Donald Grove, in email to the HARMRED listserv 2/15/13
I have pretty much avoided 12-step programs. I’m not sure if that was the right decision, but I understand where it came from. When I started seriously thinking about quitting heroin, I reached out to an ex-boyfriend who was very involved in AA, and it was pretty terrible. He was so strongly of the Keep it Simple Stupid school, that there didn’t seem to be any room for me as a person. I told him my boyfriend had died of an overdose, and he said, “That’s what happens when you’re dating an addict. These things happen all the time.” And when I finally told him that I didn’t want to start dating him again (after telling him I would be in touch if I was interested, and then hoping he would get the hint when I was conspicuously out of touch for a month) he told me I used and abused people because I was an addict. I told him I thought that was an oversimplification, and he told me that wasn’t really a word. It was all the anti-intellectualism, the aphorism-overload, the 13th-stepping, that people complain about. And I know I shouldn’t have let one guy scare me away from something that might have been useful, but at the time, it really seemed like the last thing that would help me. But in America, if you’re talking about drug use and recovery, you can’t really avoid the language and narratives of 12-step programs. And one of those ideas, however garbled in the popular culture, is enabling. And in its popular form — that anything you do to help a substance user in any way (from providing clean needles at a needle exchange, to letting someone crash on your sofa) is detrimental to them and to you, that any help you provide is delaying the necessary stage of hitting bottom — it always seemed unbearably cruel to me. If there was something I could do to help a loved one stay housed, stay employed, stay in school, I was not going to let some kind of tough-love bullshit stop me.
But I didn’t understand that what I had to watch out for was trying to take responsibility for other people’s decisions. With Djuna, who I started dating when I was 18, it seemed like I was always herding her, little nips at her heels, to get her to do her homework, to go to work, to get out of bed. I always took her mood so personally. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted to make her happy. And if she wasn’t, I took it as a personal reproach. And that had nothing to do with drugs, but with what might have been her deep unhappiness or might have been the dawning of the mental health issues that she had no safety net or resources to help with and that ended her up on SSI in her 30s.
And when I was dating Michael, it was that much worse. Because it seemed like I did have some control over his drug use. Dating him went from an adventure to a stressful, terrifying grind. The constant fear that I would come home to find him dead or arrested or the apartment on fire. Covering for him and hiding how bad things had gotten. I started banning people from the apartment, leaving the fridge stocked with lunches so I wouldn’t have to leave him with $5 for pizza. It was my worst, bitchiest, most controlling self. But I didn’t know how to stop. Michael told me he would kill himself if I left, and it didn’t seem like a threat, just a prediction. He got so upset when I stopped getting high with him; he said there was no way I would want to stay with him if we didn’t have the drugs to tie us together. One of the most terrible things about his death is my suspicion that it was the only way my 24-year old self could have gotten out of a relationship that had turned completely toxic.
And so I wish I had known about the definition of enabling that Donald Grove is talking about. Because it’s something that I’m still working on 15 years later, taking responsibility for everyone else’s happiness.