The Ringmaster in the Family Circus
Every family has one—even “those” families untouched by illness, addiction, divorce, death, or dysfunction. It’s that person who controls—even unknowingly—all the activities of the family. Their behavior or “issue” institutes family secrets that become shared norms among the other members. Maybe it’s the mom embarrassed by not having as much disposable income as the neighbors, so the family rallies around a façade of looking successful. It could be the husband and dad whose opinions, priorities, and morals become de facto for the family, even when proper boundaries of conduct are being violated. Adherence to the family code is paramount—to disagree would be disloyal. Or maybe it’s the job that has become all-important and all-consuming, representing achievement, wealth, and identity. Prioritize work over everything else—duty calls.
Ringmasters. Calling the shots. Summoning the actors to their parts. Directing the action.
When there’s an addict in your family, they quickly become the ringmaster. They don’t ask for that role; we promote them to it. Some family members become secretive and evasive about the addict’s condition, while others develop different coping skills to protect themselves. The lead-up to every family gathering is anxiety ridden: Will they show up? Will they show up high? Will there be a fight? Will they show up with some new “friend”? We concoct excuses ahead of time to cover up whatever ultimately happens—it’s exhausting.
They point; we jump. Bail them out of jail; pay a bill so they avoid legal action. Buy them clothes, cars, living necessities that they easily walk away from when it suits them to do so. We neglect other family members, ignore our health, sacrifice our life plans when the ringmaster takes center stage. But if we point it out to them, they don’t see it that way. They may even say, “I didn’t ask you to do all that.” In their chemically altered minds, they truly feel no responsibility.
Ringmasters only have power when we accept the summons to perform. When we step into the ring, we have accepted the call to enable. The hardest thing I ever learned as a mother, wife, and friend was that only I could stop the madness. Only I could stop, take a pause, and second-guess my own instincts. Living in the ring does that to you; love and concern for others can blind you to the right thing to do. Instinct is not your friend in this case—instinct responds to the summons to be the protective mother and make it all better.
When we’re able to pause—take that beat—we can ask ourselves if we are helping or hindering. Are we sacrificing ourselves to someone else’s priority? Are we reacting out of fear rather than love? Is the ringmaster really my child—or is the ringmaster the addict controlling my child? It’s a place to start. It’s a much longer journey out of the ring than it was into it.