Are You Enabling?
It’s natural to want to help, but enabling takes it a step too far. We do things out of guilt, fear or control, but we usually call it love.
Deep down you may recognize your behaviors seem wrong or ineffective, yet primal instincts compel us to protect the ones we love. Unfortunately, you’re not protecting them from addiction, but from consequences that could be real incentives to make a change.
Don’t ignore your enabling or assume the advice doesn’t apply to your situation. Instead, evaluate your responses to flag what you’re doing that may be counterproductive and actively make changes.
Advice for Common Situations
No one wants their loved one to go to jail or have a criminal record. However, by bailing them out or paying for a lawyer, you remove tangible consequences that could prompt them to seek help. You teach them not to worry about legal issues because you’ll take on that stress.
Don’t lie, cover up or trivialize the facts about their actions. Don’t make excuses or apologize for them if they don’t show up for their work or family times. If your loved one disappoints someone else, they need to feel that disappointment (not you). When you make it easier for them to check out of their ‘normal’ life, you make it easier for them to fall into the shadows of addiction.
If your loved one is refusing treatment, but still talking to you, you can definitely answer their calls and meet them for a meal. When you talk, express your love and invite them to treatment every time. One day, you may get the ‘yes’ that you’re waiting for. Stand firm in your boundaries, but show them love and kindness. Feeling a connection with you reminds them that there are things to live for beyond drugs and alcohol.
Think of giving them money as giving them drugs or alcohol. How long do you want to foot the bills while they live in addiction? Even paying bills, fines, rent, loans, gas, auto insurance or tuition could be counter-productive. Saying “no” is your prerogative. Your loved one should feel the impact of not being able to cover these costs. The only exception is paying for things that directly encourage recovery (like medications and treatment).
You don’t have to feel uncomfortable in your own home. If you find yourself scared of what laws they’re breaking behind closed doors or how they might treat you when they’re high or withdrawing, enough is enough. As hard as you can, try not to worry about what they’ll do when you kick them out. After all, it makes treatment more appealing.
Break the Cycle
Ending your enabling is not a one-time deal. Rather, a conscious effort you make every single day; every time you see or hear from your loved one; every time you think about your loved one. Enabling is a habit, and like most habits, it can be broken.
Don't try to do it alone.
It can be hard for us to see the insanity in our own rationalizations — why we “have” to give them money, rides, housing, etc. Getting guidance from professionals or other families in the same situation helps you recognize and make changes. Don’t blow this part off! Call or text (888) 492-0489 for free advice from our Family Wellness Counselors and use the family support group finder. (Then, actually attend).
Set & stick to boundaries.
Once you accept that you need to change and start to recognize your enabling behaviors, the next step is to define and communicate boundaries. Setting boundaries is not a punishment, rejection or abandonment of your loved one. And, communicating these boundaries (or anything else meaningful) is not easy. Boundaries and communication are covered in detail in Session 4 of HopeTracker.
Questions & Advice
If they’re happy with your help, consider if you’re helping them or their addiction. As a rule, don’t do anything that they’d be able to do for themselves if they weren’t addicted. The best way to get answers for specific situations is to talk it over with someone that has experience.
They’re likely more competent, capable and independent than you’re giving them credit for. If they burnt all their bridges and had to live in their car, it’s because of their choices. While it’s sad, it’s not your fault! They need to realize what living in addiction is really like without you protecting them. When they’re ready to make a change, they’ll come to you to talk about treatment.
Expecting your loved one to be rational or to be able to control their use is denial. Accepting blame for their use is denial. So are the thoughts of “It’s not so bad,” “things will get better when…” or “my son isn’t like those ‘bums on the street.’ He goes to work. He’s a responsible person.” Is he really responsible, or are you just picking up the pieces?
You and your loved one have to move past denial to get to sobriety. If you find yourself with thoughts that downplay the situation, remember that addiction is dangerous. Pretending they aren’t sick doesn’t make them any less sick.
That type of extreme enabling is called codependency. In addiction, family members often feel forced to adapt to the lifestyle of the person struggling. If you’re holding on to a one-sided relationship that’s abusive or emotionally destructive, get help from your own therapist immediately. You need to learn to take control of your own happiness.
From the Experts
Dorothy Lerum CAC, ICADC, LICDCClinical Supervisor
After working for over 40 years with loved ones of those struggling with addiction, I’m still amazed by how many start off saying ‘I know I’m enabling, but…’ If a person doesn’t want to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, they’ll try to blame others. Don’t accept blame or try to fix things for them. You’ve done nothing wrong. They need to learn that if they want different outcomes, they’ll have to make different choices.
James English MS, CACPrimary Therapist
You have good intentions — trying to take care of a person you love who is struggling. But, at some point, the caretaking becomes compulsive and defeating. When you enable, other people’s happiness and safety come first. You lose contact with your own needs and sense of self. Meanwhile, your loved one, (who can and should be taking care of themselves) has less confidence in their own resiliency and capabilities and less motivation to change.
My son is an addict. I couldn’t say or even think those words in the beginning. I denied what he was going through. I know now that just prolonged the inevitable. He lost his job and his apartment, so I moved him into my house. He stole from me and pawned my jewelry. I should’ve been more aware, but I didn’t want to believe that he would do that to me. I was in serious denial.
Over a year later, he still couldn’t find a job. I was babysitting and picking up after my 31-year-old son like he was in elementary school. I realized that even though I thought I was helping him, I was actually making it worse. I finally started showing him “tough love.” I passed the misery he was causing me back to him. I found it easier and easier to stand my ground. While it didn’t seem to make much of a difference with his addiction, I started to feel less powerless.
I talked to him less and less. When I did, I just offered treatment, he’d decline, and I’d tell him I love him. That went on for months until one day he said he couldn’t take it anymore. I helped him get the treatment he desperately needed. There were a few bumps after that, but today I have my son back. I’m not locking the doors or hiding my purse. He’s finally a man I can be proud of with a bright future ahead of him.- Regina D.
I’ve never been good at talking about my feelings. When I noticed my husband drinking too much, I just ignored it. I was nervous, angry, worried and hurt by his drinking, but I could never manage to bring up the conversation. I suffered in silence for months.
When I finally did start talking about it, he was angry. He blamed me for driving him to drink. For a time, I questioned if it was my fault. I dwelled on that in my head and found myself compensating by chasing his every need. When he was too hungover to cut the grass, I did it. When he busted his taillight driving home from the bar, I took his car to the shop. When he blacked out and missed his sister’s wedding, I lied to his entire family.
Looking back, it’s obvious I was just as sick as he was. With the help of my own psychologist, I’m able to see that. It wasn’t until I moved out that he realized how serious I was. He started going to AA. I know he wanted to change, but it was never permanent. I, on the other hand, was changing.
He’s in treatment now. I’m hopeful, yet realistic. I haven’t given up on him. But, I refuse to live my life in the chaos of alcohol or drug addiction. Families should look to take this advice much sooner than I did. I’m praying he embraces recovery and we can rebuild our marriage into a healthy, mutually supportive relationship.- Inma S.
Growing up as an only child, I always knew one day the responsibility would fall on me to take care of my parents. Never did I think I’d be opening my door to house my father during his addiction though. My mom had kicked him out of the house, and he had nowhere else to go. He’s my father; I had to take him in.
At first, I didn’t realize how bad things were. I ignored the obvious issues by tolerating them. In my mind, if my wife and kids were ok, I was too. And so, I made sure he was comfortable, safe and happy. I thought if I did that then he would stop.
Eventually, I realized that we were living with an addict and he wasn’t going to change at all. Because, why would he? He didn’t have any reason to. He had a warm bed to sleep on, plenty of food, a car to use, and a television to watch football. I was in denial; and therefore, enabling him by allowing his addiction to continue to exist. Deep down I knew that he was just taking advantage of us, our kindness, and our love. I felt stupid.
So, I too followed in the footsteps of my mother and kicked him out. I didn’t fully understand her rationale at first, but now I do. I had to let go of my father, not because I didn’t love him, but because I did. Detaching with love was the best thing I’ve ever done. Without his lifeline, he hit rock bottom which forced him to seek help. And now he’s working to make amends with the family. One day at a time.- Wyatt P.
My brother was always the life of the party, and a happy drinker, but at some point, things started to change. He started fighting with his wife and having issues with his boss at work, which he often blamed on all the stress at home. Little did we know he was drinking every day and passing out on the floor. She would get angry and argue with him while he was still drunk, which was never productive. Even after I heard about what he was doing, I made excuses for his behavior and always took his side. After all, he was my little brother.
Eventually, Robert had to move back in with our parents. Nothing changed, and his behavior was getting even more appalling. My parents had to watch him wake up with a bottle in his hand almost every morning. It quickly became too much for them to handle, and they asked him to leave. I didn’t want to believe that he had a problem, so I offered to let him stay in my basement for a while. My husband called me an “enabler”. Once he explained that I was harming him by helping him, I realized that all along I had made things worse by defending his behavior.
I immediately did my research and told him he needed help, which he initially refused. He lived in his car for a few days until reality sunk in and he realized that he had lost his marriage, was about to lose his job, and was practically homeless. That is when he decided to go to treatment, which is where he currently is today. I wish I knew how to help him sooner, but I am just grateful that I realized he needed that wakeup call before it was too late.- Denise T.