Have you been watching the sad saga of Charlie Sheen splayed out in newspapers, on TV talk shows, and online recently? Like many of us, are you wondering how a person with such apparent abundance in his life could take such a negative turn?
While I do feel it’s quite unfortunate that someone’s extensive battle with mind-altering addiction (and possible concurrent mental illness) can wind up becoming fodder for ridicule in the public arena, I am also very much hoping that it might increase some awareness about the role that family members and other loved ones play in helping an addict to recover.
These days, there is greater understanding about how addiction starts as well as why it continues for many people. One thing we know is that addiction is but a symptom of deeper unresolved issues. We also know that addicts don’t recover all by themselves – it often takes a village of supportive friends and family members helping their addicted loved ones get back on track.
But that’s just it – I’m talking about helping as opposed to enabling – and to me there is a distinct and vitally important difference.
When we ‘enable’ an addicted person, we do things that keep their behaviors going – such as giving money to people when we know they will spend it on drugs or video games, or at slot machines or shopping malls. We take care of their children so that the addicts can continue to gamble online at all hours of the day, or freely act out their compulsive, often dangerous sexual behaviors. We allow them to live in our homes rent-free, often not working or going to school, very likely engaging in their addictions while under our roof, without contributing to the household financially or in any other practical or useful way.
In other words, there are no boundaries — we set no real consequences for their actions. We don’t hold them accountable and we don’t require much of them. In our own denial, we minimize the problem and find convenient ways to excuse it – often so that we don’t have to look at ourselves and see how we may well be contributing to the very situation we say we want to go away.
Charlie’s father, actor Martin Sheen, has gone on record saying that his son’s addiction is like cancer. His argument is that we wouldn’t stop loving a child if he had cancer, so we shouldn’t stop loving him if he has “the disease of addiction”. He implores us to understand how ‘special’ Charlie is and to cut him some slack for his increasingly outrageous antics. Over the years, I’ve often heard these kinds of comments from clients of mine who are loved ones of severely dysfunctional addicts like Charlie.
Now, I am in no way saying that we should stop loving our addicted loved ones – far from it. Rather, what I am saying is that we need to look at what it really means to behave in a ‘loving’ way toward them: Are we truly loving them when we do things that don’t allow them to take responsibility for themselves, that keep them from growing up and owning their own choices?
I believe that Charlie – and many others like him — have been allowed to get away with many of the things they’ve done because their loved ones have been enabling them. Although Martin Sheen has, in the past, ‘forced’ his son into detox and rehab (a positive action, in my opinion), Charlie’s family and his professional community have also encouraged him to believe he is special and unique – a belief that is coming through loud and clear in his recent and frequent drug-addled public rants. The narcissism and self-absorption of a practicing addict is often an amazing thing to behold and we are now seeing Charlie expressing his pride at being ‘terminally unique’ – labeled as such in addiction treatment because it can so easily lead to an addicted person’s demise.
The truth is that addiction is NOT like cancer, or like any physical disease I’m aware of. A person with cancer can’t just decide one day to recover and not have cancer anymore. That’s not how it works with ‘diseases’ – but that is exactly how it works with addiction. I’m not saying it’s easy – there is always difficult recovery work to be done — but as soon as people with addictive behaviors make the decision to stop engaging in the addiction of choice, the addiction stops. Just like that.
Charlie and others who are enabled do not recover. Unless and until there are consequences for their actions, addicts often feel no need to stop their reckless and dangerous behaviors. When we, as their loved ones, allow this to continue for any length of time, can we really say we are behaving in a ‘loving’ way toward them?
I was very happy to hear that Charlie Sheen was going to lose his lucrative TV show and the many perks that go with it. I believe that is the best thing that can happen for him at this time – not as a punishment, but rather as way to let him know that his support system loves him enough to no longer contribute to his downfall. As they let him reach whatever bottom he needs to get to, he can then make the healthy choices required to live a different kind of life.
And if they really do love him, maybe they won’t tease him too mercilessly about his recent media rants – once he’s clean and sober, he’s likely to feel pretty embarrassed about them!
If you love someone with an addiction and you feel you may have been engaging in enabling behaviors, please pat yourself on the back, first and foremost, for having the courage to admit it. When you’re finished doing that, you may then want to pick up the phone and get some help for yourself so that you can learn what you can do to really help the addict in your life.
In my opinion, that is the most loving thing you can do for everyone involved. Good luck!