I have been to many NAMI and Al-Anon meetings over the years that were attended primarily by mothers and grandmothers dealing with their son’s or daughter’s mental illness and/or addiction. I’ve always wondered why there were so few fathers in attendance. Were they afraid to acknowledge their child had a problem? In general, it seems that mothers take on the role of primary caretaker trying to keep their child functioning. As caretakers, we come to believe we have no choice; if we don’t step in, something terrible will happen. I know, I’ve been terrified my child would die.
I was appalled one time when my therapist said, “You’re looking for a quick fix,” in regards to finding the right treatment for my son. Although part of me was angry he was comparing me to an addict, he was right. I was obsessed with finding SOMETHING to DO to alleviate my own stress about my son’s illness.
Today, I read something by Debra Jay in No More Letting Go that helped me understand what drives the caretaker even when nothing the caretaker does seems to make a difference.
Caretakers can’t stop taking care of everything and every time we avert another disaster, it reinforces our belief that we are doing the right thing.
When the crisis is over we feel an overwhelming sense of relief. Solving the problem makes us feel good. The two most powerful motivating forces in life—avoiding pain and seeking pleasure—now control our actions. When it comes to a situation in which a child is addicted, the role of caretaker is usually taken on by the mother. Shelley E. Taylor, a psychology professor at UCLA calls it the tending instinct, which is biologically more prominent in women.
This is how it works: The chemical oxytocin is released in the reward centers of the human brain, facilitating intense emotional attachments such as those between parent and child. Oxytocin reinforces the pleasure we feel when we create social bonds. It is released during childbirth or when a mother is breastfeeding her baby. Estrogen in a woman increases its potency whereas the male hormone testosterone does not. Apparently, oxytocin is also released during times of stress so this may be why caretakers become increasingly obsessed with taking care of the addicted child as problems worsen. And there is a direct correlation between the severity of the addiction and the excessiveness of caretaking. It is common for a parent to respond to a fully grown son or daughter as if he or she were still a small child. And of course, this causes more problems in the family.
Biology isn’t the only culprit. Caretakers are motivated by complex emotions, usually a combination of love, fear, guilt, and shame. And I’d add hubris: most caretakers believe they are the only ones who can help their child.
Caretakers are incredibly well-intentioned and cannot see that their efforts aren’t helping. Instead, their rescue attempts often make it easier for the disease to persist. When their best efforts are continually thwarted they end up confused, angry, and sad that they’re not doing it “right”. At that point, the caretaker needs to learn to take care of herself.