The Art of Saying No

When I began writing my blog entitled “Enabling Love” I was angry and distraught with most everything in my life, but I just didn’t know it. My way of functioning through the day was totally dependent upon my son, the addict, and I was unaware just how far from healthy we were.

But I’m His Mother!

At that time Cliff had recently been sent to state Prison for a crime he committed under the influence of heroin or under the influence of crazy because he couldn’t get heroin. My addicted son’s cycle of life looked like this:

1) Using

2) Nodding while sitting, standing, eating or anything else in his day

3) Sleeping it off

4) Waking up and trying to convince me he wasn’t using

5) Manipulating me or any available person for money, and then using again

My cycle of life looked like this:

1) Wringing my hands

2) Pacing from window to window,

3) Sleepless nights

4) Getting up after a rough night and preparing to go to work all the while wondering where Cliff was and what stage of his cycle he was in.

I hardly participated in any functions outside of the home. Extended family activities were limited on my list just in case Cliff might come home to participate in some form of illusion-filled family moments. And still I didn’t know exactly what I was facing because this culture wasn’t in our family prior to that time. I didn’t know who to ask (or where to even begin talking) about what I was seeing, finding or feeling. This was not a sudden change in my life but one that slowly developed over time. I was numbed into it by one small situation after another and I was full of shame.

When Cliff was picked up this time, I began writing for my own cathartic release and well being. I found that I could vent a wee bit and make sense of things just a little bit better. A few months prior to his conviction and my writing, I had begun attending a support group for families with substance abuse issues. I was sure I would find the answers I needed to fix this life pattern once and for all. One night at one of the first meetings I attended the speaker was sharing his story of his own alcoholic past and how he worked through AA to change his life. Afterward I found myself in a brief conversation with the friend who came along with the speaker. When I began to say why I was there, he said to me “I know your type and why you’re here. You have doormat written all over your forehead”.

I was so stunned by his comments; I said nothing but fumed internally for a long time. I really didn’t know what I was doing wrong except to proclaim to anyone who would listen “But I’m HIS MOTHER!!”

When I was alone, which was often, I chronicled over our life pattern time and again and in my thinking, rewrote the ending of this story many, many times. I was sure that if I could just get through to Cliff with my feelings or call out his responsibility as he became an adult, that surely he would vehemently say “Now I see the light, mom. You’re right and I quit!” and turn away from his trusted friend, the needle. After all, I was his mother! Who else was going to go the extra 1000 miles with him? But it never happened. When I began to have more crying jags and found myself in financial despair, I still tried to sort out this monumental mess on my own, but there seemed to be no way out. Months before his last escapade I saw Cliff tearing through the trash bags and emptying them all over the driveway in search of some leftover junk to reshoot again. I knew deep in my soul that this problem was bigger than me. Well, I had known that for some time, but finally it began to take root and cause me to believe I needed to change the way I was doing things. But I still didn’t know how. I tried a meeting or two but they weren’t hitting me as helpful, until I found the current group I called home. When I met the director of that group she asked me to give the meetings six weeks, which I did.

The words Codependent and Enabler were being thrown around the table I attended. I recall that in the first few meetings, when I shared, I was just like a bubbling fountain of words trying to justify my son being an addict, or stating very clearly that I didn’t like the word Codependent at all and didn’t think it was right to label me that way. In fact, I felt that Codependent was a synonym for Mom. Little did I realize that I was right, when it came to households with addicts. But I also didn’t realize that it didn’t have to be that way.

The Art of Saying No

I always thought of enabling as being a help to someone to achieve or succeed in their life path or career. I didn’t understand or believe that when my “no or maybe” was coerced into a “yes” I was allowing Cliff another opportunity to use just one more time. In a cloudy manner of speaking, I was loving him to death. I was an Enabler through and through. I was doing for my addict all the things he needed to do for himself. Did he do his promised household chores? No. Did he attend school that day? No. Was he where he said he was going to be or home at the time I had instructed? No. Yet, when he wanted something that seemed fairly harmless to me, I would give it over to him while feeling sorry for the broken marriage his dad and I had or the unfair treatment to him by someone else. The sap ran heavy those years and I was in the front row.

Learning to say no was not easy. I have often said that if I publish another book, it might be titled “The Art of Saying No” as we seem to have forgotten that saying no is a good thing. It keeps us healthy, sets boundaries and can save someone from irreparable harm. If we don’t learn to be crystal clear with our children when they are young, we are setting ourselves up for a very long battle of hurting and retreating back to our corners, always vying for position to get what each one wants. When we don’t say no or set boundaries, it leaves everything up for discussion or grabs, so to speak, followed by us feeling angry or resentful when someone doesn’t understand or just know what we expected or wanted to happen.

Are you having to justify why you won’t give your loved one 5 bucks (what’s the big deal)? Do they ask you to “do me this favor just one more time”? How about hearing the story that they owe someone 10 dollars and they can’t wait to be paid back until your addict has earned it himself? They have to have it now!! Is this familiar? Is your loved one getting fired constantly for some strange reason? Do they vanish for days and then when they are back again, you’re eventually reaching your hand into your wallet or purse again after hearing the latest sob story? Are you so enmeshed in your addict’s life that you are losing the rest of your family?

One of the hardest things I had to learn was to say no to just about everything when it came to this son. And that’s why it can be tricky. If your healthy son or daughter asked for any of those favors, you would do it for them because they are true to their word or you would say no if it wasn’t convenient for you because they would respect your “no”. But when it comes to the addict they want to tell you when you can trust them again. And we buy into it for fear of discouraging them or preserving their dignity. At least that’s what I did.

Set Boundaries

Boundaries are part of our lives. You set boundaries on your job, with your friendships, and with anyone else you come in contact with. You know what is right and wrong yet, when it comes to our addicts we sweep that inward feeling away as something that just couldn’t be true. We let our addicts have complete control of our relationships, our finances and our emotions. It’s imperative that we begin to set firm boundaries that are clear and called out. You don’t need to measure everything you say and do but you do want to be clear when you call out a boundary or stick with it when you say no.


First, be sure you have a support group of some kind. Surround yourselves with people whose common goal is the same as yours and who will be unbiased but with sound reason. For me, I went to these meetings regularly and also had a solid group of friends from my church who had also been in this battle.

Second, by this time it’s important that you separate yourself from the emotions your addict’s choices stir in you. “Can’t you see what you’re doing to me?” needs to leave your vocabulary. In other words, stop taking it personally and set yourself up to handle the problem, not the person.   This part isn’t easy at all.

Third, you need to be as informed as you possibly can be about the addiction and the drugs they’re using so you can make good decisions. No more surprises. I used to walk around like Pollyanna when Cliff would be clean for a week or two. Then suddenly whenever I realized Cliff was using again it was like Chucky came out from under the bed, grabbed me by my ankles and spun me out of control and let me go flying. I would sit there thinking “what just happened??”

When you learn to not take it personally you can decide how to handle your situation much better. Pretend the addict is not your relative. How would you handle an invader or a guest in your home who steals from you? Can you afford to let your money go up his nose, or into his veins while you are trying to determine how to pay your car payment? No, I imagine not.

When you first begin to set boundaries do not be surprised at the backlash and anger that will reveal itself in you and in your addict. Prepare yourself spiritually and emotionally. Practice first with the small things so you can gain strength and wisdom in saying “no”. It will take time and it will also feel icky. But it’s right.

Don’t beat yourself up when it doesn’t go well. Re-group, re-examine and try again. Over time you will begin to see a change in yourself that’s for the better. You will be happier and filled with peace you haven’t felt in a very long time! And your other family members will have a different demeanor toward you as those relationships become healthier.

I promise you this, as you begin to make these changes, your life will be transformed, and you’ll also notice transformations in the people in your life. What you are experiencing today doesn’t have to be permanent .

You can do this!

Laura McAlpine

Laura is a busy woman and happy to report that Cliff is 8 years clean.  She spends time selling steel, riding her bike and being a hands on Lulu to her granddaughters. She's active in her faith community and volunteers to the homeless in Detroit. Life is good!
Laura McAlpine

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