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Rescuing: The Invisible Addiction
Written By: Mark Smith


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Since this is a topic that a lot of people might not ever have heard about in terms of it being framed as an addictive behavior, let me start out with a story from my own life that I think will capture the heart and soul of the destructive nature of rescuing. In the spring of 1978 I was finishing up my freshman year at Taylor University. I still remember that year as being the best year of my life; I had many wonderful friendships, I was thriving in my newfound relationship with God, I was sensing the call to ministry and for the first time in my life I had three filling, hot, delicious meals served to me each and every day. After a childhood marked by poverty, instability, rage, disconnectedness and pain I felt almost as if I had died and gone to heaven. Then I began to get the calls from my mother. I learned to absolutely dread the sound of a ringing phone. My mother was feeling a great deal of pain from financial stress, health problems, out of control kids, depression, a house that was falling down around her and the complete lack of support emotionally from my father. In the depth of her depression she would call me in tears begging for my help. The ring of a phone could instantly transport me from the nirvana of my precious and safe new family back into the broken and gut wrenching pain of my childhood nightmare. After several of these phone calls I relented and announced to my friends my intention to drop out of college to go home to Kokomo to help my mother finish raising my family. I felt a strong inner drive and compulsion to sacrifice my own happiness in an effort to wipe away my mother's tears. I called that compulsive drive God's direction and call. The feedback that I got from my dear and well-meaning grandmother was that my newfound Christian faith was finally amounting to something positive. For the first several months of the summer I sold vacuum sweepers door to door, cut grass, painted houses and otherwise hustled to make money to be put towards household repairs. If you knew me you would know that I am a bit of a "Mr. Fix It" reject-actually that is being kind. My first project was to remodel a bathroom and I spent every penny and every spare moment towards that end. I was on a mission. While the expensive ceramic shower tiles could not possibly have been installed any more crookedly than how I pathetically installed them, it none-the-less was a terrific improvement. Every moment of my day was in the service of my mother. I as a person had ceased to exist. She never asked for me specifically to quit school and give up my life, but her open emotional wounds beckoned me to attempt to heal her pain. I tried to discipline my younger siblings in the name of the Lord (that really went over well), I served as my mother's counselor and I generally filled in as the man of the house for my absent and ineffectual father. I began to have stomach pains, difficulty sleeping, fits of rage and symptoms of depression. I didn't know what was going on with me. I actually invited a friend of mine to attempt to toss a few demons out of me thinking the devil himself must be at the root of my misery. Then, late in the summer after spending yet another day as my mother's rescuer-puppet, I blew up at her. I felt smothered, disrespected and invisible. I had given all there was to give and it wasn't nearly enough to heal the considerable wounds of my family. After 12 weeks of selflessly throwing myself at the black hole of my family's neediness with very little sleep and virtually no self-care I finally broke. At the 11th hour I was miraculously able to re-enroll at Taylor and I escaped that summer experience with my tail between my legs with precious little of my well-being, sanity or health intact. I had only enough money left to buy three inexpensive shirts for my back to school wardrobe. I lived off campus, I was socially isolated and I had to work a lot of hours in the work/study program doing housekeeping in order to survive and my self esteem was at an all time low. This was from one of the happiest and most popular freshmen on campus the previous year. Thank God, the next semester I was back on campus surrounded by my friends and a few months later I met my future wife.

That is what rescuing is and that is what rescuing can do to a life. It can suck the very life out of you. It can ruin or stunt your potential. It is being with the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong motives. At its roots it is having the need to help, heal or save the world due to ones own unhealed childhood woundedness. It is the foundation of many unhealthy romantic relationships - the proverbial white knight riding in to slay the dragon and save the damsel in distress.

In my opinion it is the very foundation of many, if not most careers in Social Work, Counseling, the Ministry, Nursing, Teaching and other service oriented lines of work. It is doing work that really isn't yours to do. It is picking up balls that other people have dropped. It is as addictive as cocaine. You won't get arrested for it, however; you will win volunteer of the year awards and everyone will see you as a real prince. It is robbing from your self and ultimately it usually doesn't even really help the people who are the object of the rescuing. Ironically it usually actually just makes things worse for the rescued/enabled. It is epidemic and you could be knee deep in it and not even have a clue that it is a problem. Rescuing will certainly take you away from your own pain and it will get you high. It is a highly destructive addiction that has caused countless lives to spiral out of control. It is a disease that has probably damaged as many families as alcoholism. It is all these things and yet it is truly invisible and for the most part completely un-named and un-treated.

One of my saddest cases of all time was Trina (not her actual name). Trina was a notorious rescuer. She lived to give gifts. We once counted up how much money that she had given away on rescuing oriented loans and gifts and it was many tens of thousands. That was a great deal of money for Trina, who did not have a lot of money to begin with. Trina lived her life in service to her husband and his children. While a part of her desperately wanted children, a larger part of her was numbed out due to her pattern of addictive rescuing. The years clicked by, problems then arose with the prospect of getting pregnant and then one day Trina woke up and realized that her other-centeredness and rescuing had robbed her of the most precious of life's experiences-having a child of her own. I can't put in to words the amount and intensity of pain that registered on her face every time the subject of children was mentioned in passing. She knew what her disease had cost her and it tortured her every day of her life.

While this is not a light topic in the least bit, in my efforts to reach addictive rescuers I frequently do share the following poignant little joke. An addictive rescuer was on vacation in California and as he was driving on Route 1 on the coast he lost control of his vehicle and he plummeted over a cliff to the rocks below. In the few seconds that he had left before his death, somebody else's life flashed before him. Whose life are you living? Has this article spoken to you? Do you notice patterns of addictive rescuing in your life? Just like an alcoholic, you need to get into recovery. Recovery for the rescuer means getting in touch with YOUR needs and YOUR feelings. It means healing your buried childhood wounds. If you consistently had your needs met by a safe, loving and attentive father and mother, then you will not grow up to be a rescuer. It means learning how to become "selfish" in an appropriate and healthy manner. It means learning how to set boundaries. It means basing relationships on emotional intimacy, interdependency and reciprocity rather than on a sick need to numb out by attempting to save the world. It means learning to give back to the world and to serve from an overflowing cup of joy and blessing rather than out of compulsion and disease. It means learning to be in touch with your needs, to have a firm and non-reactive voice and to surround yourself with people who are willing and able to meet your needs-as you also meet theirs. It means learning how to nurture and truly take care of yourself in non-addictive and non-destructive ways. At this point it means coming to therapy and having your particular brand of rescuing clearly and powerfully named. It means taking back your life, discovering yourself and just being rather than constantly doing for others. It means finally hitting bottom and seeing your life for what it is even if that is excruciating. Give us a call today at 844-2442 and we'll get started. It is high time that you spend time, energy and resources rescuing YOU!



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This article was authored by Family Tree Counseling Associates, a marriage, individual and family counseling center serving the Indianapolis, Carmel, Fishers, Westfield and Noblesville communities in Indiana. If you would like to contact us, please fill out a contact us form or call us at 317-844-2442.
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