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Are You All SET?

I am not a therapist and I have a terrible memory, so you'll rarely find me quoting acronyms. Don't get me wrong, I think everyone should know about acronyms, but I simply can't remember them! It's somewhat ironic, therefore, that I'm suggesting you use my own acronym when thinking about resources - SET. 

S - Self-care

E - Educate, Educate, Educate

T - Treatment


I spent the first 22 years of my marriage believing it was my moral duty as a loving husband and father to sacrifice anything and everything for the sake of my family. Self-care was working myself into the ground between family crises and drinking too much whiskey before bed. Hobbies became a long-forgotten pastime banished to languish in distant memories. Self-neglect snuck up on me, like the old adage of a frog in a saucepan not reacting as the water is slowly brought to the boil. It brought me to my knees emotionally and mentally, a place where I was no use to anyone


Then I met Margo, an addictions therapist, who insisted I find a hobby by our second meeting. From this humble beginning, I made self-care my top priority and that gave me the strength to support my daughters as they struggled to gain control of their emotions and behavior. The unexpected bonus was my girls finally had a good healthy role model to follow, and that made a difference to their own recovery.

What worked for me:  

  • Hobbies: I started collecting owl knickknacks; the whole family helped.

  • Personal Relationships: I focused on making existing and new relationships healthy.

  • Support: I made use of in-real life and online support groups.

  • Personal time: I made time for walking, jogging, especially in nature parks.

  • Treatment: I engaged in various treatment programs that focused on me.

Educate, Educate, Educate

For 22 years I thought my moral compass and best intentions were all I needed to do right by my family. If it wasn't working, it meant I wasn't trying hard enough. I had no idea what codependency was, or that I was the family's champion enabler. I was a victim of my own ignorance.


I well remember the moment I realized just how ignorant I was. It was at a family meeting at the KidsPeace residential center in Pennsylvania in 2001. We were reviewing a list of borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Both daughters agreed they satisfied the criteria. I asked if anyone thought their mother had BPD. Both girls burst out laughing because they couldn't believe I didn't already know. From that moment, I made it my mission to educate myself.

What worked for me:

  • Self-help books: Stop Walking on Eggshells; I Hate You, Don't Leave Me; and Codependency No More.

  • Mental Health Courses: NAMI Family-to-Family, healthcare provider Codependency course.

  • Experts: Online support groups sharing their experience; BPD research projects; TARA4BPD. 


In the twenty-three years my ex-wife and I were together, I learned two things: 1) That medication rarely did much more than take the edge off her symptoms; and 2) Forcing her to attend therapy didn't help. When our daughters went into crisis in 2001, treatment did not work for them either. This wasn't going to change as long as their mother was telling them there was nothing wrong with them. 


When their mother left, two things changed: 1) They finally had a good role model. I threw everything into self-care and my treatment; and 2) I validated their feelings and used boundaries to make clear what I would and would not do for them. They resisted. It was many months before they finally realized they could no longer manipulate me. This helped empower them to take control of their own recovery.


What worked for me:

  • Validation and Boundary Setting: Validating feelings and setting clear boundaries helped my daughters want to engage in treatment.

  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: DBT provided both daughters a toolbox of coping skills. It was, and arguably still is, the treatment of choice for someone with BPD.

  • Personal Therapy: A traditional therapist helped me transition to self-care; an addictions therapist helped me address my alcohol abuse and codependency; an EMDR therapist helped me overcome PTSD (after years of family crises).


While I've presented SET as three separate topics, in many cases they overlap, and that's generally a good thing.  Some examples from my own journey:

  • Self-care: After decades of focusing (and failing) to save my family, prioritizing self-care was hard. Then I realized there was a link between my positive role model and my daughters' willingness to focus on their own treatment. In a way, I used my codependent tendencies to prioritize self-care because it helped my daughters.

  • Educate, educate, educate: Educating myself enabled me to overhaul my dysfunctional role in the family and opened up new treatment options.

  • Treatment: Self-care turned out to be much more than getting a new hobby and going for regular walks. Decades of living from crisis-to-crisis had damaged me, and I needed treatment.   

Reasons for Hope

It's been over two decades since my youngest daughter, Zoe, was first admitted to a psychiatric unit. The transition from the crisis years that followed to independence and recovery was traumatic for everyone in the family. But today, I recognize our victories:

  • Lindsey: My ex-wife eventually stabilized and has achieved a level of long-term mental stability that alluded her during our time together. 

  • Gemma: The elder daughter diagnosed with BPD stabilized and no longer satisfies the criteria for a BPD diagnosis. She is happily married with five children.

  • Zoe: My youngest still battles addiction. She lives independently, embracing the support offered by the healthcare system. She knows the secret to success is to never give up trying. One day, I dare to hope she will be successful.

  • Me: I've found the real me, and I like who I am! I met and fell in love with Loretta. We've been happily married since 2010.     


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