therapy and support groups near you at Recovery Guidance.