The Many Faces of Manipulation

Manipulation Marionette

A zillion days ago, before life became quarantined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my thirtysomething middle son talked about getting his act together. He was going to finish that GED, at long last, as well as get his driver’s license.

He’d spoken to a former employer who’d give him a job. His cheeks had plumped up, thanks to practically nonstop eating. He was a week and a half into recovery from his last meth binge.

I desperately wanted to believe him.

Sadly, yet predictably, his plans were upended only two days later. He left without a word and headed back to the jungle of campsites along our nearby river to begin a new binge.

We didn’t see or hear from our son for three days. But before he disappeared, he’d done a flurry of chores and yardwork—washing my car, mowing the grass, cleaning his room.  He made caring statements to me and the family. He’d even managed to mow and edge the neighbor’s yard —the neighbor whose fragile wife is recovering from a double lung transplant.

My first reaction to my son’s continued meth use was extreme disappointment. It was like watching a full glass jar of mayonnaise fly out of my hands and shatter on the kitchen floor. As much as I wished time would reverse long enough for me to catch that jar, I was never going to unsee the mess of mayo glop mixed with jagged shards that now lay waiting for me to clean up. His bright promises broke on the floor of my heart.

After that initial shock, though, I assessed his pre-binge behavior. What was his motivation for washing my car without being asked? What did his good deeds say about him? Had he been trying to atone for past binges, or was he simply trying to manipulate me like a life-sized puppet?

I didn’t know.

Since this guy has been using meth for a long time, I do know how it feels to be manipulated. He and his two brothers, with substance use disorder problems of their own, can be very convincing.

Nothing is ever their fault. Like a good mystery novelist, they always say they only have a short time window. Time is running out! Depending on the situation, it’s usually the last time they’ll ever be able to fill-in-the-blank.

Someone is going to beat them, evict them, extort or cheat them unless I do whatever. Our sons will starve, freeze, go naked, into nicotine withdrawal, be homeless or be stranded without a ride, a handout, a cig, you-name-it.

Moms and dads like me know these requests so well that we can’t be faulted for becoming cynical. And angry. No one likes to feel used. If I interact with another person believing we’re on the same page but then learn they have ulterior motives, I feel betrayed. Manipulation hurts.

As betrayed and upset as I am over being taken advantage of, I acknowledge that I know something about manipulation myself. I regularly tie my response to some condition. I will do this, but you must do that. If you want that, let’s see you do this.

Every politician knows this strategy. TV ads are just mini-manipulations in disguise. We’re all puppets in some way.

I zig and zag through my days, trying to filter what my sons say in sincerity from their disease’s demands. Too often, I manipulate for my own purposes, as if I could nudge my sons into recovery the way commercials tempt us to buy bags of chips.

Persuasion is at the heart of our culture. Parents like me howl when our SUD kids play us like fiddles, but since our own manipulations are noble (I will . . . if you get into treatment; go to meetings; stop this or start that), we think we don’t stink.

This all stinks. I manipulate to gain peace. When cravings overtake my sons, they’re trying to get what they need too. This is a disease. Like a person hearing voices, the user isn’t in control. He’s sick.

Instead of pouncing on my kid for lying, for twisting things to gain my sympathy, I think of them like the biblical guy who was possessed and fell into the fire. Jesus didn’t stand the man up and tell him to stop acting possessed. He didn’t blame him or berate him or send him to jail. He loved.

No, I don’t condone manipulation or lying or midnight pleas for rides. But I can’t condemn anyone who’s been hijacked by a substance which alters the brain in such hideous ways.

What I can do, besides get mad or self-righteous, is to set boundaries. I can decide in advance what I will and will not do. I might say I can offer food or a change of clothing, but I won’t give cash. And if I feel conflicted, a simple, “No, but I love you,” may be the best I can offer.

And when he is thinking clearly again, talking about GEDs or jobs or a bright future, I will listen earnestly. And for the moment, believe every word.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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