The Ringmaster in the Family Circus

by Pattie Vargas
February 3, 2020

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. 


Find out more about Pattie here:
Book: The Resilience Factor Is Your Super Power

Sign up for our weekly MomPower newsletter!

Please share our story:

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print
Pattie Vargas

More MomPower Articles

Rescuing Ourselves

The best thing I can do for my child is to become as healthy as I can be.

Read »

The JUST Drawer

Fireworks fly as “Just this once” collides with “Just say no.”

Read »

Controlling Conflict

Ironically, the harder we fight for control, the more chaotic things can become.

Read »


  1. Wow! This is profound. I was the ringmaster’s personal assistant. It was only when I became ill and sought help from a psychiatrist that I began see how my enabling was disabling him from getting better and making me sick. Thank you for the Ringmaster analogy. It is brilliant.

    • Thanks for your comment, Janie. I’m glad you got help – wish we could know what to do from the beginning. {hugs}

  2. Patti, Patti, Patti. Truth with a capital T. If I had known this eighteen years ago, things might have turned out very differently for my family. I had to learn this truth the hard way.
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us all here. I hope those earlier in the journey will quiet their instinct to overprotect and listen to the voice of reason. It’s absolutely counterintuitive, I know! The hardest thing in the world. But I believe it gives our addicts the best chance to be accountable, to grow from it, and to ultimately recover.

    • Thank you, Marilea. I think we ALL find out the hard way. Nobody included this experience in the mom handbook. {Hugs}

  3. Hi Patti , thank u very much. My daughter called and I jumped , she screamed and I fought back. It was a 35 yr battle. She pushed me and then I pushed back. Complete torture nightmare. I would not aprrove of her bottom of the barrel lifestyle. And we both suffered. No one was a winner . She is still alive on the steeets but , tough love did not work either. What a nightmare to watch!!!! Everyone is different, no one size fits all for everyone. I am in recovery clean and sober 40 yrs. I know I tried everything. Wish I could of taken better care of myself. I have done. My best for both of us. But she never got straight. Luv u all. And God bless all moms!!! JAn❤️

    • Jan, at least she’s still alive. Hoping for a turnaround. Hugs to you!

  4. My son has been a crystal meth addict for 10 years now. We enabled him his whole life thinking we were being loving, supportive parents. The last two years have been a nightmare, trying to keep our doors closed to him, support him with love through 5 re-habs followed by re-lapses. He is also bi-polar. I feel like I have abandoned my son. I cry myself to sleep every night?

    • Sweet Suzanne, my heart goes out to you. Support him when he’s trying to help himself but you aren’t abandoning him by having boundaries. Thse boundaries aren’t just for you, they’re for him, too. Much love…

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.