Mom Asks: Should I Pay Rent for My Addicted, Mentally Ill Daughter?

by Tom on March 27, 2010 · 19 comments

Anna, the mom at the blog Let Go, Hang On wondered in a recent post whether or not she should rent a room in a rooming house so that her mentally ill and addicted daughter would have a safer place to live.

This, of course, resulted in a flurry of comments warning her about the dangers of enabling.  Here is my take on the question:

You do not have the ability to end your daughter’s addiction, or stop your daughter from using by withholding supports.

You do have the ability to make your daughter safer by providing appropriate supports.

I would encourage people to step back and consider the reason that sobriety is desirable in the first place.  Because it keeps people safe from drug-related harm.

This is why I advocate a focus on safety.

Some things are worse than continued use.  Death, rape, prostitution, violence, HIV, and Hepatitis C, for example, are not an improvement over continued use.

Many people withhold support with the intent that this will constitute an end to the enabling that they believe is somehow the reason use has continued.

Withholding support is the extent of many people’s recovery plan for their loved one, and it is an ineffective plan.

Sobriety is a means to an end…freedom from harm.  Something is wrong when we become so obsessed and hyper-vigilant about avoiding enabling that we lose site of this.  Especially when you are talking about somebody who is disabled and has had multiple treatment attempts.

Too often, withholding support out of fear of enabling isn’t about setting appropriate boundaries.  Instead it’s about trying to control an addict’s behavior –while claiming powerlessness over the addict and the addiction, and claiming that only the addict can make a change.

I agree with NAMI (and federal housing programs for mentally ill and addicted homeless people like Shelter Plus Care which uses a “housing first” model) that withholding housing supports is not a safe or effective way to support treatment or recovery.  This is especially true for people with both major mental illness and addiction.

You might check and see if there is a Shelter Plus Care housing program in your area.  Pathways to Housing is one organization that operates this type of program in several parts of the country (there is one near me and I think they are great!).

Your daughter may be eligible for a housing voucher and professional supports from a case manager, nurse and others on a support team.  This would allow you to conserve your resources and allow them to grow (increasing your ability to help in the future if needed).

If there is not a program like that where you live, or she is not eligible, then it seems to me it would be reasonable for you to try your plan and see how it goes.  In the big picture, you will be making her more safe and not less safe.

I spend my days along with my staff helping people who are opiate dependent get housing, get food, get jobs, get medical care, get dental care, get mental health care, get drug treament and on and on.  And my program offers the same supports whether or not somebody is currently using. Some would say I’m a full time enabler!

The funny thing is, 100 percent of our case-managed clients participated in treatment last year.  Turns out, this is a great way to help people transition from use to recovery. How is that for an intervention?

We don’t require a goal of abstinence, but virtually all have this goal for themselves and consider themselves to be in recovery.  Most are successfully abstinent…not because we would withhold basic needs support from them otherwise, but because the unconditional support has created the conditions for positive change.

Many have mental health issues in addition to the addiction issue, but we use this approach with everybody.  So while I think a “housing first” model which provides housing before mental health and addiction recovery is achieved makes sense for people who are mentally disabled, I also think it makes sense for everyone else too.

You have more power to help your daughter by providing appropriate supports than you have power to hurt your daughter by so-called enabling.  So don’t be too worried.

Please allow me to repeat, you don’t have the power to end your daughter’s addiction by withholding supports.  You do have the power to keep her safer by providing appropriate supports.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Helga March 28, 2010 at 9:22 pm

While I don’t totally disagree with your philosophies, I believe that the reason you have success with these kind of programs (providing housing, etc.) is because it is a “program”. Kids tend to take advantage of their parents, especially addict kids. It is possible that they respect “strangers” more and therefore you are able to help more successfully than parents can. Just a thought.

2 Tom March 28, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Thanks Helga. I agree with you that the parent/child relationship is very different than the counselor/client relationship. You make a valid point.

At the same time, I wouldn’t dismiss the idea that the approach also matters, and can help parents understand a better approach for themselves.

Many counselors/treatment providers (like many parents) are unsuccessful at engaging and retaining clients in treatment. The average number of times a counselor meets with a client is once! Many providers rely on captive (residential) or coerced (corrections mandated) clients to make a living.

In other words, the approach matters too.

In my opinion, the issue isn’t that parents need to stop “enabling.” The issue is that parents need to learn how to both set appropriate boundaries AND provide appropriate supports.

And they need to learn enough about recovery to either help their son or daughter create a realistic treatment plan that is both effective and acceptable to the addicted person, or find somebody who can (not an easy task either since most providers only focus on their own treatment modality and have no concept of how to create a comprehensive, long term and effective treatment plan).

On the issue of respecting parents versus respecting strangers, I don’t “demand” much respect from clients. You can be late, you can no show, you can swear, you can answer your cellphone in the middle of our meeting, and you can get away with almost anything short of violence. I’m not there to teach etiquette, enforce rules, teach discipline or responsibility. I keep my eye on the prize. Yet I get the kind of respect I really want…they keep coming back, keep trying, believe I care about them, and consider what I say and often act on it.

I get that respect because I care more about supporting them than I care about controlling them. That feels rare in their world.

I suggest that parents decide to focus less on controlling use (especially controlling by withholding communication or support), and more on setting appropriate personal boundaries and providing appropriate support that is consistent with personal boundaries.

Thanks for your comment!

3 Heather's Mom April 1, 2010 at 12:57 am

I was thinking about this tonight. My brother is mentally ill and often verbally abusive to my parents. (The police have even been called) My parents have an alcoholic/codependent relationship where they are usually yelling and belittling each other. I was thinking my brother needs to get out of there and could my parents pay for him to do so and would it be right? He can’t work so doesn’t have money to get a place of his own. He won’t go on disability or his (not sure what it’s called) stuff from the marines b/c of his conspiracy concerns. I pray for the day he gets better and they can all find and experience peace.
God bless.

4 Tom April 1, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Heather’s Mom, It might make sense to start having conversations with your parents and brother separately about whether or not they are satisfied with the current living arrangements, and whether or not they would consider it a good thing for your brother to live some place else. I suspect they all may like that, but have concerns and anxiety around making a change. If you can get them to give you permission to explore options, it will help when you start finding other options. It may be a process to get your brother to agree to paperwork, assessments, and appointments that may need to happen. But if he is interested in the goal, it will be easier.

You may be able to find housing options via programs for the homeless, vets, or people who are mentally ill. You may be able to put things in terms of helping your parents financially. He may feel bad about not being able to pay his own way, and if you put it in terms of the government or a program giving his parents money instead of him money it may help. It would probably be better for your parents to be his benefits payee instead of having him control his own money anyway.

Under many programs, the definition of homeless includes people who are “marginally housed.” It sounds like your brother would be homeless if your parents did not let him stay with them, so he may meet requirements under these programs.

I would start exploring housing programs (such as those mentioned in the post above), veterans benefits and disability benefits and explain to people the issue with his refusal to apply because of his mental illness. There may be reasonable accommodations that programs will (and may have to under federal law) make under the circumstances.

I’m not sure how old your parents are, but it would be wise to start some planning now anyway, because your parents may not be able to sustain this situation in the long term.

Consider contacting mental health, veterans or other advocacy organizations if needed. You could also contact your federal legislators’ offices. They have staff who will help address your concerns with performance of federal agencies.

I’d start slow with brief, informal conversations and see how things go. In the mean time, you could spend some time exploring options on your own.

I have not worked with anyone in this situation before and don’t have a lot of the facts, so these are just suggested starting points. Hope they help, and best of luck to you and your family.

5 Mike January 17, 2011 at 6:56 am

This is what I’ve been debating on talking about with people. I was hesitant because I thought I would get in trouble with people that follow the enabler mentality. I believe that this topic applies to many situations! In fact I would not be here today if not for my parents driving to where I was living and taking me away from that environment and into their home. I also was very motivated from the start as well. I think that is the big difference and reason that I’m doing well now.

6 recoveryhelpdesk January 17, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Hi Mike, Thanks for your comment. You speak from personal experience and what you have to say is important. It’s interesting that we allow the “enabling” police to silence our own internal voices of common sense and experience –to say nothing of our public voice. Keep talking Mike!

7 Suz March 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm

As my son has severe addiction, depression, and other physical health issues, I’ve had to act and make decisions that the “enabling police” and rehabs in the past might not agree with. If it’s something he legimately needs that he cannot provide but I can, I do so AND I don’t consider that enabling. However, if it’s something he needs and can and should provide for himself, I tell him so. As parents of addicts with a dual dx, we are constantly walking a tightrope. Some folks in the audience cheer while others boo. What matters is trying to do the right things for all concerned.

8 recoveryhelpdesk March 2, 2011 at 9:03 pm

I think you are right on track Suz. Have you visited the blog I mentioned in the article (Let Go, Hang on)? I think you and Anna are kindred spirits. Check out her blog if you haven’t already.

9 Kathleen February 20, 2012 at 1:27 am

I am so happy to have read the different approaches for mothers of adult children with drug addition. I want to love, support, and keep my son safe while trying to recover. I have no more confusion about enabling and tough love approaches. I think it is harmful if their is hope for recovery. Prisons, homelessness, lack of sleep, food, love, will for sure cause death or life in prison.

10 Kathleen February 20, 2012 at 1:37 am

Every time I have asked my son to leave following relapse, I almost die for fear of what danger to his life will happen as a result. He is in treatment now, expensive, but his life is worth it. He is really trying. I can sleep tonight.

11 recoveryhelpdesk February 20, 2012 at 9:13 pm

Thanks for your comment Kathleen. I’m glad to hear your son is in treatment. My best to you and your family. Tom

12 Debbie September 8, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Hi My son is 38 and has a mental disability. I am his payee for his ssdis. He is depressed, has anxiety , is on drugs just got out of jail (turned himself into the jail saying I am withholding him his money. He has spent 3 years in prison. he’s been out for 2 years now. He lies he manipulates me and I have been and Enabler for so long I feel like have am the addict.:o( I have set boundries and I am just wondering what you think as far as paying his rent and power bills and groc. out of his ssdis checks? he lives by himself and I have taken care of his bills since he was 11.
He has a small job once a week cleaning a building and gets a small paycheck once a month. I told him he had to pay the fine with his work check and that I will not give him money out of his ss dis check to pay it. he starts mental health counselling on monday. I am trying to break the enabling cycle with him. Am I enabling him by continuing to pay his Bills?

13 recoveryhelpdesk September 8, 2012 at 8:24 pm

Hi Debbie –You are absolutely not enabling him by paying his rent, utilities and grocery bills from his disability checks. The money belongs to him, and as his payee you have a responsibility to use the money for his benefit. Everybody has a right to safe shelter and food –whether they are experiencing an active period in their addiction or a period of remission. Your son may struggle with addiction and other mental health issues for years to come. These are not easy issues to overcome, especially in combination. Your goal should be to keep him as safe and supported as possible while maintaining appropriate personal boundaries for yourself (you need to keep yourself safe and supported too). It’s great that your son has a part-time job and has agreed to participate in mental health counseling.

My best to you and your son, Tom

14 Debbie September 9, 2012 at 10:11 am

Hi Tom Thank you for answering me back! Is it right to be firm on him holding down his job and him paying his fine out of his work check instead of me paying it with his social security check? I feel like he must be responsible for the decisions he has made and the consequences that comes with them. I feel like I would be enabling him if I were to help him pay that fine out of the social security check! I just want to do the right thing. I don’t want to be his enabler any more, I am so worn out by it. I assure him that I love him but that he must take responsibility for his decisions. Thank You again Debbie

15 recoveryhelpdesk September 10, 2012 at 9:55 pm

Hi Debbie, I think it is reasonable for him to pay the fine out of his paycheck. Having said that, I don’t think it would be “enabling” if you were to pay the fine out of the social security check because it’s his money. The idea of enabling is that your actions are enabling his addiction to continue. Using his own money to pay his fine does not fall into that category. Helping him budget his money (social security plus job) to cover his bills plus the fine is supporting him in experiencing the pride of personal responsibility. It’s less clear to me from what you have said that it makes much difference which money goes to which expense. In any event, he doesn’t have a lot of money and is likely to feel the pain of the fine either way I would think. I don’t see a problem with your plan, as long as it doesn’t create an unnecessary power struggle that ends up taking the focus away from where it needs to be –taking care of your need for reasonable personal boundaries while at the same time supporting him to the best of your ability as his payee and mother. Tom

16 Debbie September 13, 2012 at 1:26 am

Thank You Tom, That makes sense. Mike is going to mental health He had his first session today. He sounds like his old self, I hope and pray it lasts. :o) Thanks again You have helped me greatly…

17 Debbie September 13, 2012 at 1:37 am

Thank You Tom, :o)

18 ann a October 29, 2012 at 7:15 pm

My daughter just got back from detox….she connected with a guy there… is the problem…we were letting her pay for a car that we were selling to her…..but over the last six months she only paid one payment… husband and I decided after she got home from detox to take the car back, after all technically the car is still ours…..she thinks we are punishing her but my husband thinks we need to have tough love….she wants to take the car and pick this guy up, who lives almost 2 hours away….my husband says definitely not….she seems obsessed with this guy….I said I would compromise with her and give her a ride….which we will be giving her rides to her out patient treatment….which she feels like she has no freedom….but we don’t want to hand this car over to her without paying for it. She keeps on trying manipulate US for about 5 hours and we don’t know what to-do, we are emotionally drained and upset cuz we are not sure if we are going to be sending her back into using again.

19 recoveryhelpdesk November 2, 2012 at 8:58 pm

Hi Ann, You are offering your daughter recovery support in giving her rides to outpatient treatment. I don’t see giving her a ride to see a guy who is in early recovery and likely to put her recovery at risk (and she his) as a reasonable recovery support. The fact that you think she seems obsessed with the guy does not suggest that this relationship is likely to promote stability and recovery in her life.

It doesn’t sound like your daughter needs the car for recovery purposes as you are offering her rides to treatment. I would consider selling the car to someone else if you don’t need it. It doesn’t sound like she is going to pay for it, and having it around is likely to cause an ongoing issue. When she is ready to buy a car, she can buy one from a stranger.

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