Imagine you are blindfolded and walking through a desert with prickly cactus thorns and burning hot sand – and nowhere to turn. Loving someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol can feel very similar: You can’t see where you’re going, every turn seems like the wrong one, it burns and hurts like crazy – and it seems as if there’s no way out. In response to the pain, chaos and confusion, many spouses, partners and family members adopt a set of behaviors in order to cope. These behaviors result from intense, painful emotions combined with knee-jerk responses to the addiction. When it comes to addiction, there’s an obvious sense of urgency – because for the family, solving the addiction means doing whatever it takes to avoid the pain. The “whatever-it-takes” usually turns out to be rescuing behaviors – or more commonly known as enabling. While we know that enabling is dangerous and can even be deadly, it isn’t easy to just turn and walk away. Because enabling is so complicated, there are several reasons that it is so difficult to overcome:
- We feel responsible.Are you feeling guilty? Loved ones often fall into a pattern of enabling behaviors because they feel responsible for the addiction. “What if I was a better wife?” “I didn’t do a good job of parenting.” “I could have stopped this.” Despite these questions and insecurities, know that you did NOT cause the addiction to happen. However, by enabling their addiction, you are allowing it to continue. At this point, your loved one does have a choice: to remain in active addiction or to begin some type of active recovery.
- We don’t want to hurt them by saying “no.”I often admit to being a “people-pleaser” – I don’t like to let others down, even if it means biting off more than I can chew. Being a people-please can often transition into being a codependent person: putting others’ needs ahead of your own on a consistent basis. There’s a difference between being a nice person and being a nice person in a codependent relationship. If you feel like you’re losing yourself – in a sense, you are. By saying yes when you mean really mean no, you’re giving into the addiction and losing your boundaries, and what makes you – you.
- We want to be the ones to fall on the sword or save the day.Are you a natural caregiver? Do you have the ability to comfort, nurture and care for those around you? Caregiving is a beautiful train – but on the other side of the coin, helping other people can become addictive. Martyring yourself over and over again without appreciation or gratitude isn’t healthy. While love sometimes calls us to invest our time and energy tending to a loved one’s pain, it doesn’t do so 100% of the time. Love is a two-way street – not a relentless string of sacrifices.
- What if something happens to them?Day and night, the thought constantly works it’s way through your mind. “What if…” For so long, you’ve felt responsible for their drinking, their drug use, their actions when they’re high or drunk, their reckless behaviors, their lies, their outbursts. If you weren’t there to cover for them, bail them out or smooth things over – the worst could happen to them. Right? You are allowed to give your love and give it freely. But know, if you’re not there to “fix” them – your loved one will be forced to acknowledge and face their consequences, putting them one step closer to choosing change and recovery.
- The obligation to protect your family from the shame of addiction.Is the thought of people knowing that your loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol humiliating? Do you want to shield your other children from it? Hide it from your spouse, neighbors, friends or community? The stigma of addiction doesn’t just keep us silent, it keeps our loved ones sick.
- We’re afraid of their anger or outbursts.Saying “no” and drawing boundaries doesn’t usually bode well for someone who is in active addiction. Someone who is addicted to heroin or alcohol or prescription pills has tunnel vision to get their next drink or next fix. When something gets in the way and blocks the path to the drink or the drug, it usually leads to angry outbursts and conflict. If you’ve never truly learned how to deal with other people’s anger or frustration or disappointment, it can feel easier to avoid the conflict by walking on eggshells. Instead of creating firm, healthy boundaries – we do whatever it takes to please our loved one: Even if it means doing the things we don’t want to do.
- We know they’re sick.You may have heard: Addiction is a disease. Your loved one is sick with the disease of addiction, and because of that, you want to tend to them and care for them because they can’t help themselves. However, just because your loved one is sick, doesn’t give him or her a free pass to demoralizing behaviors or actions. While addiction is not a choice, the decision to forgo help and treatment is a choice. So long as your loved one is refusing true, professional help for their addiction they are making the decision not to get well.
- We want them to love us.As a parent, grandparent, partner, spouse, adult child or sibling – we hold a special bond of love. However, when a person is addicted, it doesn’t matter what we say, to them what bills we pay for them or how we help them – they will not be able to choose you over drugs until they are healthy.
- We hope tomorrow will be different.This wish may feel far-fetched – and that’s because without professional addiction treatment – it is. You see, addiction is a progressive disease: If not treated, it will continue to grow and worsen. If we ignore the addiction, it won’t go away. If we avoid talking about it, it won’t go away. If we don’t get help for it, it can be deadly.
If you find yourself acknowledging that it’s hard to change these behaviors, it may be time to get help for yourself. For family members, ending enabling behaviors can be nearly as uncomfortable as ending a substance addiction. The best steps you can take involve surrounding yourself with support and other people who know what you’re feeling.