“Self-will means believing that you alone have all the answers. Letting go of self-will means becoming willing to hold still, be open, and wait for guidance for yourself.”―Robin Norwood, Author of Women Who Love Too Much
My drug of choice is not the kind of heroin one shoots in their veins. My drug is the kind of heroine that ends with an e—the feminine version of hero.
When I help someone, and they are grateful for the gifts I offer, my brain fizzes with a cocktail of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine, resulting in a “helper’s high” I ride through town like a homecoming queen on a float, waving a gloved hand, blowing air kisses at admiring fans.
There is no accident these two words, heroin and heroine, look and sound so much alike because they strangely have more in common than you might think: They are both highly addictive, both more destructive than the user realizes, and both leave a trail of collateral damage.
According to the twelve steps, we stand a chance at recovery only if we can admit we are powerless over our addiction and that our lives have thus become unmanageable… so this is my coming out party. I figure by making this public declaration, I won’t be as tempted to sneak back to my old ways.
My painful revelation was delivered to me on a cinematic silver platter, while driving with someone incredibly close to me—let’s call her Chloe. She was desperate to find a place to live… that is until I’d swooped in on my noble steed, found her a hidden gem of an apartment, vouched for her, and landed her the deal of the century.
Instead of being met with the gratitude I expected (and secretly craved), I was devastated by her volcanic rage. She spewed, causing me to nearly drive off the road.
What crime did I commit, you ask? The week earlier, she had called me, and I had the audacity not to hear my phone ring. In fury, she screamed about how I had set her up to need me, depend on me, and think of me as her savior. And then, when she needed me most, my phone’s ringer was off, leaving her alone to flail in pain, cursing the water I once walked upon.
In my defense, I never (consciously) promised Chloe I’d be her forever rescuer. Little acts of service became the gateway drug to more elaborate feats that took immense effort and a toll on my own life. I somehow imagined one day I’d receive a smiling postcard from her, telling me my services were no longer required because of how brilliantly her life turned out (thanks to me)… but that hasn’t happened (yet).
How did I co-create such an epic fail?
Hitting rock bottom with my “disease to please” sent me on a search-and-rescue mission of my past to discover the genesis of my addiction. My detective work led me, surprise, back to childhood.
As the eldest of five, I was awarded points from my well-meaning parents for doing big-sisterly things, such as treating my siblings like they were my babies, teaching them to tie their shoes, showing them how to swing a softball bat, and how to combat bullies.
I was raised believing it was my job to take care of them, and I proudly accepted that mantle. It empowered me; it made me feel important.
But what I didn’t realize was that while I was getting puffed up like the Goodyear blimp with praise, soaring higher with every pat on my back, some of the victims of my heroism were becoming progressively weakened. It was as if my efforts sent the unconscious message that they were broken and crippled and, without me, incompetent.
As I struggled to more deeply understand my heroine addiction, I sought the counsel of a friend who said, “Your struggle is a microcosm of a global issue. For example, the US has funneled over 500 billion dollars to Sub-Saharan Africa (to mitigate starvation and famine), only to make the situation worse when they pulled out.” He continued, “In spite of good intentions, if the giving is a handout, not a hand up (giving fish instead of teaching how to fish), it’s unsustainable, exacerbating—not curing—the problem it set out to fix.”
Even though I extended my support without conscious strategy or agenda, I hurt people more than I helped.
So, what is the solution?
It isn’t as simple as no longer helping people. It’s like being an overeater who can’t just swear off food. If I had an actual heroin addiction, my job would be to cease injecting the drug in my arm. But even Abraham Maslow taught that service is near the top of his hierarchy of needs, and I’ve certainly been a grateful receiver of people’s kindnesses.
This is clearly one of life’s “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” conundrums. Perhaps I just have to figure out how to do “service” differently.
So, as a newly sober heroine addict (an energy vampire cloaked behind a superhero cape), convulsing in withdrawals as I seek to live on the razor’s edge between serving and savior-ing, here are my marching orders, thus far. Just for today (and hopefully every day after), I will:
1. Fire myself from the job I unwittingly accepted (too enthusiastically) as a little girl: to be everyone’s big sister.
2. Admit I have a problem and that I am powerless over saving, fixing, and controlling people.
3. Give up the belief that I know best on how others should live their lives.
4. Refrain from getting my fix by fixing people, searching for God in all the wrong places.
5. Make ruthless compassion my replacement addiction, in the way heroin addicts safely detox using methadone or suboxone.
Ruthless compassion, by the way, is the unwillingness to see another as broken or inadequate, but instead as innately whole and complete, regardless of what they’ve been through or what they believe to be true about themselves.
6. Practice “For Fun and For Free”—this twelve-step motto is about only giving to others from surplus bandwidth (time, money, and energy) unless it’s a true emergency.
7. Tattoo my brain with my new personal prayer (a mashup of The Serenity Prayer and the lyrics to Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler”):
God grant me the serenity…
to know when to hold ‘em,
when to fold ‘em,
when to walk away
and when to run.
If you relate to my story, I hope this will help you with your hero or heroine addiction. But if it doesn’t, that’s okay. Because, through the lens of my new Ruthless Compassion sunglasses, I see you are more than capable of finding your own answers, thankfully without any excess do-gooding from me.