Over the years, addiction takes over the life of the addict. Family and others close to the addict may also find their lives completely overwhelmed by the addiction. As we witness Seth and Sarah's life together and current interactions, we can see this is true for both of them. We also see that their daughter has been drawn into the drama of the addiction.
Loving both of her parents as they struggle with their addiction and co-addiction, Amber is seemingly the healthiest part of this triad. But she is walking a very fine line between being supportive of her father and tolerant of her mother while not significantly supporting her father's addiction or her mother's co-addiction.
This is all very tricky. Optimally, when an addict goes into treatment the whole family enters treatment. Most rehabilitation centers include family work and usually some very intense family interventions related to living with the addiction, their own co-addictions and what life might look like for each family member after treatment and, hopefully, ongoing recovery. Everyone in the orbit of the addict and his addiction has to recover from the years of accommodation, enabling, anger, hurt and loss.
The process of living in recovery for the addict and those close to him is an ongoing process. Those affected by the illness of the addiction are often doomed to continue in their unhealthy patterns long after the addict himself has recovered. In this episode, we see a pattern of enabling and co-addiction in Sarah that has continued to grow over the years related to her relationship with Seth. She has not been involved in her own recovery, and - while having developed some healthy behaviors - rapidly falls back into her pattern of co-addiction by trying to care for Seth, "doing it for him," and ostensibly "helping him to get better," when really she is just continuing to get her own desires met through her (sick) need to enable him. She doesn't see that she is not really helping him at all but is instead continuing to meet her need to be "addicted" to an "addict."
Their daughter is able to see this cycle starting to repeat, and she does what is healthy for her, her mother and her father. She sets clear boundaries that don't enable illness. At this point, it is important for her and especially her mother to begin their own process of recovery, or they are very likely doomed to repeat the same patterns of addiction and co-addiction again and again. Individual counseling, group therapy, family therapy and the various co-addict groups including Al-Anon are all ways for each of those affected by Seth's addiction to find healing, recovery and a path forward to a life free from the awful confines of the addiction.
While I am not equating addiction with autism, as a way of tying the above themes of addiction to our storyline about ASD, I wanted to point out that often families who live with ASD become imprisoned by autism in a similar way that the family of the addict is held prisoner by the addiction. Family members will often confuse enabling autistic symptoms with helping a person living with autism. By accommodating the rigidity, fixations or other inappropriate behaviors of autism, family members are keeping the person living with ASD as well as themselves prisoner to the maladaptive, nonfunctional symptoms of autism. The person with autism needs to learn as much as possible how to navigate and live in a world where the rigidity, fixations and other maladaptive behaviors are not helpful or appropriate. I often see this in families in which, despite growing older, the child with ASD is still allowed to sleep in the parental bed. Clearly this is not a long-term adaptive strategy for someone living with ASD - or the family.
As family members living with someone with ASD, we have to ask ourselves, "Am I accommodating this behavior only because it is too difficult to confront?" Sometimes, of course, we may be accommodating the behavior because accommodating is really the most appropriate and healthy action at this point. But - like living with a person with an addiction - every action needs to be moving the family and the person with ASD toward freedom from disorder. Freedom to act outside of the confines of the disorder - whether addiction or autism - is our hope.
Written by Roy Sanders, M.D.