If you have someone in your life who has battled substance use disorder, you know how difficult it is to put emotions aside and to look at the situation objectively. The diseases renders the person it afflicts—and those around them—powerless, and the chaos that ensues is emotional and difficult to navigate, which is the reason groups such as Al-Anon and Learn to Cope have been founded. It is a natural wish to help those we love in their times of need, but the problems that sprout from a person’s addiction make boundaries very blurred and complicated. They often contradict the nurturing sensibilities we have been taught to carry on to those we love.
The difference with addiction lies in these boundaries that must be established, and the different kinds of support that will be healthy and beneficial for all parties involved. This eliminates enabling an addict or alcoholic’s addiction, and instead supports them in a way that will direct them toward help and healing. It is also a way to ensure support for the person who does not have the addiction and is trying to stay afloat through the recovery process.
How can we be supportive of our loved ones without enabling their addiction?
Supporting vs. Enabling
Many of us with someone in our lives who we might feel has a problem with alcohol or drugs don’t quite know what to do to help. When the person’s use gets out of control, consequences start cropping up, and their lives become unmanageable. We may decide it’s time to intervene, or realize that the support we have been providing them with is being manipulated to their addiction’s advantage. This is especially true for parents or immediate family members. By providing, for example, a place to live and food to eat, we may be allowing them the financial freedom to pay for their drugs or alcohol.
The behaviors that may be considered ‘enabling’ can take many different forms. Even people who may otherwise appear to be very matter-of-fact and unbiased in other areas of their lives may also act as enablers toward friends and family members who have a drug or alcohol addiction, sometimes unknowingly.
The following examples illustrate behaviors that may be enabling:
- Ignoring Secrecy or Irresponsible Behavior
Most people who abuse drugs or alcohol do not use in plain sight. Not only is this an early indicator that something is wrong and the person knows it, but can also mean the problem is larger than initially suspected. Other indications of abuse might be of changes in routines, and staying out later than usual. They may ignore social or family obligations, or suddenly become the subject of penalties or even termination from their job or expulsion from school. This can be especially true for those who are considered ‘high-functioning’ addicts or alcoholics.
Enablers may disregard these critical symptoms because of protection, pride, or fear of facing the truth about their friend or family member who abuses drugs or alcohol. They also might think you’ll betray them to think otherwise, and want to trust that they aren’t acting in such a way. An enabler may make excuses or blame others for consequences or feedback that the individual receives from work or school. They may ignore the fact that it is unusual for the person to remain away from home until late at night or early morning, make excuses for them, lie about their behavior, or hide it from others altogether.
- Resenting the Addict
It is common for people who are close to the addict to become angry at the individual while still exhibiting enabling behavior. They might lash out at the individual or talk about their concerns with others, but then do nothing to stop the problem from continuing. This can lead to an unhealthy resentment to and tension to mount, eventually forming a vicious cycle.
It is important to note that resentment may take place quietly. Hiding and ignoring facts regarding an addict’s behavior while expecting the behavior to change is a recipe for passively encouraging continued drug use. As difficult as it is, friends and family members should instead take action to intervene, even if they have to go to the lengths of hiring a professional interventionist to confront the addict. Sometimes this is better because it takes the personal relationship out of the situation, in which the addict or alcoholic can blame their family member or friend for “getting them in trouble” or whatever they might say. It can be a very hurtful time with emotions flying every which way, which make it high stakes for everyone.
- Blaming Others for the Addict’s Behavior
Addiction to drugs and/or alcohol causes physical and behavioral changes. When these changes result in unmet obligations and poorly kept responsibilities, enablers sometimes blame others for the addict’s behavior, sometimes called scapegoating.
For example, a spouse of a person whose alcohol addiction causes him or her to forget to empty the dishwasher may lecture the couple’s child for never emptying the dishwasher, instead of addressing the fact that the addict is neglecting their regular chores. An enabler hides the addict’s behavior in an effort to avoid conflict and challenging the real issue at hand.
Sometimes enabling behavior is fueled by the fear of damaging the relationship with the addict. Enabling may also be rooted in deeper issues. Families often work around an enabler by hiring an interventionist to work with the addict and the family members who are desperate for the addict to receive treatment.
- Lying to Others to Cover Up the Addict’s Behavior
Oftentimes, drug and alcohol addiction will cause an addict to miss out on social occasions or time from work or school. An enabler may cover the addict’s behavior by lying to friends and family members, coworkers, and employees to minimize their absence or failure to properly handle a responsibility. They might even think the person will be better because they are now indebted to them.
Lying to cover up the addict’s behavior allows the enabler to feel as if he or she is able to maintain some degree of control over the situation. While the enabler may be working to prevent the addict from experiencing conflict, the addict is simply thinking about the afforded opportunity to continue to use their substance of choice. When people who are addicted to a substance seek treatment, they must eventually make firm decisions regarding their relationship with enablers.
- Difficulty Expressing Emotions
When an enabler fully understands that their loved one has an addiction but then continues to make excuses to cover the behavior, the underlying cause of the enabling behavior is often the inability to properly express an emotion of some type. In these instances, fear is typically the dominant emotion.
In the mind of the enabler, confronting the addict may jeopardize the relationship or expose the addict to consequences that the enabler may consider unsafe. If they are a parent, perhaps they are afraid to hear if the person’s childhood had something to do with their use, and they will feel responsible. They also may be aware of a trauma and believe that their addiction is the only way they can cope with what happened, and so they have let it go on for a long time. They may be fearful that if they don’t continue to enable, the person will blame them and shut them out forever.
Sometimes enabling behavior requires professional counseling to address the issue separately. In the event that an addict relapses, enablers should have a thorough understanding of why they must avoid enabling behavior to increase the addict’s likelihood of remaining clean and sober.
- Allowing Fear to Dictate Behavior
Enablers typically stand in between the addict and rehabilitation. The reason enablers may knowingly or unknowingly serve as an obstacle to their loved one receiving effective treatment is the fear of losing them to conflict or, in some cases, even fear of losing them to the rehab itself. Sometimes, enablers exhibit behaviors that may not be healthy for the addict once he or she is in recovery, and the enabler may be afraid that the individual’s treatment program will call for him or her to avoid people who behave in a manner that may trigger the urge to use drugs or alcohol.
If the person is a parent, they may also feel very scared to lose their child completely once they get better. The addict may have manipulated them into thinking they need them, when usually it’s just a tactic to get them to comply with their wishes so they can keep using. Once an addict gets better, they may also distance themselves from their enabler because they allowed their addiction to perpetuate. It’s hard to predict how a situation will unfold until all parties are in a healthy mental space further down the road.
- Prioritizing the Addict’s Needs
A person who enables a friend or family member’s drug addiction may prioritize the addict’s needs over their own. A family member whose rent is due may give an addict a few hundred dollars knowing that they are unlikely to return the money due to their addiction. They might be guilted into giving the addict or alcoholic money if they tell them they will be sick, or that they owe someone money who might hurt them. They might promise that after this last time, they will go to rehab. There are many empty promises that enablers sometimes wish to believe.
Compromising their own peace, serenity and safety is another mark of an enabler. They will allow a person to live in their house, use their car, eat their food, etc., because they know they do not have it for themselves. This can cause disruptions in the enablers’ lives and problems, as well. For example, if they lend their car to the addict or alcoholic in their lives and the person doesn’t return, they could miss work.
It is never too late for enablers to re-prioritize themselves and to break the cycle of putting the addict’s requests first and then feeling resentment after they continue to use drugs.
How to Stop Enabling an Addict
For people who have developed a pattern of enabling, the prospect of doing the opposite may seem frightening. Nevertheless, if you are an enabler, changing your behavioral pattern will force the addict to reveal their true intention to take advantage of your kindness and continue to use drugs. The following suggestions can help enablers correct behaviors that may otherwise be an obstacle getting in the way of the addict receiving treatment.
- Acknowledge the Bad Behavior
If you notice a change in your family member’s behavior, speak to other family members about the changes you observe. Discussing the behavior with others will allow you to compare notes to better ascertain whether there is cause for concern. Bringing the subject up will also allow others to hold you accountable if you feel tempted to lie or cover up the addict’s behavior in the future. Explain that you have had trouble confronting this situation, and that you need their help.
- Try Not to Harbor Resentment
Resenting the addict will only make matters worse, especially if you are simultaneously enabling him or her. It may help to remember that the addict is not in their correct frame of mind currently because drugs are controlling their behavior. With that said, you must take the corrective steps to help them move toward getting better, otherwise the problem will continue and your resentment will grow.
- Let the Person with SUD Be Held Accountable
Instead of covering for the addict’s behavior, you must allow him or her to be held accountable. For example, if the individual is frequently late to work or misses family obligations, allow the workplace or family member to confront the addict and require them to answer directly for the behavior. Doing so will give the addict a chance to see how their addiction is impacting others and placing their relationships and livelihood in jeopardy. This realization will bring the addict closer to accepting that they need treatment. Be prepared for them to blame you for any consequences this may lead to. If you have been helping them stay clear of trouble all this time, they will look for someone to blame.
- Stop Covering Up and/or Minimizing
Oftentimes, the people who are closest to the addict may want to create the impression that everything is “fine.” While misrepresenting the nature of the addict’s problem may seem like a small lie or even a white lie, this act of protecting the person’s glaring issue only makes it easier for them to dodge the consequences of their behavior, and also dodge ever getting better. It’s easier for them to refuse to seek treatment if you have been minimizing the situation. It could even result in them gas-lighting you if you ever try to address them in front of others, which can be hurtful and confusing.
- Communicate Emotions More Openly
It is completely normal to be concerned that directly confronting an addict may strain the relationship or even cause the individual to leave home. If you struggle to express your feelings and concerns, contact an interventionist. You may otherwise mask those feelings, and they will resurface as resentment. You may not even be aware that you are exhibiting resentment toward the addict. However, if the addict perceives resentment, the relationship is still very likely to become strained.
- Address Your Underlying Fears
Because enabling behavior is primarily driven by fear, you can modify your behavior by confronting that fear head-on. One way to tackle this is by making a list of your concerns and rationally thinking through each of them. If you are suddenly stumped, keep the list handy (such as in a note on your phone) and come back when events present themselves. Experiencing addiction secondhand is extremely tumultuous, and it changes often as does the behaviors of the person using. One day may be very good, and then the next could be hard again. Remember that you are focused on reaching a routine of consistent, healthy days instead of this chaotic roller coaster.
If listing your fears is not helpful, consider seeking the support of a counselor. To help you allay your fears during interactions with the addict or alcoholic, consult an interventionist who can help you communicate your concerns more effectively and establish boundaries without dissuading the addict from seeking treatment.
- Prioritize Your Own Needs First
Lending money and jeopardizing your livelihood and relationships in other ways to support the addict will make matters worse for everyone involved. Because an addict’s behavior is fueled by their substance of choice, they will not appreciate the money you lend, the housing arrangement or food you offer, or any other forms of assistance. A person’s addiction can cause them to feel entitled to these things, especially if you are a family member or close friend. They might use guilt as a way of coercing their loved ones into helping them when it is clear they need professional treatment.
As we said before, friends and family often offer assistance with the hope that the addict will be “appreciative” and stop abusing drugs and alcohol as a result. That is typically not how those situations work out. Additionally, helping an addict in a way that puts their needs before yours will only build resentment and add fuel to the vicious cycle that keeps them away from a rehab facility.
Encourage the Addict to Seek Treatment Away From Outside Influences
For people who have an addiction to drugs or alcohol, a residential rehab facility can be a great option because these types of rehabs separate the addict from outside influences. Residential programs also allow counselors and medical staff to implement a structured routine while supervising the addict. Moreover, the inpatient nature of the program acts as a barrier between the addict and their loved ones’ enabling behavior that may otherwise deter them from remaining committed to a clean and sober life. It keeps parties separate while the issues at hand are worked on.
Navigating a relationship with a friend or family member who is addicted to drugs or alcohol can be a challenge for anyone. If you struggle with modifying your own behavior and communicating effectively with the addict, please give us a call today to discuss some options available.
It’s important to know that by seeking help for your loved one, you are not giving up on them or turning them in. It is the love we have for people with addiction that propels us to want to care for them, and often the best way to do that is by calling upon people who have done this before and know the right next steps.