In Epidemics, Hippocrates said, “As to diseases, make a habit of two things–to help, or at least to do no harm.” How can we apply that idea?
What if the steps you were taking to help a friend or family member through a problem or crisis were actually the very things hurting them most? And, what if the effects of your actions not only harmed your loved one, but brought pain and consequences to your own life? These consequences seem obvious. However, life isn’t always that simple — especially when we’re dealing with addiction and the relationships between individuals suffering from addiction and their loved ones.
Enabling comes in many different forms, from the extreme (financing a loved one’s addiction) to the vague (ignoring an addiction in hopes that it will go away). Some people even enable addiction on purpose – often because it benefits them in some way.
Unfortunately, enablers themselves – even those with good intentions – are often the ones that end up suffering from their actions. It is often the enabler who experiences the most direct consequences of someone’s addictive behavior. As a loved one becomes more and more involved in addiction, enablers take on a greater role, over-compensating for the responsibility gaps.
If you know someone with a drug or alcohol addiction, the following questions can help determine if you are enabling them:
Do you take steps to cover up the addiction and help keep it hidden?
Do you make excuses for your loved one’s addiction or behavior?
Do you avoid confronting the addiction in an attempt to avoid conflict?
Do you believe your loved one is just going through a phase?
Do you believe the problem will eventually resolve itself without help?
Do you handle the responsibilities of your loved one?
Have you bailed your loved one out of jail?
Have you paid bills for your loved one, who likely used income on their addiction?
Do you have a parent-child relationship with your loved one even though they’re your spouse?
Do you enjoy the feeling of being ‘needed’ by your loved one?
Are you guilty of giving second, third, and fourth chances?
Do you ever participate in risky behaviors alongside your loved one?
Answering yes to one or more of these questions could indicate that you have been demonstrating enablement in your loved one’s life. Even if your actions come from a place of love, care and concern, you could actually be prolonging your loved one’s addiction and even helping to make it worse.
Set Boundaries and Be Assertive
In order to change your enabling behavior, you must be committed to the process. Start by establishing clear boundaries for yourself and your relationship with others who are prone to substance abuse. Let the person know that you still care for them, but will be saying ‘no’ to all requests for help. You may find it easier to speak to your loved one about your new boundaries before enablement situations arise.
Be assertive as you tell them that you:
Will not give them anymore money, regardless of the need or circumstance
Will not lie on their behalf or make excuses for irresponsible behavior
Will not bail them out of jail
Will not fulfill commitments to others on their behalf
Will not handle their responsibilities at home, work, or in other situations
Often, people close to a person who has addiction will find difficulty saying ‘no’ to requests for help – especially if they are fully capable of finding or creating a solution. If someone with addiction has always turned to you for help, expect that person to become angry or emotional when you deny that request. Do not give in to manipulation or threats – both of which are tools frequently used by people with addiction who have a need they want met.
Stop Enabling Behavior
It’s never easy to stop enabling behavior – especially if you are the one who will be suffering consequences. You are sure to receive pushback and possibly experience some degree of retaliation. You may even worry about the outcome, fearing something bad will happen to your loved one without your help.
There may be short-term pain and difficulty, but it is nothing compared to the anguish and misery a long-term addiction can cause. After all, the person with an addiction will come to face the consequences of alcoholism or substance abuse at some point; enabling will only postpone that time, potentially making it worse.
Paying attention is unlikely to cause harm, but active help could either support or enable. It depends completely on the specific situation and the actual intentions of the recovering person. Intentions are difficult to judge, so we need to assess behavior. If I knew for sure that my loved one was finally on the road to recovery, then I would do a lot to help make that journey smoother and to prevent old problems from affecting the present. For instance, I might pay off a drug debt to stop the dealer from “collecting,” and consider that payment a loan payable at some later date. The problem is that we don’t know until much later how firmly someone was on the road to recovery.
When you can help wholeheartedly, I suggest you do so. We are in relationships to give and receive. A friend in need is a friend indeed. There are two times to consider being wholehearted about giving:
(1)Early in an addictive problem, after the first crisis or two, before someone has established a history of twisting help into enabling, and
(2)Well into a recovery process, when it is clear that even without you the person is likely to continue to improve.
How to Break the Cycle of Enabling
While enabling can be a serious problem for everyone involved with addiction, it is completely possible to break the enabling cycle so the addict can heal in productive, meaningful ways. Darlene Lancer gives the following suggestions to help someone stop enabling:
|Leave messes as they are
Leave the addict to clean up the messes she makes while intoxicated
|Weigh your options for short-term and long-term pain
Will helping the addict one more time cause more pain in the long run?
|Get back autonomy
When possible, you should not allow the addict to put you in situations which may endanger yourself or others
|Follow through with plans
Even if the addict refuses to participate in a planned activity, you should go through with it without her
In other words, take action now against enabling behaviors.