The desire to help your loved ones meet their recovery goals can be a source of strength and motivation for someone who is struggling with addiction. But for some people, the need to help becomes so strong it’s impossible to recognize when the line between helping and enabling is crossed. By definition, enabling is essentially the same as “empowering,” or helping a person achieve things they could not on their own.
Parents help children, grandparents help grandchildren and friends help each other whenever someone has a need. Enabling, unlike helping, is allowing unhealthy choices and behaviors not only to continue but to become even worse through the actions of the enabler.1
Enabling is incredibly common for families of people with longstanding addictions. Reversing enabling behaviors can be difficult, but it’s those changes that foster lasting change in your addicted loved one.
Joseph is an alcoholic, and his drink of choice is vodka. With a few gulps of his trusty bottle, he can transition from a mild-mannered man with a breezy disposition into an angry, abusive man who throws things and terrorizes his family. His wife, hoping to help, stocks the kitchen refrigerator with beer. If she can just get Joseph to switch to a less intoxicating substance, he won’t be quite so abusive.
Families of an addicted person will do almost anything to make the person they love stop using, and yet, they often purchase the drug of choice just to keep the peace. According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, two-thirds of teens and young adults that abuse prescription medications get them from friends and family members or acquaintances.2
When an addiction is in play, all offers of alcohol and drugs should cease immediately.
The person shouldn’t be encouraged to drink after a bad day or to take a pill due to a low mood. Instead, the person struggling should receive positive messages to stay sober and should never have access to drugs or alcohol, especially from family members.
Marie has a longstanding addiction to prescription painkillers, and on Friday night, she stumbles across an entire stash of pills in a neighbor’s medicine cabinet. Over the weekend, she has a binge party of her own, taking in all the pills in a spree she can’t really remember. When Monday rolls around, her boyfriend feels sorry for her and calls her workplace to let them know she is sick. Then he calls in sick himself and spends the day caring for Marie, hoping that his kindness will inspire her to stay sober the next week.
With the current opioid crisis at epidemic proportions across the U.S., it’s likely that many people struggling with addiction are employed at some level.3 Keeping them out of the workplace when they’re recovering from a binge may seem like the smart thing to do. After all, you don’t want your loved one to lose her job. Nursing them to health might also help families feel as though they’re doing something useful, rather than just watching helplessly as the addiction takes its toll.
- Physical pain
- Emotional embarrassment
- Loss of employment
- Social shunning
These consequences allow the person to feel all of the pain an addiction. Recognizing the damage drug abuse causes can be a catalyst for change in your loved one’s life. Without consequences, the person struggling has no motivation to get clean and stay sober.
Dealing with Finances
Andy was paid on Monday, and by Tuesday, he’d drained the family checking account in order to pay for drugs, leaving Susan with no money to pay rent. She chose to keep the account open and picked up extra shifts at work so she could keep their apartment without paying a fine. She mentioned the incident to Andy but didn’t make any other changes. The following month, Andy did the same thing.
Since the drive to use is more powerful than anything, people who struggle with addiction are unable to make good financial decisions. Families that have joint accounts can find their finances quickly depleted because their loved one can’t stop buying drugs. Opening separate accounts can be helpful, as it can ensure that a family’s cash isn’t spent on drugs or alcohol.
It can also help to have separate budgets with each person expected to contribute a certain amount to household expenses.
This can give sober family members control over how their salaries are spent, and they’ll have the peace of mind of knowing that they’re not paying for the behaviors that are tearing their families apart.
The Importance of Self-Care
From the moment he wakes up in the morning to the moment he falls asleep at night, Liam wonders whether or not Linda is using drugs. Days in which she doesn’t use are considered good, but when she slips, Liam falls into depression. He no longer participates in hobbies or does anything voluntarily that doesn’t involve Linda, even though she disappoints him. Her behavior is the focus of his life.
For families of addicted people, everything revolves around the decisions an addicted person makes. They may feel that they have little control over their own happiness, and often, they fall into despair as a result. Getting out and doing something that doesn’t involve the addicted person, or doesn’t involve thinking about the addicted person, can help.
In Psychology Today, Dr. J. Wesley Boyd encourages family members to take care of themselves while helping an addicted loved one take steps towards recovery. He offers the following five steps as essential for family members with an addicted loved one:
- Educate yourself about addiction– Learning the signs and clues that your loved one using helps you see things you may not have otherwise. Knowledge is power. Having the right information can increase your awareness of the addiction that might have gone unnoticed.
- Don’t allow yourself to be abused– Family members of substance abusers are often abused emotionally, as well as financially and physically. Family members must take reasonable steps to protect themselves from such abuse.
- Recognize enabling behavior and don’t collude with the user or cover up the abuse– Don’t lie to employers, creditors or pay the person’s bills. Natural consequences of a person’s actions are road signs to change.
- Seek professional help if any part of your life is in jeopardy– If you become beaten down by your loved one’s addiction your job, housing, the ability to buy food and your overall ability to function is at risk. Seek professional help if you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed by current situation.
- Attend to your own health and well-being– It is impossible to be fully present and make good decisions for others when your own health needs aren’t being met. Eat right, exercise, get quality sleep and keep all of your doctor’s appointments. By staying in the best health possible you’re more able to help your loved one break free from addiction.4
Support Groups for Families
Jim has lived with his alcoholic mother for 30 years, and he’s never mentioned a single word to anyone about her habits. He doesn’t tell his friends about the times he cleans vomit from the bathroom, or the times he’s picked her up from jail. He doesn’t tell his neighbors that the screams they hear are due to her alcoholic rages. He suffers alone and in silence, as he’s just sure no one else would understand.
Support groups for families of alcoholics can reduce the sense of isolation, as family members have the opportunity to meet peers who are sharing the same kinds of struggles in response to the same kinds of stimulus. The group can share tips and tricks they’ve used in order to stop enabling the behavior, and the members of the group can support one another when times are tough and the urge to enable begins to grow once more.
Participating in a support group can also help family members to learn more about how addictions progress, and how they are treated. This information can help them to more adequately help the person in their midst, and it can help them to perform more informed interventions that could entice the person to accept the help of a formal treatment program for addiction.
Finding Help Through Intervention
Some families include their anti-enabling steps in their formal intervention for addiction. They tell the addicted person why they’d like addiction treatment to begin, and they outline how treatment works, but the end of the intervention provides them with the opportunity to declare their intention to change. They specify the ways in which they will no longer harbor the addiction, and they discuss how they’ll begin to focus on their own healing and their own happiness, regardless of what their loved one in the throes of addiction might do. Then, when the changes come, the addict isn’t surprised, and the resolution is a little easier to stick to.
If you’d like to hold a CRAFT Intervention, or you just want to find out more about how you can live a healthy life in the midst of addiction, call our 24-hour helpline, 760-548-4032, and speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.
1 “Are You Empowering or Enabling?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers. 11 July 2012.
2 “Safeguard Against Medicine Abuse: Securing and Disposing Medications.” Partnership for Drug-Free Kids - Where Families Find Answers. 11 June 2018.
3 National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Opioid Overdose Crisis.” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). 6 Mar. 2018.
4 “Five Must-Do Things If a Family Member Is Abusing Drugs.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 11 June 2018.
5 “How Compassion Can Help You Support an Addicted Loved One.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 3 Oct. 2016.