The Problem of Enabling

NIDA (the National Institute for Drug Abuse), describes enabling as behavior that occurs when a person helps or encourages the addicted person to continue using alcohol or drugs either directly or indirectly. People who enable loved ones nearly always mean well and the enabling actions are presented out of love and concern or most often, fear that that bad things may happen to their addicted friend or family member, including loss of employment, homelessness or illness, or that they may land in jail.

However, enabling sends a message to addicts that the way is clear to continue the destructive behavior, as enabling removes all negative consequences. As a result, most addicts have no real reason to stop using. As horrible as it may sound, negative consequences – even bad ones such as homelessness or a jail sentence, are often exactly the motivation an addicted person needs to finally seek treatment. This is why enabling is so dangerous – it makes things worse for the addicted person by prolonging the disease.

While enabling does absolutely nothing to help an addicted person, it is also unhealthy for enablers, who eventually become resentful, angry and frustrated. Studies indicate that people who enable addicts are more likely to experience adverse outcomes such as anxiety, depression, upset stomach, insomnia, stroke and heart disease.

If you think you may be an enabler, ask yourself: Are you actually helping the person? Or, are you doing more harm than good? Be honest, as enablers tend to make excuses for enabling -- a dangerous form of denial. If you aren’t sure, consider this: Helping a person involves lending a hand with things they are unable to do by themselves. Enabling is different; it involves helping with something a person is capable of doing – and should be doing for themselves.

If you are an enabler, you need to stop for the sake of your friend and family member, and for your own wellbeing. Stopping is tough and requires courage, especially when enabling is motivated by guilt, or by a very common fear that the person will leave or become violent.

When you decide to stop enabling, chances are very good that the reaction from the addicted person, including complaints, guilt, threats and other forms of pushback, will be very difficult to withstand.

If you think you are enabling a person to continue destructive, addictive behavior, consider this advice:

  • It’s absolutely critical to stop enabling, even if you feel like you’re being mean or cruel. For example, don’t call in sick for your loved one when she is too drunk or hung over to work. Don’t bail the person out of tight spots – including jail. If your loved one lands in jail, don’t pay for bail or legal fees. Don’t pay bills – including rent, utilities or groceries.
  • Don’t ignore the addiction or minimize the problem, even if the addicted person makes you feel guilty or becomes angry. Don’t attempt to control the situation or minimize negative consequences.
  • By all means, never drink or use drugs with the addicted person.
  • Avoid blaming, threatening, shaming, nagging or accusing. It only escalates anger; it never helps.
  • Don’t blame yourself for the addiction, and remember that addicts tend to be manipulative in order to continue their behavior. It isn’t your fault and you have a right to set boundaries.
  • Decide what you are willing to tolerate, and then stick to it. You aren’t responsible for stopping the behavior, but that doesn’t mean you have to stand by and watch it happen.
  • Talk to the person calmly when he is sober. Tell the person you love him, but be clear about explaining your boundaries and why you are no longer willing to enable the destructive behavior.
  • Find ways to help your loved one without enabling. For example, encourage the person to enter rehab or attend a 12-Step meeting. Offer to go along.
  • Don’t struggle alone if you find it too difficult to stop enabling. Seek counseling or talk to a trusted friend. Consider joining a support group.

If necessary, talk to a counselor or drug treatment center about staging an intervention. A well-planned intervention offers powerful support for you, and may be the motivation that finally spurs an addicted person to seek treatment.

Stopping enabling is difficult and heartbreaking for all involved. However, it’s only when enabling behavior ceases that the person must decide if they are ready to seek treatment or if they want to continue the destructive behavior. It may not happen immediately, but recovery often begins when the person is forced to accept the harsh consequences of addictive behavior.

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