The Rescuers: Enabling, Caretaking, and Drama

(Twenty-fourth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Historically, “enabling” referred to facilitating or empowering someone in order to help them accomplish something. By teaching children to read, we enable them to develop their intellect and further their learning. Or, as in 1933 Germany, “The Enabling Act” gave Adolf Hitler the power to enact laws without the involvement of the legislative bodies: he was enabled to become a legal dictator. In modern psychology, enabling can be positive, but it is also used in a negative sense when it encourages dysfunctional, unhealthy behavior and habits, as it is used in addiction and recovery vocabulary. Rescuing and caretaking are terms that mean what they say. They are closely connected to enabling: we rescue people from their responsibilities and we take care of people’s responsibilities for them.

Melody Beattie (Codependent No More) refers to the “Drama Triangle” roles of victim, persecutor, rescuer, and says “Rescuing/caretaking looks like a much friendlier act than it is. It requires a victim who is actually capable of taking care of themselves even though we and they don’t admit it…After we rescue, we will inevitably move to the next corner of the triangle, persecutor. We become resentful and angry at the person we have so generously helped…Then we move to the victim corner of the triangle, at the bottom, the predictable and unavoidable result of a rescue.”

In recovery teaching, we learn to discern the difference between healthy giving and caretaking. Melody Beattie writes that healthy giving holds the giver and the receiver in high esteem, gives with no strings attached, and is based on a contract with expectations and conditions clearly understood. It is not done from motives of obligation, guilt, shame, or pity. Caretaking is at the core of codependent behavior and “involves caring for others in ways that hamper them in learning to take responsibility for themselves … We have been doing the wrong things for the right reasons.” These are the learned behaviors in families of alcoholics and addicts of every ilk. Even if there were not genes for addiction, the learned codependent and enabling behaviors would carry families a long way down that road. It did ours.

And where does “Empathy” versus “Tough Love” fit in, opposing approaches now being discussed for the millions of families and friends with loved ones who are addicted? In 2018, NPR reported about families who choose empathy over the tough love approach that has failed them, as it did us. Because of this era of deadly opioids, including fentanyl, “The concept of letting children hit bottom is not the best strategy,” says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Because in hitting bottom they may die.”

Studies show a compassionate approach and voluntary treatment are the more effective ways to engage drug users in recovery and keep them alive. But we need to understand the difference between a healthy and compassionate approach vs codependency and mere kindness. C. S. Lewis wrote that love and kindness are not coterminous because “love is more stern and splendid than mere kindness.”

As John and I look back over the decade that JL battled his addiction, we see that we had some of these principles in place, but not others, and wish we had this training to help us navigate such troubled waters. It was always hard for us to find a balance between loving JL unconditionally (which we did) and enabling (which we also did). We tried to have tough love as we swung between feeling pity and wanting to offer him grace, while having to do the hard things to actually allow him to suffer the consequences of his addiction – much of the time we were confused as to what to do and when.

What is the solution to break the pattern of the codependent Drama Triangle? To detach. This is not emotional detachment – the inability to connect with others on an emotional level. This is letting go with love and learning to set healthy boundaries in relationships, a border that creates a distinction between my lane of the roadway of life and yours.

I still have so much to learn about detaching and there is too much to say about it for this blog. Melody Beattie’s books on codependency are wonderful and there is a link below for a concise article taken from Codependency for Dummies by Darlene Lancer, a distillation of Beattie’s work.

Author: Jude DiMeglio Trang

My husband, John, and I are parents of a young opiate addict who died of an accidental heroin overdose at 25. These are our credentials for writing and working towards reversing the exponentially rising statistics for opiate addiction and deaths in our country and the world.

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