The Ferris Wheel

By Lisa Fell Costa
BALM® Family Recovery Coach and Loving Parent

The journey that we face as parents of a child in recovery has often been referred to as a “Roller Coaster Ride.”  Those of us who have experienced the pain of having a loved one suffering from Substance Use Disorder (SUD) know that this is in fact more than an understatement.  We truly find ourselves living day to day in a cycle of extreme emotions…. feeling the highest of hopes to the lowest of despair.   For all of us it is a terrifying ride.

The roller coaster analogy was particularly accurate for me because I never liked roller coasters as a child or as an adult, and in fact amusement park rides in general, always left me feeling like I had a large pit in my stomach – similar to the feeling I had as the mom of opiate addicts.  Sound familiar?  Living this role can truly make us sick –  physically, emotionally, and mentally.

When my two sons, each now with over 5 years of sobriety were in crisis, it took me so long to really understand that I needed to change in order to encourage them to change.  Unlike all of you, I didn’t have the BALM® in those days. I did embrace learning, but was certainly not on a true fast-track to recovery. I tried my hardest to put into action all this new information that I was learning from support groups and books, which continue to serve as an important part of my journey.

Unfortunately, while I thought I had stopped enabling my using loved ones, they didn’t truly see it that way.  I was still being manipulated.  I thought that I had learned to say no and had stopped supporting their Substance Use Disorder (SUD).  They continued to use.  This made me truly feel hopeless – I was doing what the professionals and my peers told me to do, but my kids were still torturing me as much as ever.  They were more clever than I could ever dream of being, and had learned the skill of deceit and manipulation more than any con-artist I’d every heard of.  I continued to question my new methods, and began to believe that these boys were not the ones that I had raised with love and strong values.  I came to the conclusion that I would never really have a loving relationship with them again.

What I didn’t realize was that they weren’t hearing what I was saying. Think about the way you might say “no” to a friend who asks to borrow money.  More than likely you would try to let them down easily – “gee no, I don’t have it right now, sorry.”   Most likely they would never ask you again.  If your loved one asked the same question, and you offered the same answer, they certainly would not react like your friend.  They are suffering from a disease that has hijacked their brain.  To distinguish between who your loved one really is and the state of mind that their Substance Use Disorder (SUD) has created, let’s now refer to our loved one and their hijacked brain as “THE HIJACKED BRAIN”.  The Hijacked Brain will very likely be annoyed with your answer, but will choose to focus on the way that you said “no”.  In other words the way that you said it didn’t mean no to the The Hijacked Brain.  The Hijacked Brain only heard “I don’t have it right now, sorry,” And to The Hijacked Brain that means “try back later.” Let us not forget that The Hijacked Brain has gone to this well of ours many times, and with the right manipulation has always gotten their way.  Why stop now – those first few no’s can be just a bump in the road.  Their opportunity remains that we will probably give in, at least to something!

What I have realized years later, is that my students and clients are experiencing similar exchanges with their children in addiction and sometimes in recovery.  As I mentioned in the beginning, visual analogies like the roller coaster have helped me to understand complicated concepts.  Fully understanding and implementing “helping vs. enabling” is absolutely that – a very complicated concept.  Sounds easy at first, but when put into action, we are often thrown curve balls like “ I’m only asking for $20.  How can you be so heartless – I’m hungry.” Preying on whatever weakness or vulnerability they can sniff – like a shark after blood.

I decided to create a new analogy, that can help us all see what the true SUD system looks like – the “Ferris Wheel”.  (keeping with the theme of my dreaded amusement park.)   Picture a large Ferris Wheel with your loved one (The SUD) in one of the seats and you in other.  The remainder of the Ferris Wheel is unoccupied or possibly being ridden by another family member.  Everyone riding the Ferris Wheel is in denial.  The only way to get the SUD off of the Ferris Wheel and go across the park to the Treatment Center is for the family to get off first.  Your loved one’s goal is to keep riding the Ferris Wheel as long as they can without stopping or getting off.  They do everything they can to keep it moving around and their best chance of keeping it going is to keep you and the other family members from getting off.  After all, haven’t you been The SUD greatest resource?   How do they keep us along for the ride?……………

Lie, manipulate, tell us we are crazy, blame us for their situation, tell us we are horrible parents, beg us for money or steal it if they can, etc. etc.………. if we allow it to continue, believe the lies, believe that we’re crazy, give in to their requests, or even negotiate with them, they can stay on that Ferris Wheel uninterrupted and indefinitely. But if we learn to become aware of the truth rather than stay in denial, it all starts to slow down for us and the possibility of us actually stopping and getting off becomes a reality.   If we are “riding” the Ferris Wheel we are enmeshed in our loved one’s addiction.  Meaning?  We believe the lies, we disregard what we see and hear, we engage in the argument often yelling and screaming, and we don’t stick to our boundaries.  Saying no is our intention, but hardly ever happens.  Many of us have been able to get off the Ferris Wheel by all that we’ve learned.  Some of us feel as though even though we are functioning in awareness and no longer enable, we are still on the ground watching the SUD continue to ride.  Perhaps the Ferris Wheel is slowing down……. the SUD is having a much harder time without you completely enmeshed and learning so much with the BALM® in your life, but the SUD is not getting off!!

Let me once again remind us all that there are no guarantees, but at the same time there continue to be BALM® families that are able to help their loved one get off that Ferris Wheel and into treatment, and ultimately long term recovery.

Let’s revisit the example of the friend asking for money versus The Hijacked Brain asking.  There is an invaluable sales and marketing tool that I learned many years ago from the book by Al Reis and Jack Trout, now considered to be a marketing classic: Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, How To Be Heard In An Overcrowded Marketplace.   The tool that I have used in many situations over the years from that book is “Read the Mind of the Prospect.”  In other words, “put yourself in The Hijacked Brain’s shoes”.  What you say many not be what they hear.  Also, it will take time and patience for it to finally register.

How long did you spend on the Ferris Wheel?  I know that I was on much too long.  As a matter of fact, one of my sons manipulated me and wore me down since he was a little boy, and of course it amplified during his substance use.   How long did it take for him to believe that no really meant no????…. If you can truly listen to what you are saying, as we learn to do in the 7 Steps to BALM®, you may find that your words may be taking on a different meaning for your loved one.  You may be slowing down the Ferris Wheel, but in order for it to stop so the SUD can get off and proceed to the other side of the park, you will have to begin to put yourself in the mind of your prospect.

This takes true awareness…. maybe our greatest reality check yet.  What am I saying vs. what is The Hijacked Brain choosing to hear.  How long will it take for him to believe that his resources are gone?  Of course, it has to be delivered with a loving tone, reporting facts only, without judgement or criticism…. after all you are a BALMer!…and you know this is the only way The Hijacked Brain might hear you.   Oh, and also you’ll need a ton of patience if your kid is like mine.    But stop talking to him like a friend that you don’t want to upset.  Say it like it is…” I will only contribute to your recovery not your using” ….and DO NOT engage in a discussion, justification or explanation.

That engagement can keep the Ferris Wheel moving for the SUD.  Don’t give them a glimmer of hope that they can get you back on into this Addictive System.  Don’t be afraid of your loved one hating you more than he already does.  I promise once he gets off and chooses treatment you’ll get your son or daughter back in ways that you can now only dream of.