Addiction is a tough disease — both for the person with the problem, as well as their friends and families, who may feel helpless in their ability to keep a loved one out of harm’s way. Though addictions only affect the addict themselves on a physical level, the ripple effects of drug or alcohol abuse span across entire social networks. Enablers, though they may not actually define themselves as such, may feel angry, stressed out, or in a constant state of worry as they watch their loved one plunge further into the depths of their illness.
What is an Enabler?
First, let’s establish a clear definition of what an enabler is. Enabling can be defined as offering “help” to someone who can, and should be able to handle a task on their own. An enabler picks up the mess the addict leaves behind, which feeds the cycle of drug abuse and prevents the addict from taking responsibility for the repercussions of their destructive illness. Enablers may feel obligated to do things for their addicted loved one, as they feel as though they are taking care of someone they care deeply for, who is sick.
Many enablers have a co-dependent relationship with their addicted loved one. They may be people who feel the need to solve problems that aren’t theirs to solve, or people who need to feel needed. Things quickly go south for both the addict and the enabler in these kinds of relationships. They’ll willingly take on responsibilities for the addict.
In another common enabling scenario, the family may cover up on behalf of an addict, as they don’t want to sully their reputation. Think of the all too commonplace example of the college student who gets a DUI and the family gets a lawyer to make things easier. They may post bail for the young offender, rather than encourage them to seek help for the alcohol problem that led to the infraction in the first place.
Lastly, a group of friends can easily enable an addict, perhaps ignoring or not noticing problem behavior. Many addicts start using drugs in a party scenario, with use increasing as they build up a tolerance and eventual dependence on a substance. Many people are able to use drugs or alcohol without becoming addicted, and these people may have trouble understanding addiction as the disease that it is. Friends and family may inadvertently offer alcohol to the addict, rather than acknowledge the problem — dismissing erratic behavior as “normal hard-partying.”
Do you have a loved one currently struggling with an addiction? Are you worried you might be part of the problem? Not to fear, we’ll help you identify some of the common patterns of an enabler, as well as provide some insights as to how to break the cycle and help your loved one for real.
Here are Some Signs You May Be an Enabler
Most people suffering from addiction have a system of enablers behind them. This is generally a social network of family members and friends who unintentionally exacerbate the illness by eliminating the natural consequences of an addiction. Enablers may provide extra money to someone with a drug or alcohol problem, or a place to stay and a warm meal. Sometimes this well-meaning enabling forces friends and family to lie on behalf of loved ones, even if it’s illegal. In other cases, they may choose to ignore the problem or continue partying alongside their loved one who really should be in treatment.
If you’re unsure whether or not you’re helping or enabling, ask yourself this question: Are your actions granting your loved one easier access to drugs or helping them on the path toward recovery. Here’s a list of signs that you may be an enabler:
- Are you covering for someone else’s behavior because of missed obligations?
- Driving them around or paying for cab service because their addiction has caused them to lose their driver’s license?
- Helping with basic expenses because they’ve spent all their money on drugs?
- Bailing an addict out of jail?
The list goes on and on, but if these actions feel eerily familiar, it’s time to take a step back and come up with a plan of action. You need to get your life back, and identifying there is a problem is the first step toward making that positive change.
Why You Need to Stop Enabling
The number one reason you need to stop your enabling behaviors is that by trying to help your suffering family member, you are instead doing them significant harm. Enablers feel as though they are engaging in an act of love. They are taking care of someone who can’t or won’t take care of themselves. It’s hard to watch someone you love experience discomfort or engage in self-destructive behaviors. But, even the best intentions could have serious consequences for an addict. Each time they use drugs, they are putting themselves in danger — risking legal trouble, strained relationships and even death with each subsequent use.
Look, you may feel like you don’t have a choice. Either keep enabling your addicted relative, or lose the relationship that you have with them. It will feel counterintuitive but know that if you want to “save” them, you need to break the cycle. Cutting them off financially or emotionally may initially make them angry. It may make you worry about their well-being. What if they’re sleeping on the street, or worse? You may have trouble getting a hold of them — particularly if they can’t pay their cell phone bill without any help from you.
The thing is, you need to stop. Cut it out. Let them fail. Let them lose their job or their car or fall behind on their rent. It’s tough love, but most addicts need a real wakeup call before they decide its finally time to get help. They may end up hitting “rock bottom,” but the real danger lies in the addict continuing down the path of addiction.
To be blunt, an addict must experience the consequences of their addiction if they want a successful recovery. If their support system continues to enable, bailing them out, covering up irresponsible behavior, or even choosing to interact with them when they are using, the addict will receive the message that they don’t have anything to lose.
All this information may make you feel like there isn’t anything you can (or should) do to help, but that simply isn’t the case. It might seem like the well-meaning family can only make things worse, but they really can do quite a bit to help. When the enabler’s behavior shifts to one that instead intervenes, the addict has a more difficult time feeding the addiction. Refusing to interact with someone who is using, or ceasing any financial help will make it harder for your loved one to both obtain and use drugs while maintaining a relationship with those they care about. Sure, you won’t be able to eliminate chemical dependency but are multiple ways to break the enabling cycle.
Similar to how an addict must first admit they have a problem before they can truly commit to change, an enabler must acknowledge that they also have a problem before they can truly break their own bad habits.
First, here’s a look at some of the dangers of enabling an addict:
Addiction Can Take Over Your Own Life as Well
It isn’t talked about as much as it should, but an addict’s actions impact their family’s life just as much as their own. People who enable addicts experience a lot of pain, particularly if they are in a codependent relationship with someone using drugs. In some cases, the person enabling may experience a sense of solidarity with the addict. Meaning, if one day an addict doesn’t use drugs, the person in the enabling role may feel a sense of pride or triumph, relief that maybe their loved one is going through a phase that will pass. On the flipside, people with addicts for spouses or family members may feel depressed or anxious when the addict continues to use, or has a relapse.
Taking a step back, and acknowledging that this is the addict’s problem, and they’ll need to face it on their own is huge. You need to take control of your own life, and move forward — with or without your loved one. This is a difficult step, but allowing someone else’s reckless choices dictate your own life is completely unfair, and takes the element of control out of your hands.
Do things that make you feel good. Visit with friends, find a new hobby, seek out support groups for others in your situation. Developing a strong support system in combination with tending to your own needs will help give you some separation from that connection between an addict’s actions and your own well-being.
You’re Living in Denial
If you have an addict in your life, acting with pure motives doesn’t exactly come naturally. Many times, we keep enabling the addict for our own benefit, refusing to acknowledge there is even a problem, or that it isn’t all that bad. Denial doesn’t help anyone here. In this case, it’ll likely make the problem get worse.
Denial allows us to interact with the addict without confrontation, which is likely avoided by both parties. The addict tries to pretend they don’t really have a problem, and those close to them accept it, perhaps creating a sense of relief.
Avoiding Other Problems in Your Life
Just like an addict may use to cover up other problems they aren’t ready to address, those who enable addicts may similarly be avoiding other issues in their lives. Engaging in enabling behavior allows the enabler to avoid examining underlying problems, especially if they are in a co-dependent relationship with the person who has an addiction.
When you’re dealing with an addict, the myriad side effects tend to become front and center, giving certain enablers an excuse to avoid cleaning up their own lives. Some families may shift blame onto the person with the addiction — perhaps out of displaced anger or the stress from worrying about something that is largely out of their control.
You need to understand that addiction is a family disease, and the effects can be devastating, requiring a great deal of work on the part of the family left to pick up the pieces. Know that if you are serious about helping a loved one overcome this all-consuming disease, you’ll likely be a part of the recovery process — from the intervention to well beyond the day they get out of treatment.
How to Stop Enabling an Addict
So what can you do? It’s easy to feel hopeless. It’s also hard to understand what an addict goes through, if you’ve never struggled with an addiction yourself. Compassion is key, but you’ll also need to stand your ground, not wavering when things get even more difficult.
Be clear and open about your expectations. Tell your family member or friend that you will no longer enable their habit, but you will be there if they are serious about getting clean. Lay out your terms. Be honest, firm and empathetic.
- Stop giving an addict money — regardless of perceived need or potential for disaster.
- Do not lie on someone else’s behalf or make excuses for destructive behavior.
- Absolutely do not bail an addict out of jail.
- Do not take care of any other obligations on their behalf.
- Do not do work or handle household responsibilities on behalf of the addict.
- Do not allow them to live in your home rent free.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Outcome
A major reason families of addicts continue the cycle of enabling is because they are afraid of what the addict might do if they are cut off. There exists this fear that an addict may become violent or threatening when someone close confronts them about their problem. They may feel as though their family is attacking them, and lash out.
Alternatively, some families continue to enable because they want to keep their loved one close. If they keep the addict out of harm’s way, even if they’re using, it can put the family at ease. They’re afraid the addict will overdose, fall victim to an attack or get arrested if they’re out of sight. All of these are real possibilities, as addiction is a terrifying and debilitating disease, even for those tangentially affected by its repercussions. But, it’s important to stop enabling at all costs.
While we’re saying don’t fear the outcome, you do want to take some precautions to keep yourself safe. People in the throes of addiction are subject to erratic behavior. If they’re going through withdrawals, they may be antsy or physically uncomfortable. Don’t meet with the addict alone if you fear for your safety.
Don’t Wait for the Addict to Hit Rock Bottom
The idea that one must hit rock bottom before seeking help, is bogus. If the addict is willing to go to rehab before they completely derail their entire life, the easier it is to get back on track. Don’t wait for the worst to happen before speaking up.
On the other hand, some addicts do need things to get as bad as possible in order to take the steps toward positive change. It all depends on the person with the addiction
Don’t Cover for Their Behavior
If you find yourself making calls on behalf of a family member, covering for their behavior because they failed to wake up in the morning after another bender or are incapacitated and under the influence, you need to stop.
It can be difficult. Say you are covering for your spouse, as you don’t want them to lose their job. It makes sense, but allowing them to really feel the repercussions of their addiction is the only way to break the cycle. Look at it this way. You should never call in sick on behalf of another adult — unless they are in the hospital, there’s no reason for this kind of coddling. It’s not an elementary school.
Do Not Offer Your Loved One Drugs or Alcohol
One thing that’s true for a number of addicts is, they feel like they deserve a reward for getting through the slog of the workweek, or being uncharacteristically restrained in their use of drugs. If a close friend of yours is an addict, they may try to get you to unwind with them on the weekend, or go to a party where drugs or alcohol will be present.
While such behavior is no big deal for a non-addict, using alongside a friend who has a problem is enabling at its worst. An addict will allow themselves one night of debauchery as a reward — they’ll binge drink or take excessive drugs all without taking into account the consequences of their actions.
Breaking the cycle of enabling an addict means you can no longer participate in any activities with this person that involve drugs or alcohol. Refuse to drive them to a party and offer to get dinner or a coffee with them instead. If they arrive under the influence, cancel plans and let them know you’ll talk to them when they sober up.
Join a Support Group for Families of People with Addictions
Joining groups like Al-Anon can connect family members of those with an addiction to other people who are going through the same thing. You’ll also link up with people who know a considerable amount about the effect of addiction on the family unit, and can provide some insights as to how to cope with the challenges of caring for an addict, while wanting to stop the enabling cycle altogether.
If you don’t have experience dealing with addiction yourself, going to support groups may open your eyes to some of the essential truths of being an addict. Attending meetings will help give you the tools you need to help your family member get into recovery. You’ll also gain the confidence to stop enabling, and stand firm in your efforts to stop giving an addict money, or make it easier to procure drugs and alcohol. You’ll learn from others’ personal struggles with addiction, both first hand and in dealing with family members who have dealt with some nasty addictions. In any case, it’s worthwhile to find a support system that is there to help you. As a family member of an addict, your own feelings and needs often get pushed aside.
If Other Enablers are in the Way
Maybe you aren’t the problem, but other family members are enabling your loved one to keep using. Watching this play out is tough, especially if your family isn’t a united front for helping an addict get clean. Your addicted loved one will need all the support they can get when facing down the long road to recovery. Band together with the rest of your family. Encourage them to join a support group like Narc-Anon or Al-Anon, and go together. Send them information on what it means to be an enabler, and what they can do to really help the person they care about. It may be tough to gain allies in this situation, but once you do, it may be easier to help the person you care about finally make it to recovery.
Does Your Loved One Have an Addiction?
There is a big difference between enabling and offering constructive solutions. You can help by providing information and support to your loved one. Connect them with a doctor or a therapist, provide information about rehab programs and how to get their insurance to cover their stay. Have a real conversation about the consequences of addiction, just try to remain as compassionate and impartial as possible.
At the end of the day, the decision to get help must come from the addict themselves. As a supportive family member, you can help your loved one face the tough consequences that come with drug and alcohol abuse, which may be exactly what is needed to seek out professional help.
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