Addiction Boundary Hold: The Hardest Thing a Family Will Ever Do

Switch set to "off" position - addiction boundary holdMy business takes me to all sorts of exciting places to see and experience all sorts of things. But few things give me more joy than to watch a family successfully maintain a boundary hold with a loved one. I put it right up there with watching the recovery “light come on.”An addiction boundary hold is the steadfast refrain from enabling that takes place when the addiction, which lives within the untreated addict and is in control, puts the enablers to the test. This is where addiction sees if what’s been said is really true. When the disease feels a true addiction boundary hold, the process of its own unraveling begins. Nothing could be more awesome than that. Watching addiction begin to die is one of the many reasons I do this work.

Addiction kills people. And its killing transcends all socio-economic lines. Yes, there is variance in the speed, the method, and the direct or indirect characteristics of its killing, but suffice it to say, this is a deadly disease. And the fire of addiction lives and breathes on the air of enabling. Without this vital air, the fire goes out. Always. It’s just like that with addiction. No enabling, no addiction.

Opportunities for an addiction boundary hold will likely come up many times in the process of arresting addiction, and will also come up many times in early recovery and beyond. As an addict myself, and also an addiction professional, I have seen countless cases come and go. I can tell you that all too often, boundary holds are not maintained, and addiction wins those particular battles on the day they are fought. This is not to say the war is lost, however. But in the many battles that make up the war on addiction, we have no idea when addiction will claim the life of the sufferer. And when this happens, many think the war is over, but it is not. A major battle has been lost, and the addict is a casualty. The families and friends still live. And as long as they live outside of recovery, the war is still going. This is because the addict is not the cause of the war. He or she is simply an inappropriate focal point. A scapegoat. This problem for those affected by addiction is universal, and may claim more lives before the war is over. In actuality, and on a bigger scale, the war will never be over. But there is peace, and happiness, and freedom to be experienced by all who seek it, in spite of the nasty unstoppable war. We’ll look at this more closely in another post, but for now, let’s look at a huge area of concern – the boundary hold.

The #1 reason the addiction boundary hold is unsuccessful or never engaged in: enablers fail to get any real help for THEIR disease.

Addiction and codependency are really the same disease – only the numbing practice and ordinance of relief are different. For the addict it is drugs and/or alcohol. For the codependent it is addiction to the addict they ALWAYS make sure are surrounding and engulfing them. Both diseases are marked by obsession, craving, spree, remorse and restlessness, irritability and discontentedness, and withdrawal. They both contain powerlessness and unmanageability. The difference that makes the difference is that the addict’s acting out is far less socially acceptable than the codependent. That and the enabler generally maintains a much higher level of functioning – or apparently so. To the untrained eye, the addict’s acting out looks like heinous destruction, the codependent’s acting out looks like love. The truth is both are heinous and destructive – and deadly. Far too frequently, I observe families of addicts, who are attempting to support the recovery process, fail to engage in recovery themselves, usually in spite of much advice to do so. It’s as if they perceive this advice as just a good idea and not critical. But this failure to enter into recovery themselves means that when they are put to the test – the boundary hold – they have no more power to hold the line than the family dog. It just isn’t in them. They want to, but they can’t. Just as the addict wants to stop using and can’t. And when the codependent succumbs to the desire for relief, which is to say they relapse into enabling, they enter the well known stages of an enabling spree. They justify this with a statement like, “I will not stand by and watch my son die, we’ll get him safe tonight and start again tomorrow.” What they’ve really done is fortify addiction today, and tomorrow’s fight will be with a stronger addiction. Or, in some cases, tomorrow will not come at all because addiction may claim the life of the sufferer, helped by this latest round of enabling.

Common feature exposed: the extreme selfishness and self-centeredness of the enabler.

In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, people seeking recovery learn that selfishness and self-centeredness is at the root of their disease. How everything they do is for themselves, and at the expense of those around them. Through this behavior they are a tornado roaring through the lives of their families and friends. Conversely, an enabler believes they can control the state of the addiction of another by taking “protective” action – action only the addict can take for themselves. It is never the case that the enabler is able to do this without harming the addict, themselves and those around each of them. And the stunning part is that the enabler actually does not do this to provide relief for the suffering addict. They do it to provide relief for themselves. You don’t have to spend much time discussing details of the addict’s history with enablers to find this fact to be true. “I just can’t handle watching this,” or “I couldn’t help myself, he needed my help and he’s my son.” These are tough positions for anyone to be in, and the big lie is that what’s being done to help the addict is actually help. It’s not. It’s harm. And it is done to relieve the disturbance within the enabler, primarily. I realize this might be a tough pill to swallow. But there is a way out for enablers too – recovery. This site has many articles that speak very pointedly on this concept. I urge you to read them, all of them.

A word of caution: do not try this at home. 

I have observed many cases where families have tried to handle the process of moving toward recovery by themselves, particularly how to deal with the manipulation attempted during the addiction boundary hold should your loved one initially refuse the gift of treatment. I love analogies, so here’s another one. I am a private pilot, and know how to fly airplanes. I could take you up, have you sit right next me and explain everything about flying that plane. Heck, I could even let you fly it, and you’ll have a strong sense about how everything is working. You may even find yourself able to turn the airplane left or right, or climb and descend. But when it comes time to land that airplane, I’m pretty sure you’ll want to turn the controls over to me. And in order for me to land it safely, I’ll need the controls in advance of arriving at the airport. I’ll need to set up the stabilized approach, achieve the proper key points of altitude, speed and pattern position, communicate with the control tower, set up the final, descend successfully to the runway, touch down, slow down, and taxi to parking. I think you’ll be glad I was there. While it is possible that if I were not there that you would be able to bring the plane in for a safe landing – it is far less likely, and far more dangerous.

Get the help of an addiction professional.

For those currently coming to grips with an addiction crisis in their family, I can offer some advice. Get an intervention professional into the mix to help guide you through the process of moving toward family wellness and to help prepare for the addiction boundary hold ahead. There are many to choose from and it is my belief that what you seek you will find. Get a referral from a trusted family friend who has some experience with addiction, or get one from a reputable treatment center.

Going forward without the help and guidance of a professional who deals with addiction everyday is very unwise. Couple this with the fact that the system of family and friends are in a current state of deficiency themselves (active enabling), and you have the set up for a crash. Sometimes people survive airplane crashes, and sometimes they don’t. Get an experienced pilot working for you in the form of an interventionist. Do what he or she says – all of it. They will help you learn how to start the recovery process for all of you, and support you through the boundary holds that lie ahead. Remember, this need for boundaries is inevitable. Intervention on an addict is not only about getting him or her into treatment, that is simply one part. Interventions are about getting the entire system of family into the recovery process. Only then will the odds of lasting success be the highest.


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