Tonight’s featured speaker was a 50-something woman who reclaimed her sobriety and her life among the gays at AA meetings in West Hollywood. She started life as a wild child from the very beginning. She had all sorts of issues early on, including anxiety and depression, and she said that she experienced things that would make anyone want to ‘check out’. It was not at all clear what could have been, however. Her mother was a little crazy, but likeable, and her father was a very responsible man, whom she appreciates much more now after he is gone (he died when she was a teenager).
She starting drinking at 11, and she considers herself an honorary alcoholic — but her drug of choice was heroin. She drugged almost non-stop for the next 10 years. During this time, her mother was living through her daughter vicariously. Her mother was a compulsive spender, and enjoyed pretending that they were more affluent than they actually were. The mother allowed the child to run wild from the very beginning. As a 13 year old, the mother allowed her to date an 18 y/o, and in fact paid his rent and took her to stay with him on weekends. She really enjoyed being near her daughter, and feeling needed by her. She was more interested in being a friend than a mother. She stoked the daughter’s addiction to heroin, and took her to her methadone appointments. This was her way of keeping the daughter close, even though the girl was missing out on growing up normally. It is hard to know how much of her drugging was caused by her mother’s enabling vs. battling her own demons.
But the addiction was really bad. She got a 10 year suspended sentence for unspecified crimes. The Federal judge declared: “You are not fit to live among decent people.” I have absolutely no idea what it could have been (this was about 35 years ago). But this was the one time that her mother finally drew the line: “You must get help or I will not help you any more.” This ultimatum actually came as a welcome shock to the girl.
She went to rehab at around age 21. It worked for a while, then she relapsed, and after a few weeks of unsatisfying drug use, she went back to AA and it finally stuck. She has been sober since. “AA was the only thing that ever worked for me.”
Now she has a teenage daughter of her own. Unfortunately the daughter can be verbally abusive and disrespectful. Recently, she finally had enough and drew the line: “You must treat me with respect or go live with your father.” The girl was surprised by her mother’s sternness and responded: “Why didn’t you tell me that a long time ago?” Indeed.
The child’s job is to test boundaries, and the parent’s job is to set them. However, some parents, like this woman, in the hope of not hurting her child’s feelings and not damaging her self-esteem, failed to set boundaries early on. Therefore, the child continued to test boundaries to the point of becoming disrespectful. How could she know this was wrong if the parent failed to tell her? Therefore she was relieved (and surprised) when her mother told her to stop, although the mother was angry and in fact wanted to throw her out the window when she said that! But the daughter was right — mother should have demanded respect from the beginning. Better late than never.
One risk of not setting boundaries with children is that they then must become their own parent and determine boundaries for themselves — figure out right and wrong on as best they can. In this case they are essentially parenting themselves. They can develop a huge “super-ego” (sorry to get Freudian), become moralistic, and suffer from toxic shame. The possible risk on the other extreme is that they become psychopathic — complete disregard for right and wrong. This is especially likely if the parent spent the early years flattering the child: “You are so smart, you are so pretty,” etc, etc. The attempt to inflate self-esteem can actually backfire as the child encounters the real world reality that is not so kind: Mommy cannot be trusted and the world is hurtful. Since the child has not learned how to deal with emotional adversity, she is not resilient and may take everything personally. Furthermore, there is no right and wrong, and anything is allowed as long as you can get away with it or talk you way out of it.
Many parents want to give their child the ideal childhood that they missed out on (or to avoid being blamed for all their child’s problems), but in so doing forget that their job is actually to raise a self-sufficient adult. In fact they suppress their own natural parenting instincts to reprimand or criticize. But children crave this, even though they may resist it. Remember, it is their job to test boundaries, and the parent’s job to set them. To deny the child the benefit of this dynamic is a form of child abuse. Fortunately most children are resilient and will turn out fine regardless.
In the same way, we avoid telling drug users the truth about their addiction: You are using because you are self-medicating for psychological pain. Or: You are using because it’s a convenient cover for cheating on your boyfriend. Instead, we tell them that they have a disease that they cannot control and must ask God for redemption. We think that we are doing them a favor with this explanation by not hurting their feelings. But in fact we are only prolonging the pain. The addiction myth allowed the mother to stoke her daughter’s use for many years. But addiction is a complete hoax and sham, designed for the benefit of only psychopaths and scoundrels. Everyone else gets screwed. If we as a society could see the truth of this, the pair could never have gotten sucked up into the addiction mythology, and the mother would not have been able to despoil her daughter’s precious youth.