For years I have been using the metaphor of a see-saw or teeter-totter in describing relationships lately. A number of family members of addicts can testify the feeling of being on a teeter totter. The addict themselves feels like they are on a carnival ride as well. In the old days, the metaphor was a merry-go-round, but the teeter totter really describes the ups and downs and how it relates to our taking responsibility or jumping off in anger, judgement and fear.
Remember the experience of the teeter-totter or see-saw as a child? You almost had to get on at the same time. You would each push off the ground and then let your weight bring you back down. When this got boring, we would jump higher or less to change the speed. We would then lean back farther or lean forward and that would change the dynamics. We would even jump off or pretend to jump off which would jolt them. We could even walk on it standing up moving towards the fulcrum. Little did we realize we were getting a lesson in physics, let alone a lesson in family dynamics.
The addictive relationship has many qualities that are similar to a teeter-totter. The jumping off or the pretending to hop off is like the threats or ” promises” we make to the addict in our life. It creates a disturbance, but still there is a strange equilibrium to the rleationship. The dynamics of . . . “what I do affects you greatly” is present in the addictive relationship.
If this be true, then can a codependent get recovery whether or not the addict does and not, and can this “greatly affect” the relationship for good? I see people come into the therapy office whose lives have been affected by addicts and we focus on their half of the relationship. Does this work? Many say that you can really do anthing to change the addict, they have to want to change. This is true. We can’t change the addict, but we can change ourselves and our ways of relating to them.
The See-Saw or the Teetor-Totter. I like the expression Teetor-Totter because many of us have probably felt that we were teetoring on the edge. Life seems so unstable in many ways. Yet, in a strange way, the dysfunction is pretty predictable and also stable in a dysfunctional way. We seemed rooted in it and to try to get out of it can seem overwhelming.
The balanced relationship (non-addictive, healthy) is where both people share the responsibility of the relationship. Each person has their own weight to care. It can be shared from time to time, but not taken from each other. There really is no fixing, but an understanding that their side of the teeter-totter carries its own weight (responsibility). Both have about the same care, love and concern for the other. There is no pushing to changing the other person. One may give a little and the other reciprocates. It is not forced, but it just flows. It moves freely and each partner pushes or works just enough to allow themselves to go up while the other goes down. The movement is predictable and understandable.
We all have our ups and downs. In a healthy relationship we don’t really try to stop ourselves from having the ups and downs –we go with the flow. There is always a movement. Some up or down.
Stepping off the teeter totter
As you probably know from your experience with teeter totters, you begin to realize that if you jump off the other person comes tumbling down to the ground. This is funny at first, and it makes the experience quite different. This is how it is when we have an imbalanced relationship with an addict.
We begin to feel unappreciated. We work too much. We think too much. We feel too much and so we’ve had it, we jump off and let them fall to the ground. At this point we are feeling self righteous. We feel justified in our anger, we really don’t see how jumping off isn’t really helpful to ourselves or to them. There is such a clamour when the other person has fallen off, this is all that the addict sees.
When we see that the other person has fallen down or has fallen off of the teeter-totter, without our influence, but just from the drug/behavior itself, we can feel many things.
We start to feel little bit guilty after we see them falling down. We may have asked them to leave the house. We may have made threats because we really can’t live with the guilt and we feel the sensation of our side of the teeter totter swinging outward, we can’t help but want to jump on the teeter totter again to balance the relationship. But little did we realize we were doing what we’ve always done which is fixing, thinking and feeling for what the other person has done. It doesn’t work. We do this over and over, thinking that this time it’ll be different. Sometimes the teeter totter swings up and down really fast. Sometimes it’s really slow and we can see it happening. Sometimes is moves fast and creates high drama, which is actually like a drug. We avoid our own feelings numbing them with the drama.
Sometimes we catch them and we prevent them from falling. This may be giving them money. This may be fixing their emotional pain. This may be fixing legal problems, but the result is always the same: we stopped them from falling. We do this because we hate to see them fall, were compassionate and ultimately their fall may affect us. So the control continues.
Notice that both the codependent and the addict are into fixes. The addict says, “I need a fix” to “fix only the temporary problem. It is really a temporary “fix.” It is not going to “fix” the whole problem. The codependent catching someone is only going to provide them from a temporary fix from how bad they feel about the situation. A solution is what is going to help people ultimately–not fixes.
We put a pillow under their fall
This is similar to “catching them” from falling, but it doesn’t feel like we are enabling as much or fixing as much. We are not catching them, we are just putting a pillow under their fall to make it lighter and softer. This would be more like bailing them out after they’ve fallen. We let them go to jail but then we bail them out. They come to our door needing help, food, and comfort. This may be providing legal support. It is whatever we do, that cushions their landing. No one wants to see someone suffer, but for some addicts it is the only way for them to experience recovery. So we are actually preventing their recovery. Whether addicts or codependents, we are not comfortable with feelings.
Some kinds of addiction really affect both the addict and the codependent virulently. Just as it is difficult for the addict to say “no” to the drug of choice, the codependent may even have a more difficult time saying “no” to the addict. They are obsessed with what the addict is doing and constantly is calling or texting up on the addict. (I am coining a new term here, texting+checking up=texting up) Addiction has an element of getting a quick response from our efforts. The quicker the effect of the substance/behavior the more addictive it is. Smoking a substance is more addictive in that it gets to the brain faster. Gambling games with quicker feedback are more addiction (slots are more addictive then playing the state lottery). Sexual addiction that involves high speed internet porn has become more addictive than when one went to the porn store across town and had to find a place to view it. So texting is becoming more and more addictive in that it is instant and impulsive feedback.
It may help to realize that we are not saying no to the addict so much as we are saying “no” to the addiction in general. This means we may not be able to give them any more, housing, or emotional support.
There are relationships with the addict (or the addiction they itself) manipulates very powerfully the codependent to bail them out and to take care of them, to give them money and to do their emotional work for them. As the addict drops their emotional responses to the world, the coaddict or codependent picks up their emotional work and them begins to have more motivation than the addict does.
There is a joke that says, “What does a codependent and God both have in common? . . . . .a plan for your life.”
God is healthy enough to make his optional. The codependent doesn’t realize that they are compelled to think, feel and take care of the addict. Entering into a program of recovery for both the addict and the codependent is essential if they are going to make any long term change. A new equilibrium can be established, but it takes effort on our part and the Grace and power of God to aquire this.