Witnessing a drug or alcohol addiction derail your loved one’s life can change you. From the way you live your life individually, and as a family, to the emotions you begin to experience, the negative effects of the addiction do not only impact the user—family members of an addicted individual often suffer greatly at the hand of the addiction.
During this time, it is crucial that you strive to maintain a healthy perspective while balancing your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in a way that is advantageous to both you and your loved one. Unfortunately, these changes and the circumstances at hand exert such pressure on you, that sometimes it becomes hard to do this. You might find that in striving to love your family member, you actually start to make choices that are detrimental to both your’s and your loved one’s well-being. These adverse actions and behaviors are termed “enabling.”
How Do I Know If I’m Enabling?
Many enablers mistakenly think that they are actually helping their loved ones. The hard truth is, some individuals may, in the process of attempting to care for their loved one, actually be contributing to their struggle with drugs or alcohol and impeding their path to sobriety. An archived resource from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) offers us the following definition: “Enabling behavior occurs when another person, often a codependent, helps or encourages the addict to continue using drugs, either directly or indirectly.”
As noted, enabling may also stem from another common, yet harmful dysfunctional pattern—codependency. Offering a succinct rendition of these behaviors, NIDA explains that “Codependency occurs when another individual, perhaps the addict’s spouse or family member, is controlled by the addict’s addictive behavior….because they have learned to believe that love, acceptance, security, and approval are contingent upon taking care of the addict in the way the addict wishes. In their decision-making process, they allow the addict to define reality.”
Essentially, if you are within a codependent and enabling relationship, you are allowing the reality they’ve set forth through the destructive behaviors of their addiction to define the way you are living your life. The enabling individual isn’t only causing harm to their loved one, they are invariably causing great harm to themselves. They are remiss in focusing on their personal self-care and needs in lieu of the energy they expend towards trying to insulate their family member from the truth and acceptance of their addiction.
Examples Of Enabling
When a family member, friend or partner takes on the role of the enabler, their actions generally arise from a well-intentioned desire to see their loved one well. Initially, these endeavors may be small, but as time passes and the addiction accelerates, they may become more compulsive and desperate. This leads to the enabler shouldering the predominant majority of the burdens, while their loved one carries little. The following are ways that an enabler may delay or relieve their loved one from the consequences of their actions:
Financially — When a person compulsively and chronically uses drugs, he or she typically requires significant amounts of money to fuel their habit, commonly leading to dire financial straits. Sometimes a person may even use the money for other things—rent, utility bills or food—to purchase drugs or alcohol. When this happens, he or she may approach their friends or family members asking for money.
Two things may hold true here—first, the money may actually be for bills, however, if you give your loved one money to pay these, it allows them to continue using their own money for drugs. Secondly, a person may actually be lying and never intend to use the money for the stated purpose in the first place. It can be hard to watch someone you loved struggle without the essentials, but by giving them money, in many cases, you are only serving to accelerate their ability to continue using.
Covering up for a person — Most drugs of abuse, alcohol included, can inhibit a person’s capacity to think clearly or rationally and make judgments. In addition, after using a drug or in periods between using, a person may also feel ill or out of sorts, impeding a person’s ability to perform or engage in certain tasks. These people may miss out on family events, leading the enabler to make an excuse for their absence. If a person is too sick or intoxicated to go to work, a person’s spouse may call in sick to work for them.
Picking up the slack — A hallmark of addiction is when the user begins to negate their responsibilities, examples include at work or at home. Perhaps they’ve cut back on their hours at work due to the effects of their addiction, so a spouse begins working more. Maybe he or she no longer fulfills their tasks around the house, so a partner or other family member takes on more chores. This overcompensation creates more time for an individual to both use the drug and creates a buffer zone for them to reside in when they’re feeling ill from the drug’s effects.
Using the substances themselves — In some cases, before addiction took hold, the enabler may have used drugs or alcohol with the addicted individual. Now, an imbalance occurs—one individual has an addiction, while the other does not—yet the latter individual may still desire to use substances in a recreational way, often in front of the person. In some cases, in pursuit of fun, relaxation or an attempt to connect to the individual, the enabler may actually use the drug of abuse with the person struggling with the addiction. This is quite obviously counterproductive, yet unfortunately common.
This occurs frequently in instances of alcohol addiction, as alcohol is a legal and widely accepted, social drug. The partner may keep alcohol in the house, providing a temptation or trigger, and/or drink around the person with the problem, thus compounding the issue more. Or they may convince themselves if their loved one has “just one drink,” that it is okay. Any amount of drug for an addicted individual is harmful.
Embracing denial — An addiction breeds denial and not just on the part of the individual using. In the beginning, it can be easy to ignore tell-tale signs of addiction, by explaining them away; however, as time passes, some individuals continue to immerse themselves in this harmful perspective. This is often because a person is so overwhelmed that they can’t contemplate where to begin, or because numerous overtures they’ve made at bringing up the issue have previously failed, thus denial rises as a protective mechanism of sorts.
Making excuses for the person — Correlated in many ways to the above, many enablers persist at making excuses for their loved one’s behaviors. They may assert such notions as, “Oh, they’ve had a long day,” “They’re under a lot of stress right now” or even taking the blame themselves, by thinking “They drink/use to put up with me, as a way to cope with how I’m making them feel.”
Suppressing your emotions — You may find that you downplay, or completely shut down expressing your emotions to your loved one. Instead of conveying to them how their addiction hurts you, you might bottle it in so that you can avoid any confrontation. Coming to grips with how an addiction impacts a user’s loved ones is often the main reason why many people begin striving towards sobriety.
Thinking they can overcome it on their own — Though this may masquerade as only optimism, it is, in many ways a continuation of denial and patterns of avoidance. If your loved one realizes they have an addiction, they may genuinely want to change and convey this to you, and you, in your hope and weariness, may be inclined to believe them. This is not to say that they are lying, only that overcoming an addiction without assistance or treatment is a very difficult road. By allowing your loved one to continue without supplications for help, you are depriving them of the knowledge and access to critical and potentially lifesaving care and treatment.
Eventually, if left unchecked, these patterns of enabling can gain dangerous momentum, not only allowing an individual to continue using but granting them with situations that they may begin to manipulate in their favor. Drugs change the way a person thinks, and at a certain point, many addicted individuals are overcome with thoughts of using to the extent they think of little else—including those they love. In the process of finding their next fix, they may hurt their loved ones, building resentment, blame and anger. These emotions could even become fuel to the fire—a person may continue to drink or use in an attempt to numb the reality before their eyes.
The Difference Between Helping And Enabling
So how do you look after your loved one without playing a part in this destructive role? Boundaries. Though this may seem like a cut-and-dry concept, it is one that requires great introspection, effort and diligence. Letting your loved one suffer the consequences of their actions may be painful to witness and may seem far from helpful behavior, however, you must remind yourself that in the case of substance abuse and addiction, the force and reality of a person’s consequences may create the greatest urgency for change. Perhaps you think that by saving them from the struggles they’ve created, you are allowing them greater space to focus on their needs—this is unfortunately untrue.
Enabling a person essentially creates roadblocks in their path towards sobriety, in the capacity that it hinders both the experience of the adverse effects and the subsequent internal dialogue that would result from them. As hard as it may be, in order to truly help your loved one, you need to allow them the opportunity (however painful for you both) to encounter the repercussions of their choices and actions concerning their drug or alcohol use.
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
In general, due to human nature, it can often be hard to look at ourselves and assess our thoughts and actions. This is one reason why many individuals who become enablers do so unknowingly. A person may instinctively reach out to their loved one, in an attempt to solve an apparent problem or to alleviate a burden, without fully thinking of the results.
When confronted with these situations, take the time to consider the weight of your choice. Perhaps it may be helpful to anticipate the outcome of their behavior and try to reflect on a possible lesson they may learn, should they experience it on their own. For instance, should your loved one actually show up to work exceedingly sick and hungover, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol and not be able to perform the responsibilities of their job; what could happen? Conceivably, they could be sent home on unpaid leave, or in the worst case, lose their job, either of which would create varying degrees of financial turmoil.
This is a hard circumstance—should something like this happen, it could greatly affect you as well; however, if the addiction continues, in the long run, this could be the first of many negative and adverse effects. Confronted with the potential of such loss, a person may begin to understand the necessity of changing their behaviors and the importance of seeking help. Consider seeking help for yourself too—various self-help groups exist for loved ones of addicted persons, including Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and even Co-Dependents Anonymous.
Find Strength And Better Coping Skills
If any of these situations sound familiar, you may be enabling your loved one’s addiction. If you’d like more information on how you can take part in your loved one’s life in a more productive and supportive way, reach out to us now. Turning Point can offer both you and your loved one access to the guidance, resources and information that can be transformative at this time.