On the last track, we discussed forms of anger within the families of addicts,
These included instructive anger, safe-guarding anger, and relationship anger.
On this track, we will discuss the caretaking trap. This involves family members
feeling they have no choice, avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, feeling guilt
and shame, and being well-intentioned.
Caregiver vs. Caretaker
As you know, caregivers do good things for other people.
They’re the first to take you to a movie to cheer you up if you’re
down, the ones who are always finding ways to make people’s lives better.
Caretakers also do things for other people. Unlike caregivers, caretakers’ efforts
have been hijacked by someone’s addiction. Caretakers are the people
who pay an addict’s rent or bail, clean up all the messes, and generally
take care of everything. As you listen to the rest of this track, think of
your clients who are caretakers for their addicted
4 Caretaker Traps
Caretaker Trap # 1 - No Choice
Caregivers do things for people because it makes them
happy. Caretakers do things for the addict because they feel
they have no choice; if they stop, terrible things will happen to
the addict. Caretaking usually starts small, like lending a few dollars, but
as the addiction spirals out of control, so does the caretaking.
Michael, a marketing director at a large company, was
very concerned about his son’s safety. Jeff, 19, was addicted to heroin. Michael didn’t
want Jeff going into bad neighborhoods to buy the drug. Instead, when Jeff
needed more heroin, Michael would drive into the inner city, buy the drug,
and deliver it to the apartment he had rented for Jeff. Michael’s wife,
Anna, told me, "I was ok with it at first. I was really worried about
what Jeff might get into. But then at Christmas, Michael left in the middle
of dinner to get Jeff more heroin. That’s when I really realized what
a problem this was."
Caretaker Trap # 2 - Avoiding Pain & Seeking Pleasure
Michael found he couldn’t stop taking care of all
of Jeff’s problems. Deep down, he still believed that by rescuing his
son, he could beat back Jeff’s heroin addiction. Every time Michael was
able to avert a disaster in Jeff’s life, it reinforced his belief that
he was doing the right thing. When Jeff was in crisis, Michael was in emotional
turmoil. When the crisis ended, he would feel overwhelming relief. This relief
was Michael’s reward. Michael was controlled by the
two most powerful forces in life- avoiding pain and seeking
As Jeff’s addiction worsened, his sisters began
to drift away from him emotionally. Michael saw himself as having a special
bond with his son. Even though they would fight, Michael felt he understood
Jeff better than anyone else in the family, and that he was the only one
who could help Jeff. Michael would even get angry at his wife, Anna, when
she criticized Jeff’s behavior or told him he should be more responsible. Anna told
me, "Michael would say I didn’t understand Jeff, and that I should
back off. Sometimes, it was like there was a wall between Michael and me."
Caretaker Trap # 3 - Feeling Guilt & Shame
Feelings of guilt and shame also tie into caretaking
behavior. Many caretakers feel that they somehow caused the addiction,
or that they should have seen it coming. Michael blamed himself for Jeff’s
addiction to heroin because he had been lenient with Jeff when he found a joint
in Jeff’s backpack during his son’s freshman year of high school.
Michael also worried constantly that his friends were thinking that he had
failed his son, which kept him locked into the role of protecting Jeff.
Caretaker Trap # 4 - Being Well-Intentioned
Caretakers usually are well-intentioned. They want to
do the right thing, and don’t realize that their efforts are not helping,
but are instead making it easier for the disease of addiction to persist. Caretaking
feels right, especially when the caretakers is the parent of the addict, and
they are understandably confused. Almost every major religion in the world
teaches its followers that you are supposed to take care of someone who is
I asked Michael to consider the following question: "How
would I want my family to respond if I were the one with the addiction? Would
I want them to merely fix the problems caused by addiction, or would I want
them to challenge the addiction itself?" Would your caretaker client
benefit from thinking about this question?
'Setting a Boundary' Exercise - 6 Steps
I guided Michael through the Setting a Boundary exercise.
Step # 1 - Identify the Person
My first step with Michael, was to identify the person he needed to set a boundary
with: his son, Jeff.
Step # 2 - Identify the Boundary
Second, I asked Michael to write
down his intention- what boundary did he want to set. Michael decided that
he did not want to buy heroin for Jeff anymore; dropping everything when Jeff
called needing drugs was costing him at work, with his friends, and with Anna.
Step # 3 - Identify Support
Third, Michael decided that his wife Anna would be his support person.
Step # 4 - Plan to Vent
Fourth, I talked with Michael about what he would do
to vent his emotions when he refused to go purchase heroin for Jeff. We agreed
that Michael would install a punching bag in his basement, so that he could
work out his feelings physically in a safe manner.
Step # 5 - Identify the Raw-Truth
Next, I asked Michael to identify the raw truth- exactly
why it was not possible for him to buy Jeff’s heroin any more. Michael
said, "First, if I got arrested, there would be no one to help Jeff anymore.
And having to be ready to leave at any time to go get heroin means I’m
doing poorly at work, and I can’t go out to dinner with Anna anymore." I
then role-played with Michael, so that he could decide how he could tell this
to Jeff in a loving manner.
Step # 6 - Practice & Plan the Conversation
Michael came up with the following: "Son,
I can’t keep driving to the city at any time to buy for you anymore.
I don’t have any time to myself anymore, and I can’t keep my job
if I keep having to leave during the day. I also need time to spend with your
mother and sisters. I still want to spend time with you, and be there if you
need me, but I can’t buy heroin for you any more." Finally, we
agreed that Michael would have this conversation with Jeff within a month.
On this track, we have discussed the caretaking trap. This involves family
members feeling they have no choice, avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, feeling
guilt and shame, and being well-intentioned.
On the next track, we will discuss the mirroring of symptoms in the
addict’s family. We will also discuss the four character defect personality types, which are: the
caretaker, the perfectionist, the procrastinator, and the rageoholic.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Bijttebier, P., & Goethals, E. (2006).
Parental drinking as a risk factor for children's maladjustment: The mediating role of family environment. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 20
Duncan, T. E., Duncan, S. C., & Hops, H. (1996).
The role of parents and older siblings in predicting adolescent substance use: Modeling development via structural equation latent growth methodology. Journal of Family Psychology, 10
Rusby, J. C., Light, J. M., Crowley, R., & Westling, E. (2018).
Influence of parent–youth relationship, parental monitoring, and parent substance use on adolescent substance use onset. Journal of Family Psychology, 32
What two powerful life forces control a caretaker?
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What are the six steps in the 'Setting a Boundary' Exercise?
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