From Enabler to Rescuer: A Family’s Journey to Recovery

May 9, 2014
To hear Nicole tell her recovery story, check out her Far From Finished podcast episode. Far From Finished is a podcast series that shares the unfiltered, real-life stories of people in recovery. Please join us every Monday as we introduce a brand new episode of Far From Finished.

Nicole lives in a world where, every day, mothers are helping to save the lives of their children. It’s not a pretty world, the world of alcoholism and drug addiction. It’s a world where moms feel helpless to protect the children who scream, curse and blame them, children who seem not to care about train-wrecked lives or pushing the edge of safety in search of a buzz or a high.

According to many who counsel these mothers, moms can be enablers. And yet, numbers also suggest that once mothers understand the disease of alcohol or drug addiction, they are often the prime movers of their children’s successful recovery.

Nicole helps people who are recovering from the disease of addiction, and she does her share of talking to concerned and distraught mothers. Described by co-workers as “enthusiastic and passionate,” she tells the moms that no matter how dire the situation seems, recovery is possible. And Nicole would know because she, too, is in recovery, after years of internecine warring with her mom while in the grip of addiction.

“When I’m talking to a mom, I’m talking to my mom,” Nicole says as she describes her work with others in recovery, alumni of American Addiction Centers. She has celebrated two years clean and sober. And on her first sober anniversary, her mom was the person who stood up in front of everyone in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting to give Nicole the token marking the anniversary.

“I hated my mother,” Nicole says of her addicted years. “I went through three different treatment programs from the time I was 15 to the time I was 18, manipulating my way out of each of them. I stole from her. I stole her car numerous times in the middle of the night. At one point she had to put a double lock on the door (one of the ones where you couldn’t open the door from either side without a key) and sleep with her keys under her pillow.”

Part of Nicole’s recovery process is a promise she made to herself never to disrespect her mother again.

“And so far I’ve managed to hold myself to that vow.”

While telling mothers that recovery is possible, Nicole also lets them know the hard truths that turn an enabler into a positive part of recovery. The secret is counterintuitive — that things mothers do out of concern and care — provide a car, financial support, a roof over a head — can enable the addiction and send its roots deeper into their loved one.


Three Mistakes

One mistake Nicole warns moms against is making empty threats. A person suffering from addiction knows when the threat is empty. As Nicole puts it, “They know that you care about them more than they care about themselves.”

Another mom mistake is self-blame. “It’s not their fault,” Nicole admonishes, debunking a manipulation used by many addicted children. In her work, Nicole hears mothers taking on the blame over and over. “It’s the addict’s responsibility not the parent’s,” she affirms.

A third mistake is letting the child call the shots. A child suffering from addiction has a keen sense of how badly the parent wants her to give up addiction. This imbalance puts the child in control and empowers endless manipulations, according to Nicole, that often have the result of avoiding recovery, giving addiction a stronger hold, and possibly courting mortal danger.

Tough Love

Handsome young man on a lake in a sunny, peaceful dayThe good news is, moms learn from their mistakes, and many go on to become the chief influence in a child’s decision to get treatment. So what’s a mom to do?

“The number one thing that moms have to do is let go,” Nicole says.

That’s easier said than done, as any mom will tell you.

“It’s the most difficult thing in the world,” Nicole’s mom, Cheryl, recalls. Just before Nicole went into treatment, Cheryl cut off Nicole’s cell phone and stopped giving her money.

“She cut ties, she cut everything,” Nicole remembers.

According to Nicole, it wasn’t until her mother cut her off that she started to think about recovery for real.

For Cheryl, however, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds in the telling. “I can’t explain other than I couldn’t breathe,” Cheryl remembers. “I didn’t know if I was going to get a call at any moment telling me my daughter was dead.”

And yet Nicole reports that the shock of being cut off was her wakeup call. Though Cheryl had cut Nicole off, she also let Nicole know that she would be there as soon as her daughter truly decided to get clean and sober. “When I said I was ready, she came with a truck,” Nicole remembers.

The tough love and hard work for moms doesn’t end when their daughter or son checks into treatment. In Nicole’s case, she called her mother every day pleading to get out of treatment. It involved crying, yelling, blaming, and all the same ugliness addiction excels at.

Couple Wife Husband Dating Relaxation Love ConceptBut Cheryl held firm — and once again, it wasn’t easy. “When she would call me from treatment, my heart would be in my gut — my child’s upset right now and I want to make her feel better.”

When Nicole recalls that time, there’s a touch of respect, maybe relief in her voice: “I told her everything that I could and tried everything to get out of that treatment center – ‘I fuckin hate you’ — and she said, ‘everything’s going to be OK.'”

Moms of children suffering from addiction are called on to do that a lot, practice tough love — they put on a ruthless face; they stay firm, and then they go home and break down, possibly crying to their own mothers — as Cheryl reports doing on many occasions.

Sometimes for moms the biggest hurdle is trading the fear of what will happen if you don’t help for the fear of what will inevitably happen if you enable the addiction.

As Cheryl reflects on that time in Nicole’s life, she considers what she had to tell herself in order to stay committed to her tough love approach: “The biggest thing is — it sounds like a cliché — ‘I’m not going to love you to death.’ You have to come to that conclusion as a parent.”

In her work on the phones with distraught moms, Nicole advises them to hold their children accountable. There are lists of commitments a person in recovery should be held to. “Make sure they have a sponsor,” Nicole ticks off, “going to their meetings, make sure that they have guidelines, you have to test twice a month…”
A Mom’s tough love could be a new life for her loved one. Nicole reports that today she’s not just clean and sober, she’s a completely different person from the one who was using drugs and alcohol. Now, thanks to her mom, she is there when other moms ask what they can do to help their children. Nicole is there to tell them, “You need to cut ties, you need to get tough, but never give up.”

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