Learning to say no to drug-using spouses
New York — LIFE with Octavio had gotten a little bizarre. To put it mildly. Marilyn remembers, for example, the time that her husband woke her up at 2 in the morning. Octavio was convinced that the maid had stolen the living room furniture and replaced it with copies. He insisted that his wife get out of bed and go measure the furniture to uncover the deception. (Marilyn and Octavio are not their real names.)
``I was scared... ,'' she recalls. ``If I said no, or said I was tired and wanted to go back to bed, he would become violent. So I spent hours measuring furniture.''
That's just the way life was for Marilyn and her two children. Octavio was a cocaine addict, who would spend days on drugs, or disappear and go out partying with other women. Marilyn, who was so insecure about love and relationships that she'd never learned to say ``no'' to anyone, tried to ignore his destructive behavior. She assumed that because she had a husband, a family, and a home, she was happy.
But then while on a visit to New York to get treatment for Octavio, Marilyn began to get help herself. She started seeing a clinical social worker, who helped her see the damage that she was allowing Octavio to inflict on her and her children. Now, after two years of treatment, Marilyn is ready to say ``the big no,'' in her words: She is going to tell Octavio she wants a divorce.
In a way, Marilyn is also saying ``no'' to drugs. And although it's hardly the sort of no Nancy Reagan has been advocating, Marilyn's story shows that in the war on drugs, saying no involves far more than efforts aimed at helping young people learn how to turn down drugs.
For the families of drug abusers, part of the sometimes bitter truth they must face is that no one can make an abuser quit; he must learn to say no for himself. It also involves finding, and holding to, the fine line between being supportive of a loved one and learning to say no by refusing to tolerate certain behavior.
In fact, experts on drug and alcohol abuse say family members can often be enablers of an addiction - meaning, for example, that a wife who calls in sick for a husband is actually enabling him to continue abusing drugs by not forcing him to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions.
``Sometimes it's a help to say to someone, `Beyond this line you can't cross. If you cross this line, it's just one step too much, and there are going to be consequences,''' says Elaine Resnick, the clinical social worker who has helped Marilyn. Along with her husband, psychiatrist Richard Resnick, Mrs. Resnick has been studying drug abuse for years.
``I've worked with a lot of parents of addicted kids,'' she explains. ``And you can count on the fact that the parents will rationalize their inappropriate behavior with their kids by saying, `If I don't do this they're going to kill themselves.'
``Let's say a child says, `I need money' and the parents give him $100 without ever asking ... what it's being used for,'' she says. If the parent refuses to give money or starts asking questions, ``there's going to be a crisis point around which the whole family will be thrown into chaos.
``Out of that crisis could come growth,'' she says. ``Out of that crisis could come destruction. But the other way you're guaranteed to get destruction. It may be more drawn out, but it's guaranteed to happen. So I say to parents, `You are going to have to take a risk....
``As long as you never say no, you never give the opportunity for that other person to take responsibility,'' she adds.
In her private practice, Mrs. Resnick treats many women who are or have been married to drug abusers. (Statistics, she says, show that women are more inclined to stay with an alcoholic or drug-abusing husband than men are to stay with wives who are abusers.) She helps the women learn how to use and understand the word ``no'' and gain a sense of identity and self-esteem that had been lacking.
For Brenda (not her real name), another Resnick patient, life with a drug- and alcohol-abusing husband included physical battering. Her husband's family knew about the beatings but played down the problem. ``They're kind of an aggressive family,'' she says. ``His grandmother said, `Well, get a bat.'''
Brenda, who came from an alcoholic and broken home, says for years she didn't have enough self-confidence to take a stand. ``I was so afraid that I couldn't do anything by myself... ,'' she says. To complicate matters, she felt responsible for her husband's addictions, a common feeling among wives of abusers.
But Brenda's husband still refuses to acknowledge his problem. After years of trying to help him, Brenda has begun to understand that she cannot force her husband to change, and that she does not have to continue living in an abusive situation. A key factor has been her concern for her five-year-old daughter.
``I took it for years and never thought about getting out,'' she says. ``It never occurred to me that I could leave this situation, until I had a child who was going through it, too....''
Mrs. Resnick and other treatment professionals worry that women like Brenda, and their children, are being overlooked in the nation's focus on drug abuse and drug abusers. It is particularly worrisome, experts say, because statistics show that children who come from homes that suffered from drug or alcohol abuse are likely candidates to become abusers themselves. Few programs that target these children for early help exist.
As far as Mrs. Resnick is concerned, women like Brenda and Marilyn are ``the hopeful ones'' in the war on drugs.
``Without the mother learning to say no, the children can't learn no,'' says Mrs. Resnick, who notes the irony of a society that labels the phase when a child learns to begin to say no - to develop a sense of identity - as the Terrible Twos. ``Love includes saying no. There's no love in not saying no.''
For Marilyn, learning to say no has been a long, painful road. But she is delighted now to hear her son and daughter beginning to say no, to express disapproval or dislike without being afraid.
``Everybody always said to me, `Oh, you're so loving, you're so wonderful, you'll do anything for love,'' Marilyn recalls. ``I was brought up believing that love conquers all, that I should and would do anything to save a relationship, and that love was the main thing.
``Love,'' she says, pausing for a moment. ``You have to start loving yourself. ... How much could I love [my husband]? Until it killed me?
``It's my responsibility now to take charge of my life,'' she says, ``so that this doesn't happen to my kids.''