When a family member is sick, it’s normal to want to help them feel better. It’s our natural instinct to take care of and support those we love, when they are down or having problems. However, when we take care of certain illnesses such as addiction, helping can have the reverse effect of what is intended. Addiction is a progressive and often terminal illness. Most addicts can’t stay sick by themselves. In other words, addiction requires an enabling system to continue to progress. An enabler is someone who helps the addicted person to continue in their addiction, by taking responsibility for their actions. Instead of your addicted loved one experiencing the consequences of their behavior, the enabler takes it on. The enabler starts out with good intentions. They want to help, but in later stages of addiction, enabling becomes an act of desperation. The family dynamics get tangled up in a ball of blame, accusations, justifications, rationalizations and hurt. The enabler – this can be a friend, spouse or parent – over-functions allowing the addict to increasingly under-function.
Examples Of Enabling Behavior
- Making excuses for the addicted person.
- Accepting responsibility for his or her abusive or unhealthy behavior.
- Avoiding a subject in fear of confrontation.
- Bailing them out.
- Paying their bills.
- Loaning money or paying bills (even when you don’t have the money to loan.)
- Threatening to kick them out but never following through with it (or taking them back after you kicked them out)
- Paying their child support, or picking up their kids because they’re too intoxicated to do so.
- Putting the addicts’ needs above all else, even their children.
- Ignoring unacceptable behavior.
- Resenting the responsibilities you take on.
- Putting aside your own needs and desires, to help.
- Difficulties in expressing your own emotions.
- Blaming other people for problems the addict is creating, rather than confronting them on it.
- Continuing to help even though it is never appreciated or acknowledged.
- Repeatedly bailing them out of jail, financial problems, or other tight spots they get themselves into.
- Giving one more chance … then another…and another…
- Ignoring the problem (because they get defensive when you bring it up)
- Tip-toeing around to avoid an explosion.
- Drinking or using drugs with them, despite knowing they have a serious problem.
- Case-building with them (blaming others for their feelings, and problems)
- Buying into their excuses, such as “I drink because I’m depressed.”
- Doing things for them that they could and should, be doing for themselves
- Trying to “fix” them or their problems.
- Repeatedly coming to the rescue.
- Believing they’re a victim and unable to help themselves.
- Saying things like, but they’re my baby (and their full grown)
- Saying you would die for them (or you’ll keep fighting for them until your last dying breath)
- Trying to control them or their problems.
- Ignoring your own physical, spiritual and mental health needs.
- Neglecting other significant relationships.
So how can you help your addicted loved one without enabling their illness?
Education is key to change. It’s important to understand that enabling advances the addict’s disease while helping advances the addict’s recovery. If you have to lie in order to assist someone else, you’re probably enabling, not helping. There is much you can do to improve your loved one’s outcome of a successful recovery. But the first step might not be what you think. Although it’s easy to see the addict needs help, the truth is, you do too. Lying, denial and manipulative behavior are all common in individuals and enabling family members when struggling with addiction. Rather than focusing on what changes you can make with the addict, start with you. When you have the right support in place, it will be easier to stop. A 12-step group will help you learn the difference between letting go and holding on. One is an act of love, the other, an act of poor boundaries. Keeping secrets only makes things worse. And it doesn’t help your addicted loved one, at all. As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. The longer you keep their secrets – the longer they will use. All addiction left untreated ends in the terminal stage. Addiction is about avoidance. So is enabling. Addicts use to avoid what’s going on in their lives. Enablers, enable, to avoid feeling uncomfortable. By now, these two are almost the same. The only difference being, the addict uses a substance and the enabler uses control. Many families feel guilty for their loved one’s addiction and enable out of guilt. With help, you can learn to stop this destructive behavior. Just as the addict cannot get better alone, neither can the codependent.
Without truth, honesty and transparency, recovery is impossible.
If you’re participating in behaviors you feel guilty for, you will continue to enable. The best help you can provide your addicted loved one is to lead by example. Be a healthy role model. One who is willing to do whatever it takes – meetings, getting a sponsor, counseling and learning how to set boundaries – to become well. With the right support, you’ll never have to make another uneducated life and death decision for your addicted loved one again.