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Most people are unaware they aren’t enabling their loved one to help them; they are enabling their loved one for themselves. Enabling is not about what it is providing the other person, it is about what comfort it is bringing you when you provide comfort to another person. Many family members enable for the same reason addicts use substances, it feels good and it fills a void or inadequate feeling. One of the biggest reasons that causes family members to continue enabling behaviors is the fear of letting go and the fear of no longer feeling needed in the relationship with the addict. They are scared that if the other person gets better their purpose of being a caretaker may be taken away from them.
There are ways to detach from a substance user and not enable them and still love them. Learning how to put your needs first and being able to detach can greatly increase one’s ability to see why they were enabling. Enabling is never about helping them, it is about comforting you.
What is Enabling?
Enabling in its general definition is providing someone the ability or resources to do something. The question is, what is behind someone providing this comfort and allowing another to operate with impunity and entitlement? When you enable you are making it all about you as the enabler. You are taking away loving resources and attention from others who love and need you. You are providing all of your attention to just one person and others become resentful at you and the one being enabled. You are disabling the enabled party from doing something different. You are preventing them from moving through the stage of change and ultimately seeking help. Below are some common enabling behaviors and why most enablers engage in the behavior:
- Ignoring dangerous behaviors and excessive drinking and drug use – While this is hurting the substance user it is providing comfort to the enabler by avoiding confrontation.
- Providing housing, vehicles, attorneys, financial resources, etc. – This does not hold the substance user accountable and provides the enabler with the belief they are needed as well as keeping the addict happy with them.
- Lying or making excuses to cover for an addict’s behavior – This comforts the addict and in turn comforts the enabler. The enabler feels better because they have protected the addict.
- Resenting your family member or loved one for their addiction – This may not sound like enabling; what is happening is the family member is allowing the addict to make them feel a certain way and as a result, the family member makes bad or ineffective decisions.
- Prioritizing an addict’s needs while ignoring your own – Most enablers do this because they believe they need to help or protect the addict in order for both to feel better and survive. This is a common behavior among Martyrs and family members of addicts who provide financially for the household. It also allows the enabling Martyr to remain a victim and gain empathy and sympathy from others.
- Acting out of fear rather than doing what you know is correct – Most people do not intervene due to the fear of the unknown. This fear is what will happen to them if they say no and even more so if they say yes. If they say no, they may never talk to me again, and if they say yes then I may lose my purpose as their caretaker. If they get better I may no longer be needed in the relationship and if they get better they may not love me anymore because I am not there to help them.
We have to stop focusing on and stating the obvious of what enabling does for the addict; we already know. Talking about it and dissecting it is just a diversion from focusing on what enabling really is. It is doing something for another person because there is a benefit for what is received in return. Enablers continue this behavior even when they know the obvious; what they are doing is harming their loved one. The question is, what is the enabling providing to the enabler that is so great that they continue in spite of knowing it is harming the substance user and the rest of the family system?
What is Detachment?
Detachment is learning how to stop your reactivity to the addict. One of the biggest challenges we professionals have comes after the intervention and when the addict has accepted help and enters treatment. Many would think it is more difficult for the family when they refuse help and sadly this is not the case. The reactivity and inability to detach when we remove the substance user from the family system is astonishing. Families have become addicted to the routine, the chaos, the insanity. When the addict is no longer there to blame, the family instinctively carries out the chaos and drama. Prior to the intervention, the family tells us they can not take it anymore and the addict is incapable of telling the truth. Three days after the intervention the family is screaming at us that their loved one just called with a laundry list of complaints about the facility and what they are saying is 100% true. Families just can’t let go of those reactions and find it impossible to detach. Families can love the addict and not the addiction or the behaviors associated with it. It is ok to say no and it is ok to not react. Here are some examples of detachment that should take place and often do not:
- Learning not to create a crisis or react to a crisis – When they call you, you don’t have to provide an immediate response. Fact check their comments and concerns. Run your responses past your treatment team. It is OK to say NO.
- Learning not to prevent a crisis – The addict should be held accountable. Bad planning and decision making on their part should not constitute an emergency on your part.
- Do Not light yourself on fire so they can be warm – Helping is doing something for somebody that can not do things for themselves. Enabling is helping someone who can do things for themselves and doesn’t have to because you’re taking care of it for them.
- Do Not Parallel your emotions and feelings to theirs – If they feel better you feel better. If they feel worse you feel worse. This is enmeshed codependency and detaching from this rollercoaster is highly advised.
- Do Not allow yourself to be the cause of their problems – The addict runs around with their blame thrower on full blast at all times. Allowing yourself to feel bad feeds their justification that everything and everyone else is the problem. This also fills you with guilt and shame. Detach from their blame throwing and take care of yourself.
- Enter family recovery and self help groups such as Al-Anon – You are not responsible for their addiction and you are responsible for your recovery. You are also not responsible for your loved ones’ recovery. You have no control over them and you have full control over how you choose to react to them.
Considerations On How to Stop Enabling
Stopping enabling behaviors is not easy. A substance user stopping drugs or alcohol has to get to the root cause of the behaviors that lead to the addiction. For families, it is the same strategy. Looking only at what the enabling is doing for the substance user is like the substance user only looking at what the drugs or alcohol is doing for them. The question is why are they using the substance and what benefit does it bring? An enabler can best change their behaviors by detaching and entering their own recovery program to uncover why it is they feel the need to enable and what they are receiving from helping another person. This is important especially when they know they are hurting the substance user, themselves, and others. Here are some possible considerations that can help someone look at why they are enabling:
- The next time you provide the addict with money, ask yourself why you are giving them the money. What are you getting from providing them financial resources?
- The next time you are covering for them or making excuses, ask yourself why you are doing that. What relief does this provide you in exchange for covering for behaviors that you know are destructive and unhealthy?
- The next time you choose to not get them help, ask yourself why. What does being a Martyr victim do for you? Enablers that are Marty’s scream from the top of the mountain for help and when solutions are presented they are either shot down or not followed through on; Why?
- The next time the addict berates you and manipulates you with guilt or shame, ask yourself why you allow this. Are you afraid that if you stand up to them that it will create a confrontation that you are trying to avoid?
- The next time someone else in your family talks you out of bringing in professional help, ask them how they are benefitting from not getting the family or substance user help. Family system dysfunction often pits families against one another. Certain family roles are threatened by the substance user getting better. Certain family members are afraid to give up their maladaptive family role and the unhealthy coping mechanisms that come with it. Let’s face it, this felt like it was working until it wasn’t.
Families are often angered at these explanations, especially the last one in regards to not wanting the person to get better. It is more or less about families staying in their uncomfortable comfort zone. Certain family roles such as the perfectionist hero are threatened by the substance user getting better. If they do, then the hero may lose their role and spotlight as the overachieving family member. These are all forms of enabling. Far too often we classify enabling with obvious examples such as providing money and housing. Enabling and the reasons behind it run far deeper than family members are able to see on the surface.
How to Support Without Enabling
You can always let the addict know that what you have been doing is not working for them and yourself. You can concede to your mistakes and offer them professional help in exchange for your ineffective help. The addict has a right to use substances and you have the right to detach and stop enabling the behaviors and addiction. It is always helpful to set healthy boundaries and provide them with effective professional resources. Letting them know that you would be happy to discuss things with them after they are in treatment.
Please consider taking the following suggestions that can help both the family and the addict:
- Learn About Addiction: Understanding what your loved one is up against in their addiction and their recovery can help families better understand what they can do differently. Al-Anon groups for yourself and attending Open Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings can be very helpful too. Open AA and NA meetings are available to anyone and all are welcome. One does not need to be an alcoholic or addict to attend. Closed meetings are reserved exclusively for addicts and alcoholics. Professional interventionists do a great job of bridging the gap between family and addiction too.
- Attend and Participate in Family Therapy: It is without question that a healthy family increases the chances an addict can get better. Even if they do not get better right away, the family can still change and improve their quality of life. Individual therapy, self-help groups, workshops, Family Recovery Programs are all helpful for families to learn the benefits of detachment and the destruction of enabling.
- Set Boundaries and Learn Effective Communication Skills: Boundaries are your way of saying I love you and I don’t love your addiction or your current behaviors. Boundaries are another way of saying that you love yourself and other family members who are affected by your enabling and unhealthy behaviors. Learning how to effectively communicate with an addict still using substances or in early recovery helps both you and them. If what you were doing wasn’t working it is time to try something different.
- Engage in Self Care for Yourself: Many family members of addicts and alcoholics have forgotten who they are or what they want for themselves. Taking time for yourself and engaging in activities that you enjoy or trying new ones is a helpful way to take care of yourself and detach from them. You can’t fix them and you can’t control them. Setting boundaries and following the suggestions above while engaging in healthy activities can be very helpful for both you and the addict.
Enabling provided by the family that has produced entitlement for the addict does not disappear overnight. It takes work to undo years of unhealthy strategies that have compromised the family’s sanity and the addicts’ recovery. The addict will not become well in one day and neither will the family. The process has to start somewhere if conditions are to improve. Staying where you are isn’t sustainable. You either get better or you and the substance user become worse. Addiction is chronic and progressive and without professional help or some form of intervention it becomes worse and never better.
Family First Intervention can help both your family and loved one
Family First Intervention works with the family of the addict to help educate them and create self-awareness. The more a family understands addiction, enabling, and family roles the better opportunity they have to make healthier choices. We have seen the destruction addiction brings to both the family and the addict. When one side gets better it allows the other side to follow suit. When families enter recovery and are able to set boundaries and hold their loved one accountable they can increase the opportunity their loved one will see the need for change and the benefits of growth in that change.
It is helpful for families to understand that they are in no position to control their loved one nor are they in a position to get them better. We try to help families understand this and allow them to see things from a different perspective. There is always another way to look at a problem. It is often wise to look at those other options when you’re not emotionally attached, affected by the problem, or flooded emotionally with the problem. You expect your loved one to go to treatment and follow directions from professionals. Families receive the same benefits when they follow that same path.