When a loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol, it is natural for families to downplay the severity of the problem and try to help. While their intentions are good, when “helping” is preventing the user from experiencing the full consequences of his or her substance abuse, then it becomes enabling.
What’s the difference between helping and enabling?
Helping is doing something for someone that they are not capable of doing themselves. Enabling is doing things that they could and should be doing themselves.
Common examples of enabling include:
- Blaming other people or situations for the addict’s bad behavior
- Ignoring or minimizing the addict’s negative or potentially dangerous behavior
- Taking care of responsibilities for the addict: loaning them money or paying their bills, housekeeping, running errands, providing childcare, etc.
- Lying to cover up for the addict
- Bailing them out of jail or paying their legal fees
- Avoiding talking about the addict’s alcohol or drug abuse because you’re afraid of the response
- Consuming drugs or alcohol with the addict to order to manage their intake level and keep an eye on them
- Attempting to control the addict: planning activities, choosing friends, securing jobs, etc.
- Giving the addict chances and not following through on boundaries you have set if promises are broken
- Resenting the addict: The result of the above behaviors is that the enabler will likely feel angry and hurt. An enabler may resent the addict and continue to enable the addiction.
For anyone who loves an addict, the guilt and fear of what might happen to the addict without them, traps them into a cycle of enabling. Friends and family of an addict may condition themselves to believe that by making life easier for the addict, they will eventually realize they need to turn their life around. However, by acting as a cushion for the addict, the addict has no reason to change their ways and seek treatment. Every time you catch them when they fall, they are reassured that you will next time. Enabled addicts lose faith in themselves and do not respect loved ones who make it easier for them to continue abusing drugs or alcohol.
How to stop enabling and start helping
- DO NOT put the addict’s needs above your own. Never allow the addict to put you in situations which may endanger yourself or others.
- DO NOT do things to “help” the addict that they could or would be doing if they weren’t drinking or doing drugs. This means to stop giving money, paying bills, providing food or housing, meeting needs, cleaning up messes, and otherwise picking up the slack that the addict would normally take care of if sober.
- DO NOT lie, cover up, or make excuses for the addict, even if it means they might lose their job or face other consequences.
- DO NOT rescue the addict by bailing them out of jail or paying for legal expenses.
- DO NOT react negatively to the addict’s latest missteps. This is easier said than done, but reacting negatively allows the addict to respond to your reaction rather than taking responsibility for his or her own actions. If you remain quiet or if you go on with your life as if nothing has happened, then the addict is left with nothing to respond to except his or her own actions. If you react negatively, you are giving them an emotional out.
- DO NOT give ultimatums or threats.
- DO make boundaries, communicate them clearly to the addict, and stick to them. You cannot control another person’s behavior, but you can stand firm on what you will not accept in your life.
- DO seek support. Al‑Anon, Alateen and Nar-Anon are mutual support groups that specifically help the loved ones of alcoholics and drug addicts. SMART Recovery is a secular alternative to Al-Anon. These support groups can help an addict’s loved ones to distance their emotions from the disease and cope with the situation. While there are frequent in-person meetings, virtual meetings are also available. You may also want to consider going to family and/or individual therapy sessions. A professional can offer an outsider’s perspective and help to break the cycle of enabling.
- DO keep in mind that recovery is an ongoing process and problems may not all magically disappear when an addicts quits drinking or using drugs. This is when a strong support system can be especially helpful.
- DO weigh your options for short-term and long-term pain. When you find yourself questioning whether or not to do something that would benefit the addict, think about whether “helping” now is actually prolonging the addiction because you are saving the addict from feeling the full weight of his or her actions.