The following is an excerpt from the new book by Dr. Kenneth Perlmutter of San Rafael, CA. “Freedom from Family Dysfunction” was written specifically for family members who love someone battling addiction or mental illness and who want to break the cycles of codependency and relapse plaguing their dysfunctional systems.
What Do I Become?
It only takes one family member to interrupt the family pattern and move the system toward wellness.
As discussed in chapter 1, our beliefs determine how we react to our problematic loved ones and the roles we take on in our families. One belief to adopt now: “I can change how I operate in the system much more reliably than I can change or correct someone else.” You’ve likely wished something like, “If only she understood,” when it’s universally true you can’t make anyone understand, believe, prefer, think a certain way, or be interested in anything. When you’ve been conditioned to influence how others act or think, you end up frustrated and disconnected from them and yourself.
Now, turn your attention to your beliefs and needs.
In the following chapters, you will take an inventory of the most intense emotions you experience, dig down to make a list of the various efforts you’ve made to change things (or change someone else), and identify a metaphor for the thing you become when family conditions are at their worst. You may be asking: “Why should I have to do that? It’s her (or him) that has the problem. How are my emotions even relevant? I’m frustrated and disappointed. What else is new under the sun!”
Well, you’re right. And this approach will interrupt your customary way of operating, which involves questions like: “What’s the best way to get her to change?” “How can I get him to understand that he just needs to __________” (fill in the blank)? “Why can’t she see that _____________” (another blank)? Indeed, these are the right questions. The problem is the answer isn’t very useful when it’s you who’s asking the question—even if you have a great answer, which you often think you do.
These questions and their answers are only meaningful when asked by the person to whom they directly apply—your stuck loved one. You’ve already given your loved one answers, suggestions, rules of thumb, lectures, money, and the truth as you see it. Over and over. The lack of success you’ve had getting this individual to see or to understand or to accept proves you can’t be the source. This stuck person is either unable or unwilling to receive such from you. Unfortunately, before picking up this book, you’ve kept trying, believing you’ll get a new or improved result. That’s the insanity definition, right?
Well, this book is exactly about interrupting the insanity or chaos in the family system. Starting with you.
Think about Jerry: He’s been retired from his corporate executive position for about two years. Married forty-one years to his wife, he wants to enjoy his retirement and his grandchildren. His daughter, Victoria, hasn’t worked since she dropped out of college twenty years ago. Jerry and his wife pay her rent, utilities, and basic expenses. Victoria rarely leaves the South San Francisco apartment they provide for her. She drinks and says she can’t go out during the day for fear her friends from high school will see her and know what a failure she has become. Bay Area rents have been skyrocketing. When Jerry does the math, he sees he cannot afford to keep his daughter in her apartment and have enough money for himself. His daughter’s addiction riddles him with guilt and shame. His own mother was a drinker, something Jerry’s father never faced. Dad smoothed things over and relied on hoping and praying as a way to tolerate his wife’s eventually lethal alcoholism. Jerry blames himself for making the family move when Victoria was in eighth grade. She never stopped complaining about losing her friends in Seattle. Today Jerry sleeps with his cell phone on his chest in case she calls. He’ll drop everything and go wherever she says she needs him—even with the flimsiest or most unbelievable of explanations. He acknowledges being angry at times, but mostly feels at fault and to blame. When he imagines insisting Victoria get help for her alcoholism, he has two thoughts: “If she went to rehab I could close the apartment and create a setup that would be more affordable.” That’s thought number one. His next thought is “That would be devastating for her, and I’d be making her move all over again.” Net result: he’s frozen.
As Jerry and his wife explained their thinking, a crucial finding was made: Jerry believed that Victoria didn’t fall into a classic alcoholic pattern and, no substantial improvement would come from addressing her drinking.
“Victoria has ADHD and alcoholism,” he explained insistently. “We have never figured out what percentage of her problems come from each one. Is she mostly an alcoholic or is it the ADHD which is the main problem?”
“So if you knew these proportions you believe things would be better?” I asked.
“Yes,” Jerry said hopefully. “Then we’d know what to do.”
“Let’s say it’s 80/20,” I said a bit playfully but hoping to make a point.
“Which way?” Jerry said predictably.
“You pick,” I said somewhat provocativel`y.
A new truth began to dawn in Jerry’s eyes. He saw how having this bit of data, this seemingly critical but chronically elusive formula, wouldn’t help much. The idea that Victoria was 80 percent alcoholic and 20 percent an ADHD patient gave him nothing new. Similarly, if the reverse was the case, he’d be no closer to solving his problem—the exaggerated and hostile dependency (explained in chapter 5) plaguing his life. Jerry’s fear about moving his daughter or causing her distress was the main obstacle to acting in his own interest. What were his needs? This was a question he and his wife were unable to ask, until now.
As Jerry dug deeper, he identified two roles he tended to take on, which can be described with metaphors or images. First, he would become the armchair psychiatrist, speculating about the proportions of his daughter’s disorder: ‘How much this, how much that?’ Next, and more saliently, he saw that, frozen by his guilt, he became inert, stuck, and unmoving. The image that came to him was of a life jacket.
“Yeah,” he said with clarity. “That’s what I have become. I’m like a life jacket. People really don’t want to put one on unless they’re forced to do so. They can’t wait to take it off and throw it somewhere on the boat, usually in a puddle or under the seat. And I just lie there waiting for the next time I’m used.”
We considered what he needed: A solution for his frozenness and a change in the financial deal with his daughter. He recognized how his past efforts to change Victoria weren’t working. In addition, he was unable to notice how repetitively he was operating and what he was losing. He soon accepted that the answer to the proportion question would only be meaningful when it was Victoria asking the question.
He now dreamed of the day she’d wake up and say:
“Wait a minute. What the heck am I doing? I’m forty years old. I don’t go out. I don’t work. I have these two problems: I can’t focus or get organized and I can’t stop drinking. Which one should I solve first? How can I get help?”
It is only when troubled family members, like Victoria, ask these questions and seek answers that change becomes possible for them. In the meantime, until they ask that question, our task is to pursue changing ourselves.
When Jerry could finally say, “I’m not available to support this lifestyle for her any longer,” the frozenness thawed, and he became less stuck. He committed to finding a setup for Victoria that wouldn’t deplete his retirement funds. When he made this shift in his mind and refused to continue being a life jacket, the whole system shifted. Soon after Jerry’s shift, Victoria was in rehab, the apartment was closed, and, after treatment, she moved into a sober living home, got assessed for ADHD and found a job.
As you read about Jerry, the things he’d tried, the forces that kept him stuck and the life jacket metaphor, I hope you can begin to ask yourselves some questions such as:
- What have I tried over the years to change someone else?
- How have these efforts played out?
- What are the main emotions I experience on this ride I’ve been on in our family?
- What do I become, metaphorically, when things are at their worst?
- What is it that I really need for myself and my own well-being?
As you pursue these questions, you’ll begin exploring what’s going on inside you, rather than wonder about someone else’s thoughts or needs. Looking inward will be in contrast to your long-standing habit of trying to figure out someone else’s mind and life.
Notice when you’re in another person’s head. Make interrupting yourself when doing so the next step. In your mind this could sound like, “Whoops, that’s her story I’m thinking about. I need to stop and come back to me.” Try it as an exercise to see where it leads. Moving to here-and-now awareness could lead you to encounter some pain, regret, or traumatic memories. Building an emotional support system will be key to working through this. See chapter 7 for more. Practice catching yourself when you’re inventorying, assessing, measuring, or questioning someone’s situation other than your own. You’ll soon notice how quickly your thoughts will jump to “them.” It’s okay. You’re a beginner. Say something to yourself like: “Wow, there I go figuring someone else out again. Look how easily that comes to me and how strong the pull is to do so.” Then come back to yourself. Take this up with a kind, loving attitude—a hallmark of mindfulness technique—since it will take a while to recognize and break this pattern. Focusing on others has helped you avoid emotional pain, especially powerlessness. It also keeps you from noticing how futile your efforts have been.
Mindfulness emphasizes self-awareness. It teaches how to avoid running on autopilot by increasing self-awareness and the ability to be present in the moment and in your body. Some helpful books to learn more can be found in the selected bibliography at the end of this book. You might start with Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart, or one of the titles listed by Rick Hanson, Dan Siegel, or Jonathan Kabat-Zinn.
Metaphors for Stuckness
In my many years of work with wounded family members, I’ve had the opportunity to sit with people as they encounter and describe a metaphor, or image, for the position they occupy when at their most stuck, most caught up in someone else’s life and struggle, or taken over by the detail or drama of their loved one’s problems.
Begin the shift from other-focus to self-focus by identifying the thing you become when the things are at their worst.
Here are a few examples.
The rodeo clown is colorful, absurd, full of movement, and uses distracting as a way to manage danger—hallmark features of the chaos and impaired coping found in wounded families. The color represents the drama and high activity, the absurdity and jumbled movement capture the insanity. The job of distracting from danger parallels the family systems process of covering up overdoses, screaming matches, fights, sexual misconduct, stealing, and self-harm. Perfect conditions to send in those clowns!
Part of the rodeo clown’s role, as in many of the metaphors, is to save the cowboy’s life or at least minimize the damage. He does this through absurdity (his costume) by distracting a raging bull. At the same time, if you think about it, his job is impossible. A man dressed as a clown can’t reliably deter a nine-hundred-pound bull from goring or stomping the fallen cowboy. But, when you get a couple of clowns to run around like maniacs, grab the bull’s attention and then scramble over the fence prior to being skewered, there’s usually some interruption of the danger for the cowboy. Ironically, all this activity takes place to save the cowboy who was engaged in his own thrill-seeking behavior: riding bulls! Sounds a lot like addiction and the high-wire act that surrounds it in a wounded family system.
One Mom captured it perfectly: “I know what I become, I’m Siri. Stuck in an iPhone, waiting for someone to press the button. They’ll mutter something to me. Maybe I’ll understand it, maybe I won’t. Then I’ll give them something back which they may or may not use—I never seem to know. Then I get set down somewhere until the next push of my button.”
Listen to her language. You can hear the frustration, passivity, and powerlessness. The sense of not mattering while at the same time being relied on and obligated to solve problems she might not even understand. Like Siri, she falls back on her limited set of responses, often not knowing whether she’s helped at all. This experience of being called upon is extremely sticky because one is likely to repeat it despite obtaining little or no helpful results. It offers the Siri-mother occasional moments of hope that she can make things better.
These sticky forces reinforce classic ways of responding and I call them goo-promoting factors, or GPFs. Caught in their gooey grip, the cycles of illness, relapse, and codependency repeat across the decades.
Oxygen Masks in an Airplane
Like Siri, the oxygen masks live in cramped, flat compartments, generally out of view of everyone else. Family members who identify with this metaphor describe its essential features: “I’m dropped into situations of crisis or emergency. I don’t really understand the nature of the crisis or emergency; I just know I was activated. No one really wants me to show up; they’re screaming and wishing I hadn’t arrived. Sometimes it really is a life-or-death situation, though false alarms are possible. People reluctantly use me and put me on. They drool on me and can’t wait to be rid of me. When it’s all said and done I’m sprayed with some disinfectant and shoved back into my cramped compartment with three other of my fellows who offer me no comfort. And, I’m an ugly color, to boot!”
Buoy/Aid to Navigation
When the parent of a very stuck thirty-year-old came up with this one, everyone in the room related. “I’m a buoy out in the ocean. Chained to the bottom, I have no arms, just poke straight up and bob on the waves. Whether it’s calm, sunny, windy, storming, foggy, freezing, or squalling, I’m chained there. I emit my tone and flash my light never knowing if it helps anyone or not. I’m at the mercy of the sea and the weather. Ships come and go; dolphins, whales, birds, fish, do, too, I guess. I’m held fast and soldier through whatever’s going on, not sure what it’s about or who’s causing it. At the same time, I feel important—I might save someone from crashing onto the rocks.”
Consider the similarity between a life jacket and the oxygen masks. Despised and avoided yet occasionally relied on for life saving, these, too, are “an ugly color.” If the life jacket could speak it would say: “Many are forced to make use of me and they resent me. I’m bulky and unwieldy, though people reluctantly admit I play a critical role. They can’t wait to take me off. I’m often kept around to just be counted. I get shoved under a seat or into the lazarette and lie there in a puddle of bilge water and spilled soda. Eventually I become moldy, thrown in the garage and get thrown away. But you need me . . . you know you need me . . . right?”
You might feel sympathy for the life jacket. It struggles to convince others of its usefulness; except in extreme emergencies when they all madly scramble to put one on (or wish they could). The family member who identifies with the life jacket often feels undervalued and ignored, though convinced of their ability to help, a belief upon which they powerfully rely. Years of this leaves one feeling trapped and abused. Sarcasm, criticism, withholding affection, or making threats are often employed to maintain some power or dignity.
Receptacle or Toilet
When family members notice how their loved ones use them to get rid of unwanted emotion, they often contact a feeling they’ve avoided for a long time—of being a garbage can or receptacle. In this setup, disturbed family members use someone to relieve themselves of their anxiety or uncertainty. It can feel like being dumped on or thrown up on. I’m not trying to be vulgar or scatological, but the metaphor applies. A mother/daughter pair with whom I worked had been so stuck in this pattern that the mom made T-shirts printed with “I’m not your toilet” and on the reverse a picture of a large toilet with the classic red circle and diagonal line across. Once she recognized she was being used in this way and became more able to use her authentic voice, the mother refused to be available to receive these dumps.
I call these painful interactions “emotional evacuations.” The stuck one contacts the family member and downloads their worries, fears, uncertainties, or doubts, often in a passive way. “I don’t know, Mom, all these men just use me for sex. Then they drop me like a rag doll.” How does a mother hear that? Well, probably with a large dose of fear and a small dose of anger. “Well, sweetheart, you’re a good person, you’ll find someone.” Or, “The right guy is out there for you. You’re smart and attractive.” This has been said many times before and does nothing to change things. In fact, these “classic” responses reinforce the process that’s taking place between these two: the daughter relieves herself of her pain and uncertainty by evacuating it into the mother, who absorbs and receives it. Unfortunately, the mother can’t process the information in a way that offers her daughter much relief. The conversations conclude with the mother feeling filled up with worry and sorrow and the daughter going on to her next drink or next date. This condition can stay very stuck. See chapter 3 for more on the forces that keep things stuck.
A dad produced the lawn guy metaphor: “I’m the lawn guy. I have my big earphones on and I go up and down the lawn, mowing it. I can’t hear a thing going on around me except the hum of the lawnmower. I know I’m performing a necessary function. When I’m done I look at my work with a sense of pride, though no one else in the house really seems to care. They complain about the noise. Then I get to do it all over again the next week.” The lawn guy looks busy and feels important. He’s found a way to insulate himself from the chaos or despair in the family around him. At the same time, he’s marginalized and ultimately feels worthless.
Like the rodeo clown, the hula hoop is colorful and moves in crazy, unpredictable ways. It serves as a major distraction. People stop and seem fascinated by the hula hoop spin. Despite the high activity and flashy color, the hoop is hollow and empty at its center. And like the life jacket, when the user is done, it’s leaned against a wall (often only to fall down in a breeze) or tossed onto the floor in the garage. Most end up in the dump after twenty years of hanging around the garage. Yet, when in active use, they command attention, serve to change the mood, and distract the user and the viewers from other goings on.
Let’s take a closer look at what these metaphors may represent or capture. More specifically, what are their common characteristics?
Use these questions to identify and describe the characteristics of your personal metaphor:
- What do many of these metaphors have in common?
- In what ways do I identify with any of the examples?
- How does being such a thing benefit the person who becomes it?
- Do I get used in that way or similarly?
The oxygen mask, Siri, the life jacket, the hula hoop, and the receptacle are all activated by someone else’s behavior. They are passive: idle, neglected, left, dropped, or shoved away until summoned by someone who’s likely in a problematic or urgent situation. The plane is losing cabin pressure, Siri is needed to solve a problem, a bored teenager swirls the hula hoop, or a hostile dependent unloads into the receptacle. Think about where this leaves you: dependent on others and their need for you in order to fulfill your function. In such a state, you’re hyper-aware and on the lookout for others’ needs and especially their distress. In this watchful state, your sense of meaning and purpose derives from providing the function you’ve been conditioned to perform. In turn, your sense of self will be tied to the frequency with which you get to serve and soothe your loved one(s) when they’re bothered, anxious, uncertain, distressed, lost, angry, feeling abandoned, or alone. Wow! That’s a really big job. It provides tremendous rewards for the self and keeps you coming back for more. Unfortunately, when the loved one no longer needs you in this way, you’re shoved back into the box, tossed into the garage or a smelly boat locker or idling inside an airplane.
Notice how the life jacket, the rodeo clown, the buoy, and the oxygen masks are associated with lifesaving, an activity of great importance. Many use lifesaving to form the core of a professional identity and sense of self. All activities that provide us with meaning, particularly at the level of life and death, will exert power on the psyche. As a result, one can be caught (imprisoned) in this position for a long, long time because it feeds an essential part of our sense of self and our innate need to be useful.
Each of these metaphorical objects provides a specific function: lifesaving (buoy, oxygen mask, life jacket, rodeo clown), entertainment (hula hoop, rodeo clown), household care (lawn guy), information providing (Siri). The more an activity provides a necessary or important function, the more meaning one will derive from practicing it. When coping behaviors seem to provide an essential purpose, it makes sense and feels meaningful, thereby making it possible to be held in their grip for a long time.
Readers know too well the pain of life in a wounded family system. The recovery method described and prescribed in this book serves to relieve that pain. Consider the relationship between the sense of meaning your metaphorical position provides and the distraction offered as a result. Most of us will endure significant levels of discomfort or pain to provide a lifesaving service or help in a way that seems necessary. In other words, when offered the opportunity to fulfill our metaphorical function, we are distracted from the pain of the family system environment and its disorder, unpredictability, chaos, and seemingly endless cycles of pain and relapse. The lawn guy has cornered the market on this distraction; he’s in another world.
Comedians and authors teach us the power of absurdity to capture the human imagination, entertain us, and create memorable moments. In fact, one memory method relies on associating a thing to recall with something crazy or absurd or provocative, such as elephants having sex, or an explosion in the place where you set down your keys. Our examples of metaphorical roles all contain absurd or wild notions or images. Even the very idea that through passivity one could make a difference is patently absurd.
Take some time to identify the metaphor for the state you occupy when most activated by your thoughts about people you love who may be struggling or mistreating you. See the metaphors question guide in chapter 8 for some additional help with this.
Until we begin this work, most of us are held in our impossible positions (the metaphorical state) by a set of powerful forces lying outside our awareness. There are two sets of these forces: external ones that derive from the system, and internal ones tied to our core beliefs and personalities. In this section we’ll look at the external or system forces that keep us stuck. Chapter 3 will describe in detail the internal ones, termed the “Lies That Bind” and offer you a way to uncover and then weaken these.
While it may seem arbitrary to separate these into external and internal, we do so to organize thinking and learning. Keep in mind there’s considerable overlap, especially when we consider the role of perception. How one sees things is as significant to how they are experienced as the details themselves. In other words, there will be talk here about threats, losses, and covert messages (explained in a minute). The power of these is directly proportional to the meaning and significance one attributes to them. By the end of this process, you will be much more able to notice the effect of belief and perception and begin to question some of what you think.
Family member recovery work depends on interrupting the disabling effects of long-standing ways of thinking that reinforce traditional (classic) ways of responding. This is what William James means by changing our beliefs (see quote in the introduction). Say you identify with the metaphor of Siri, the expert trapped in an iPhone. What might take place to activate you in Siri mode? Then what occurs to drop you back into the iPhone and its cocoon of silence?
Charlotte’s Mom’s story will illustrate:
Charlotte just turned eighteen and she’s heading out again with those friends of hers that her mother has never approved of. Mom’s disapproval activates Siri talk: “Must you still see Janet? You know she was arrested last week and she’s already had two abortions.”
“Mom, please, I know what I’m doing.”
Now in full Siri mode, Mom adds: “What about that nice Jennifer you were friends with last year?”
“Mom, I’m an adult now. I said I know what I’m doing. Stop worrying.”
This has become Charlotte’s common refrain of late, though just last week she needed her mother to rescue her when she ran out of gas.
Siri’s effect creates conflict and corrodes closeness.
In response to the “I’m an adult” scolding, Siri returns to her little box of silence. But inside she knows it won’t be long until she’s again called upon to perform another rescue operation.
Sure enough, just after midnight, her phone is ringing. “Mom!”
Chapter 7 will present the recovery program from Stress-Induced Impaired Coping. Here’s a sneak preview of some techniques to avoid becoming the metaphorical thing that traps you:
First, begin by noticing when you’re in the grip of the metaphor; that is, the moment you’re aware you’ve become The Thing (the clown, the life jacket, Siri, etc.). Say to yourself, “There I go, I just became the lawn guy.” Inventory the conditions that pulled you into the role. What was going on? What was said? What was true about your personal state at the time (tired, rushed, hungry, irritable)? Start to look for familiar patterns that activate becoming The Thing. For example, is it more frequently when she’s been away for a while (or around you for an extended period), on workdays/weekends, when money is involved, when you’re trying to do too much, or after you’ve had contact with another particularly problematic person?
This type of examination forms the basis of your emerging ability to interrupt yourself and sidestep or avoid becoming The Thing. Think of yourself as an anthropologist in your own family. You’re looking around, wondering, and asking questions, not trying to solve things or “figure it out.” As you move toward noticing and wondering, your perspective will shift and you’ll be less likely to be taken over by a need to fix or control. When that fixer/controller need is activated you’re more likely to become The Thing, even if your Thing is passive and withdrawn.
Create a New, Healthier Metaphor
You’ve had considerable experience and become pretty good at describing what’s wrong, what doesn’t work, how people don’t listen, and have a long list of “if only” statements: “If only he’d accept that he needs help. If only she’d respect herself more. If only my husband would admit he’s an alcoholic.” The list goes on and on. Part of the early work is to add a set of “if only” statements that guide you toward what you need and to develop the capacity for healthy, loving detachment from the details and the activity of your problematic loved ones.
Start by developing an “if only” statement that describes a position you’d like to occupy in which you’d be free: “If only I wasn’t so taken over by his distress and problems. . . . If only I could give myself the things I want so badly for them. . . . If only I had superpowers to protect me from family insanity.” Identify a metaphor for your preferred position in which you’re strong, taking care of yourself and free from being pulled into systemic insanity. In this position you wouldn’t be The Thing; rather, you’d pursue an ideal. Here are some examples along with an affirming statement for each:
- Reliable father, available mother, empowered partner, benevolent leader, sought-out consultant. “If some of my family members can’t make use of the good things I have to offer, I’ll find others who will value them.”
- Scientific researcher. “If only I could take a step back and take notes on these relationship patterns and classic interactions. Then I could think about and examine what’s going on rather than jump in and rescue or explain.”
- Peaceful planet: “If only I could be a peaceful planet in its own orbit and watch the other planets wobble and bob along. I’d hover above the fray and the chaos and check in with myself to determine what I need and what really makes sense for me to do.”
- Free-wheeling ocean bird: “If only I could ride the winds above the ocean, no matter how turbulent the surface. I could create time away from this situation.”
- Willow tree: “If only I had the strength, flexibility and beauty of a willow, able to sway with the wind in peace. As of today, I’m no longer available to rush in, figure out, explain and fix.”
- Adventurous whale: “If only I could go below the surface and swim in the beauty of the deep. I know I’ll have to return to the surface for air but I’ll be calmer then.”
This chapter looked at the power of our beliefs to hold us in rigid, stuck positions in our families. We explained the term “Goo-Promoting Factors” to describe some of the interpersonal and intrapsychic (things we think in our minds), forces that keep us stuck. In our stuckness, we become a Thing that can be described using a metaphor that captures the futility and powerlessness we experience. Examples of these were provided. Lastly, we examined some of the forces that reinforce us in our stuck positions (more GPFs) and alternatively, we identify a metaphor for a position we’d prefer to occupy in the service of detaching in a healthy, loving way from the detail and the drama we’ve been so consumed by in our problematic loved ones.