Co-parenting with an addict

How to protect our daughter?

Published January 17, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

The mother of my child, who is also soon to be my ex-wife, is an addict. She swears up and down that she is no longer on pills and that she only smokes weed for her (possibly imaginary) arthritis. In addition to being an addict, she regularly invents illnesses she or her family members suffer from in order to dump our daughter in my lap on a moment's notice when she's taking care of her.

I don't know how much you want to know or is relevant, but here's the back story. We were dating, and she moved in. She was a model who didn't have regular work. When I told her she needed to pay her share of the rent, she got pregnant intentionally so I would support her. Yes, I understand my responsibility in all this, but she has admitted that she lied about taking the pill. Que sera, sera. After the birth of our daughter, my ex shut down, popping pills and sleeping all day. I'd have to leave work to come wake her up in the middle of the day. She was also shopping compulsively with money we didn't have. And we, including my daughter, lived in a filthy mess because she's a slob. I checked out at work, focusing instead on the chaos at home, and ended up getting fired.

We separated about eight months ago. She's not working. For a time, she was sending naked pictures for money to the man with whom her sister cheated on her husband. Yes, I know. Now she's on welfare and apparently doing some paid modeling again. But I also got an email from a photographer's fiancé that contained a photo of my ex posing naked next to a bong. So this is pretty much what she's doing with her life, although she says she's going back to school for the umpteenth time next month. Incidentally, she lives right next door to her mother who OD'd a few years ago and has a veritable pharmacy in her apartment.

My question is not about fixing her, although, if you have any idea how that might happen, I would kiss your feet. I think she is broken. If we didn't have a daughter, I could just walk away. However, not only do I have to deal with her, she is, at least in my opinion, not living up to my daughter's needs. I guess my question is: How do I minimize the damage to me and my daughter's well-being from this person? How do I not spend a giant portion of each day being angry with my ex for her ongoing obnoxious bullshit?

Perpetually Stewing

Dear Perpetually Stewing,

You, my friend, are co-parenting with an addict. Addicts do not make good parents. A good parent thinks of the child and her needs. An addict is pretty much incapable of thinking of the child and her needs because the addict has all-consuming needs of her own that must be met in ways that are often extralegal and/or frowned upon socially and therefore addicts get into manipulation, secrecy, lying and subterfuge, which are also frowned upon socially, which leads to anger and frustration and outrage and ostracizing, which further erodes the social bonds that are needed for a good parent to bring her daughter into the world of other adults and children in an orderly way, which leads to more frustration and unhappiness and anger in the child, which leads to upset and hopelessness in the addict parent, which can lead to abandonment or inappropriate anger or striking out at the child and further debilitation of the addict parent in the form of long stays in crack houses.

And on it goes.

The way that a person involved with an addict finds support and order in his or her life is by adopting a program of living that takes all these factors into account and offers a template for what to do. The best way to start, in my opinion, is by attending your first meeting of Al-Anon or the analogous program for friends and relatives of drug addicts, Nar-Anon. Here you will learn the principles of dealing with an addict in your intimate sphere, how to detach and set boundaries and make difficult decisions and implement them and let go of your fear and your need to please the addict or save the addict.

If you lived in Maine and this were November 2011 you could go to a free workshop on co-parenting with an addict. The Kids First Center, where that workshop was held, may still be able to point you toward resources in your area or online. I also ran across this useful post from  Karen Alonge, a communication consultant. She also recommends -- with understandable reservations about the title --  the book "Joint Custody With a Jerk." Also on her site I ran across this wonderful if perhaps ambitious set of suggestions for parenting that would seem to apply to all parenting everywhere, and perhaps more broadly to all human communications.

I just thought it was really great so I'm linking to it.

Maybe you can do an intervention on your addicted wife. This link from the Mayo Clinic, and this one from Livestrong may both he helpful in deciding how to go about that.

You also know that you have played a part in this. You know you have made some not-so-great decisions. I am guessing that at times you have wanted to make a break or come clean, somehow admit that you, too, are in the grip of something. Perhaps part of you wants this thing and a part of you knows it is wrong and not working. Just intuitively, me to you, here are some of the things I think might be going in your head in this relationship with a seductive but addicted woman: She is really hot and so in spite of all the bad stuff, you still want her. She is really hot and so in spite of all the bad stuff, you think about her a lot. She is really hot and so in spite of all the bad stuff you think maybe it could work out if just maybe you had the right apartment. She is really hot and so even though every time you try to help her you get screwed over sometimes you still believe that she needs your help and you ought to help her. She is really hot and so even though she is nodding out you sometimes feel like her problem really isn't so bad and everybody has problems so why not at least sleep together.

I don't claim to read your mind. I'm just saying that these are the kinds of thoughts people have when they are romantically involved with hot, seductive but addicted partners. Oh and by the way in case I didn't make it clear: These are thoughts to avoid acting on.

Not acting on these things may be hard. So you are now going to have to stare into your own self and ask how are you secretly or not so secretly longing for her, for the dark side, for the drama, for the opportunity to be the rescuer? And now I say some challenging things to you, things you need to hear, like how you say, "Yes, I understand my responsibility in all this, but ..."

I don't like that "but."

You say, "Que sera, sera." I don't like that "Que sera, sera." It was a nice song Doris Day sang in the movie "The Man Who Knew Too Much" but is not a good explanation for why things go terribly wrong in relationships with addicts. I say replace "Que sera, sera" with "Lo que es, es." What is, is.

This is the time, right now. It is time for you to look at yourself hard and pitilessly. You are going to have to face some stuff. Facing it will be good. It will be hard but good. And the sooner the better. Check out a meeting where others who are in relationships with addicts and alcoholics come together to find a way of living. If you can afford it, look into private counseling. You're going to need help, but you can do this.

Good luck.

By Cary Tennis

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