For as long as I can remember I have always felt the need to look after others. It doesn’t matter if it’s a family member, friend, or even someone that I barely know. I have an inherent need to help “fix” the lives of others whether they want me to or not. Now wanting to help others is not a bad thing, unless it begins to be at the cost of your own physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. I am extremely sensitive to the feelings of others, and I find it very difficult to take a step back and remove myself from situations in which I over-empathize with someone else. This is especially true if it is someone I care about. I became almost obsessive in my need to help others, and I would often begin to sacrifice my own mental health and financial stability to support someone who I believed to need my help. When I look back now, I realize that I was providing support to people who hadn’t even asked for my help. I truly believed that they needed me, they just didn’t know it yet. My feelings of self-worth began to “depend” on my ability and need to make things better for those whose lives I believed needed to be fixed.
My son has had a great deal of challenges in his life with regards to his mental health and development. His life was often a revolving door of doctors and medications in the quest to find a diagnosis to make him “better”. It should come as no surprise that my life became dependent on the need to help him. When he was young, my son could hear voices in his head and believed that they were his friends. He figured out quickly that not everyone experienced this, and he became good at not letting others know that he heard things that didn’t exist. In the beginning the voices were helpful and would remind him to do things that he was supposed to do, like cleaning his room, and encourage him to try and do his best at anything he tried to do. At the age of 14, this began to change as the voices were no longer helpful or friendly. They began to criticize him constantly and tried to get him to do things that he knew were wrong and didn’t want to do. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have almost a constant TV playing in your head that no one else could hear, and you were trying hard to hide from everyone. My son’s behavior began to spiral out of control, and he discovered that drugs made the voices tolerable or even disappear while he was under their influence. By the time he was 16, his drug use was completely out of control and he left our home to live with a friend whose mother let them do whatever they wanted including drugs in her home. It was here that my son was first introduced to the opioid Hydromorphone (Dilaudid), and the day that I lost him to addiction.
I am a very strong woman, and I was determined to get my son help whether he wanted it or not. I was going to make him better and fix everything as I knew what was “best” for him. I began to make all kinds of excuses for his behavior and clean up any mess that he made. My life began to revolve around his drug use and the repercussions that occurred as a result. By the age of 18, my son’s life was completely out of control. He was living on the street and putting any chemical in his body that he could find. Not only was his life out of control, but mine had become completely dependent on making everything in his life better and cleaning up the aftermath of his bad decisions. My husband and other son often took a backseat in my obsession to help him make his life better.
It only took a couple of years before my mental health began to deteriorate quite rapidly. I had been diagnosed with Obsessive-compulsive disorder at the age of 21, and obtained an additional diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder in my early 30’s. I had done my best over the years to manage my symptoms, but during this time it became very clear that I needed to be hospitalized. I was extremely mentally unwell as my moods were completely unpredictable and I was unable to control my almost constant anxiety and unpredictable panic attacks. It was during my two weeks stay in the mental health unit of the hospital that I was first introduced to the concept of “codependency”. The dictionary definition of codependency is “a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition”. Some examples of a pathological condition would be that of a mental illness or an addiction such as drugs and/or alcohol. But that was ridiculous! I was just being a mom. Wasn’t it my job to make sure that my boy had an amazing life? I began to realize that it WAS NOT my job to take responsibility for the bad choices that my son made as a result of his addiction, and that he had become dependent on me to fix things when he messed up. By this time, I was spending more time visiting my son in the hospital, jail, and courthouse than I was doing anything else in my life. My whole world revolved around his drug use and choices he made to feed his addiction. I was always ready to drop everything and run out to rescue him from the next mess that he found himself in. I had completely lost who I was and had become a stranger to everyone around me. I wasn’t helping my son fight his addiction but rather I was enabling him to continue to feed it.
Codependency had become my addiction and I was completely out of control. So, like any other addict who has reached rock bottom and is in desperate need of help, I went to rehab. My rehabilitation treatment was a live in six-day program at Westover Treatment Centre. The program was based on the 12 Step system and was very similar to the chemical addiction treatment program. It became apparent very quickly that my addiction was no different than my son’s addiction to methamphetamine. My addiction to codependency had completely taken over my life, and I was on a direct course to self-destruction.
I can’t put into words how grateful I am for those six-days which completely turned my life around. Years later and I am still in contact with a couple of the ladies that I shared the experience with. I have learned to understand the concept of being able to “detach with love”. I love my boys more than anything, but I now realize that I am not responsible for the bad decisions or choices that they may make in their lives. I will always love them and be here for them, but it is not my job to fix their lives. I am their mother and I will be their cheerleader, love them, and support them as much as I am able. I realize now that the choices they have made and will make in the future are not a reflection of my parenting abilities. My kids did not come with instruction manuals and I know that I did the best that I could. Part of their journey to becoming an adult depends on my ability to take a step back and learn to let go.
Just like teaching them to ride a bike for the first time… at some point you must let go and let them figure it out on their own.