Become a member of Allies in Recovery and we’ll teach you how to intervene, communicate and guide your loved one toward treatment.Become a member of Allies in Recovery today.

They’re So Enmeshed – Can I Possibly Help?

Woman gardening boy in doorway

AiR member Christy has written in about the complicated and frustrating situation with her elderly sister and her nephew:

I want to help my sister who is elderly and my nephew get help for addiction. They have no friends who would join me in an intervention and they need one desperately. I fear for their lives and am always on edge because I'm always expecting a "call" to come through with bad news. This has been going on for a long time now and has gotten worse with her husband's passing. I was told I would need friends or family with me, in order to have an intervention; but I have no one. How on earth can I help them? I've tried for years, but I'm only one person and too exhausted to deal with this alone anymore…They totally isolate and need help. I've called other places in the past but they say that the person has to want help. I'm sure an addict is not thinking clear enough to want help. Any form of treatment has failed in the past. I'm mostly concerned with my nephew who has never really had a life and suffers from severe depression in addition. Plus, they're so enmeshed and codependent. I've had to cut them out of my life but want to see them well. Thank you

Dear Christie:

How tough to be watching a part of your family so tangled up and probably very unhappy.

“Enmeshed” is a good word to describe the situation between your sister and her son. Enmeshed describes a pattern, years in the making, when a family member fixes and protects and tries to control the actions of a Loved One who’s abusing substances.

The scenario goes something like this: the Loved One takes advantage of parent’s worry and love and uses this to maintain the drug use and protection afforded by the parent. The parent feels that by having the Loved One close and under their protection, she is providing perhaps life-saving help; she is also better able to control her own feelings of worry. In some cases, and this may be so with your sister, there is an element of family and companionship that needs to be maintained at all cost.

Boundaries are nonexistent.  The parent steps in constantly because they believe their Loved One needs help with such things as basic needs – (housing or getting enough to eat), issues of safety related to the drug use, or propping them up when the depression is bad.

The Loved One can get angry towards the parent for not doing more, for not taking away even more of the hurt, consistently and quickly. In this way, they make the parent responsible for their problems and look to them for the solutions. Mom gets obsessed over the son and the son deflects problems and solutions onto the mom.

The question is what you can do as a family member, looking in on this from the outside.  A couple ideas:

  1. Give this site to your sister as a gift. Offer to go through the modules and the Key Observation exercises together, at her pace.
  2. There are many layers to the problem. The relationship between your sister and her son will likely need good family therapy to repair. Can you locate a good therapist that takes your sister’s insurance and has openings? You give your sister this information… “if and when you and your son are ready, here is the name of a wonderful family counselor ….”
  3. Similarly, your sister may elect to get some counseling for herself. The family counselor may see her individually to start. Perhaps the hook is the “family work described in #2.”
  4.  Regardless of the number of times your nephew has been to treatment, treatment is still the best solution going forward. You can give the family a list of treatment options. For this, you will want to read this post and our methodology for finding treatment.

For 1 and 4, you may have to convince your sister that it is critical to focus on the substance problem first.  Resolve the substance abuse and all the rest of this can unlock. 

Without oversubscribing emotionally yourself, you can do the research and provide solid resources to your sister.  You can offer your support for help with treatment where you can. 

Reading your words I am also concerned about your own exhaustion. While it is possible for you, alone, to start applying a strategy to help your nephew, it is equally critical for you to take care of yourself. Reducing the worry, and increasing kind acts towards yourself will help with the exhaustion, and with your strategy! Take some time to browse through the Sanctuary, or watch Module 7 on difficult emotions.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. Hi again, I have offered so much support to my nephew, and sister, offering to help them in anyway regarding treatment, but not monetarily; although, i would even pay for the 30 day treatment program, under the condition he go to a sober house upon completion…btw, the times they did go was mostly for the methadone treatments…but even then, didn’t stay.

  2. Thank you for your response, Dominique, but it’s even more involved than anyone can imagine. My sister who is elderly(67 but seems older) also take opiates and denies they both have problems. I have tried reaching out but she gets very defensive in her denial and lashes out. I’ve been over there in the past, where i’ve seen my nephew high as a kite, and she got mad at me for bringing it to her attention. How dare I say that he’s high and telling me “he’s FINE”!! There are other forces there that get in the way. She speaks for him, to the point, where I have to say, “I’m not talking to YOU”! He defends her, she defends him, it’s just a drain on me to the point where I’ve had to step back and just pray for them. They don’t want counseling and when they do start, there’s no follow through. I can’t make them do the things necessary for their sobriety…They do have to want that, and they don’t want it clearly…My nephew has absolutely no life skills and I’m afraid that if something happens to his mom, he won’t want to live. She does not encourage him at all to have his own life, because then she would be alone…esp since her husband died last year. They were too high to bury him, and I had to make arrangements, in spite of others telling me to not do it because I was enabling. I did it out of respect for his family. They showed up high as a kite to the funeral and I was so embarrassed for them, as well as myself, but I’ve been dealing with this for years now. I’m walking away now. I’ve even asked Elder Services to step in, but they said unless she wants help, she really has a right to live how she wants in her own home. I’ve had to bail them out so many times in the past, but it’s never appreciated or even acknowledged. If anything, they’d rob me blind if they had the chance. My only hope is really for my nephew at this point, but what addict wouldn’t want to stay where his supply is, and nothing expected of him, in the way of going out and making his own way. I’m just afraid of the aftermath, should my sister pass…I’m too old and too tired to take on his addiction. I’ve caretaken the whole family at one point or another in my life, and did it on my own with no help whatsoever. I need a break. Fortunately they’re not calling non-stop like before. She blew thru her inheritance, so the only time she would call is for money. But that well is dry now. I could go on and on but I’ll stop here and spare you the harrowing details. I think it’s probably more important for me to stand back and figure out my own life. I honestly don’t know what else I can do for him. If I send him letters, a cell phone with a private number to call me, she calls…she reads his mail…It’s horrible. Thanks for listening Dominique.