Humans are remarkably selfless creatures. We’ve all helped others in some way – whether it’s emotionally, physically, or financially – and continuously encourage those close to us to succeed in life. This instinct is compounded when we see someone having a hard time, such as when they’re suffering from the disease of addiction. Unfortunately, people who are eager to lend a hand may cross over into the territory of enabling someone to abuse drugs and alcohol. Sometimes that line feels blurred, and it’s difficult for to know whether you’re helping or hurting in the long run. Today, we’ll help answer that age-old question: How do you know if you’re empowering or enabling?
What is Helping?
It’s healthy to be there for loved ones who are going through a tough time, especially those in the throes of addiction. Helping an addict takes many forms, including respectful confrontation about unacceptable behavior and concern for their wellbeing. You may hold them accountable for their responsibilities or lend an ear when they need to talk about conflicts at work or school. Maybe you’re working on self-care by prioritizing your own healthy lifestyle and setting boundaries with your loved one – not making her your personal project. All of these behaviors empower the addict to reflect on their actions and their effect on others. They also ensure that you’re not responsible for anything that they could be doing themselves.
The Big Difference
Addiction expert Karen Khaleghi, Ph.D., neatly sums up the gulf between helping and enabling: “enabling means offering help that perpetuates – rather than solves – a problem.”
Enabling behavior could take many forms. Do you make excuses for a spouse’s erratic behavior or absence from events? Have you allowed a child to stay home for long periods of time, calling the school to excuse him or her? Do you loan money, fix things that the addict has broken, or bail them out of a variety of difficult situations? Have you lied for them, or explained away their behavior as a phase?
By stepping in to “solve” an addict’s problems, you’re shielding them from the natural consequences of their actions. This removes motivation for the addict to take responsibility for their behavior and begin making positive changes.
I’m an Enabler – What Do I Do Now?
First, be gentle with yourself. Understand that you’re doing all of these things from a place of love and concern. It’s easy to feel like you should take care of everything in your loved one’s life when they’re struggling. However, it’s also incredibly important that you let the addict feel the consequences of their choices. If you’re shielding them from issues at home, work, or school, it’s unlikely that they’ll hit their rock bottom. Many addiction experts believe that hitting rock bottom is the greatest motivator for those with substance use disorders to seek help. If you’re protecting them from these signs, an addict may not even realize that they have a problem. In this way, you’re suffering more than the person with the drug or alcohol addiction.
Once you’ve seen the toll enabling can take on yourself and your loved one, it’s time to change your behavior.
How to Stop Enabling
At this point, you need to set firm boundaries with yourself. It’s okay to support someone, but it’s not alright to shoulder the burden of their addiction for them. One simple first step is to stop cleaning up after them and moving them into bed when they pass out. This may seem cruel or unnecessary, but every mess creates evidence that they’re blacking out, not functioning, and that help is needed. Say no to paying their rent, doing their homework, or job hunting for them. Keep your plans, even if the addict attempts to disrupt them. If you’re blamed for what happens, stand firm and explain your position. Choose to remove yourself from a heated conversation in favor of something you’d rather be doing – whether it’s attending a support meeting or reading a new book. Don’t be manipulated out of your newfound independence.
You may fear the consequences of lessening your support – what if your friend, spouse, or child loses his job, or receives a DUI? What if others find out about his substance use disorder, and it’s not a family secret anymore? The first step of the 12 Step program is to admit your powerlessness over addiction – and, by extension, the addict in your life. You can’t force anyone to receive help, nor can you nag them into receiving treatment. What you can do is allow them to clearly see the consequences of their drug or alcohol dependency, including all its effects on their personal and professional life. Over time, these signs can show your loved one that they should seek help. If you’d like more information about what recovery looks like, call 575.613.9014 to speak with our Admissions specialists.