The World of Enmeshment in an Alcoholic Home – what is “enmeshment” and what does it have to do with living in a home where a family member is drinking too much or has the disease of alcoholism?
By the time I finally began (at age 49) my own road to understanding what had happened in my life as the result of loving/living with various loved ones who abused or were addicted to alcohol (alcoholics) [whom I collectively refer to as "Alex" in my work], I was one angry, frustrated, resentful person. The more Alex drank or broke his promises not to drink or to cut back on his drinking, the more vigilant I became.
I knew the next “fix” would be the one that would finally work. When that didn’t happen, I would step up my efforts — admonishing, nagging, pleading, arguing, crying, pouting, ignoring, and so on. My common theme was, “If you loved me, you’d stop!”
I deeply believed and figured that if I just managed our household more efficiently or did a better job of scheduling activities or _______________ (fill in the blank, I’m sure I tried it), then he’d quit drinking so much and our lives would finally be happy. And, when I couldn’t control his drinking, I’d step up my vigilance to manage the next inevitable crisis as a way of wresting control of the situation — and in a complex life of marriage, jobs, children, ex-spouses, friends and family, there was an endless source and variety. Little did I understand that focusing on the next crisis was a way of trying to control some aspect of my life, but in fact, it often created problems of a different nature (like my daughter setting aside her own needs in order to make me happy when she sensed I was upset with Alex, for example). But, as long as I focused “over there,” I didn’t have to face the underlying problem right in front of me — alcohol, Alex’s use of it and my reactions to his use.
For you see, unknowingly at the time, I was living in the dangerous world of “enmeshment” — the place where I had absolutely no concept of boundaries. I didn’t know where “I” ended and “someone else” (Alex, for example) began. In my world, the “I” and the “someone else” were one and the same. My identity was thoroughly entangled in the notion that it was my job to make sure others were happy, toed the line and succeeded at work, in school and life in general. It was my job to see the world as others saw it or to make sure they saw it the way I did. I’d reduced my world to rigid absolutes — good or bad, right or wrong, the truth or a lie — because with absolutes, there was a target, an objective, something that could be argued and fought for until a “winner” and a “loser” could be declared. And, by gosh, I was going to “win” this battle over my loved one’s drinking or the next crisis because my whole being was caught up in what others thought of me. If “they” (whomever “they” were) thought I was good or right, then I was good or right.
Luckily for me, Alex entered a treatment program, which plunged me into a whole other world — a world that included terms and concepts like codependency, adult children of alcoholics, 12-step programs, co-addictions, dual diagnosis and the role a family member has in the denial that protects a loved one’s drinking. Lucky for me, it had a strong family-help component, and I was finally DONE — I didn’t know what “done” meant, I just knew I was exhausted, angry, fed-up, DONE — that’s when I finally opened my heart and mind to figuring out just what had happened to me and why and what I could do to change it — finally, there was a chink in the armor that had kept me “safe” all those years.