What Is Enabling? How Can I Stop It?
Enabling: When we love someone, we want them to be safe and happy….especially our children and closest family. Anyone who cares about someone who struggles with addiction knows how hard it can be to stand by and watch them throw their lives away. They can continually make poor choices that endanger their own safety and peace of mind. They can drain our physical and emotional resources until we feel we have nothing left. You may be asking yourself:
- Why are they doing this?
- How can I sit by and allow all this happen?
- How much help is TOO MUCH help?
- Am I enabling and making things worse?
- What if they end up dead because I didn’t keep them safe?
“To rescue people from the natural consequences of their actions is to render them helpless.”
“I never would have gotten sober if my Mom hadn’t thrown me out of the house.”
Simply put, “enabling” is behavior that comes from the heart. We can enable a friend, family member or child out of a sense of love and loyalty. In order to protect them from the consequences of their behavior, we are ultimately robbing them of the experience they need to find a solution for themselves. Enabling can come in different forms. Maybe it is a “little white lie” to your son’s boss so he won’t get fired. Maybe it is just a little bit of money so your brother can get something to eat. Or, it can be huge sacrifices, like paying someone’s bills or letting them live with you so they don’t have to live on the streets. Regardless of the form, when we enable the addictive behaviors of others, we can end up harming them even more.
The term “enabling” has gotten a bad rap in the press and media lately. It implies that we are not strong enough to give the tough love our children or family needs. In the real world of addictive behaviors and family dynamics, the issue can be far more intricate and confusing. Relationships, personalities and situations can be vastly different, so how can there be a clear-cut way to know if you are enabling?
How can we convince a drug addict or alcoholic to seek help?
The answer is plain and simple. We don’t. Someone who struggles with substance abuse cannot be persuaded to stop. We can beg, plead, even threaten. Addiction is stronger than any emotional appeal from loved ones. An addict will not get help and do the work to stay sober for anyone else: not children, parents, husbands or wives. Jobs, possessions and worldly rewards are not enticing enough to fight the mental states that come with drug addiction and alcoholism. In a vast majority of cases, the ONLY thing that will make an addict seek help and stay sober is to hit “bottom.” When someone has hit “bottom” they are faced with the consequences of their addiction and feel they absolutely must change their lives. Some may need to lose everything: their home, family, job. Some people’s lowest point may be less severe. We call this “high bottom.” Whether someone is homeless or just inwardly miserable, the addict or alcoholic needs some kind of consequences to see that they need to change. Take away the consequences or soften the blow and we rob them of that experience. Enabling allows the addict to stay in their addiction for far longer than they would without help.
Signs that you are enabling
Have you taken financial responsibility for your loved one’s commitments?
Have you taken over your child’s car payments because they couldn’t pay them? Have you paid someone’s rent? Health Insurance? It seems harsh, but letting someone face what happens when they use their resources for drugs instead of taking care of their commitments can quickly make a loved one see how their addiction is negatively affecting their life.
Do you minimize or ignore the severity of the problem
Do you turn the other way when your loved one engages in dangerous and illegal activities? Do you doubt yourself and assume that you are making it a bigger deal than it is? Remember, drug addiction and alcoholism are deadly. Jail, hospitals and the morgue are the final destinations for your loved one if they continue on the path they are on. It doesn’t get any more serious than that.
Have you lied to cover up behavior?
Do you lie to employers, friends and family to cover up your loved one’s behavior? Are you trying to protect their job or reputation? Do you tell people your loved one is sick when they are really hung over or still out from the night before?
Do you find it impossible to say “no?”
You may have made up your mind to stop the enabling behavior, like loaning money. But your child or family member shows up with a terribly sad story and you just HAVE to give them a little bit of money to help them get out of that scrape. Addicts are very good at manipulating the emotions of others to get what they want. They know how to appeal to your better nature and make any story sound dire. You may think, “It would take a cold heart to say no to this request, but NEXT TIME, I am going to say no.”
Are you sacrificing your livelihood and peace of mind to protect your loved one?
Have you faced eviction or repossession because your addicted child is in your life. Has their risky and dangerous behavior gotten you in trouble with authorities or creditors? Do you continue to shelter and protect this loved one even at the expense of the safety and happiness of others in the household?
Are you sacrificing your health and safety?
People behave erratically when they are in the throes of alcohol or drugs. They can be dangerous to themselves. They can hang out with dangerous, unpredictable people and place you and your family in danger by association. These outward dangers can pale in comparison to the emotional and physical toll someone’s addiction can take on us. The sleepless nights, the dreaded phone calls from authorities, the countless “what-if’s” that go through our minds when we don’t know where our loved one is. These stresses are silent killers robbing you of your energy and overall health.
Are you afraid to talk about what is going on with your loved one because they might react badly?
People who are in the grips of addiction can be unpredictable and moody. Some think that our emotional growth stops when we start using drugs or alcohol compulsively. If that is true, a 50 year old woman may behave with the maturity of a teenager. The prospect of facing erratic emotional behavior can make us just want to skirt any pressing issues. In an effort to keep the peace we can be allowing things to get much worse.
Has your life become unmanageable because of someone else’s addiction?
Some of us have faced eviction. legal problems and relationship difficulties because we cannot let go of a loved one who is addicted to drugs or alcohol. If we cannot set boundaries that allow us and the other people in the family to thrive, everyone loses.
Are you allowing someone to behave badly because you feel guilty?
When someone we love, especially a child, has fallen prey to drug or alcohol addiction, we can feel it is our fault. Maybe we made poor choices as parents or didn’t teach our children how to handle life and act right. Remember this, an addict will use your guilty conscience to manipulate you. While certainly sick and in need of help, they are not being helped if you give them money or a place to live because you feel guilty. The way to get rid of guilt is to change your behavior so your child or loved one will be forced to change THEIR behavior. Open the door to a new relationship and show them (and anyone else involved) what it looks like to be strong.
How to stop enabling a drug addict or alcoholic
Okay. You see that you are enabling and ultimately making the situation worse by offering the wrong kind of help. How do you stop the cycle of manipulation and guilt? The suggestions below have worked for many people and could work for your situation. Every situation is different, however, and the best decisions in a life-or-death situation like this are best made when we are well versed in our options. We suggest that you get help. There are many meetings, programs and therapists that can help you know what to do. There is no reason to be ashamed. Drug and alcohol addiction affects us all. So pick up the phone, look up that meeting place, and take advantage of the resources available to you. Below are some links that can help you get started.
Get help for yourself: The most important thing you need to do is get help and advice from others. Twelve Step meetings and therapy are the best choices. Al-Anon and Nar-anon meetings are held in a wide variety of places and at many different times. These meetings are attended by people who are dealing with situations just like yours. The twelve –step recovery model helps us to see what we can and cannot control in our lives and shifts our focus to internal healing and strength. One of the best things about an Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meeting is connecting with others who share their experience and can offer advice and support. Therapy is always a good idea as well. Contact someone who is familiar with addiction and can help you find the internal guidance and strength you need to deal with any situation.
Stage an Intervention: Having family members gather and communicate grievances and support can help an addict see how their behavior is affecting the people they love. Many times, this can be the one thing that will make an addict or alcoholic seek help. There are very specific ways to do an intervention, so do not try to stage one without professional help. Visit our blog page to learn about interventions and what to expect. If you need professional help, please call us, we can put you in touch with a professional. (800) 247-6111. Please visit our blog post to learn more.
Set Boundaries: Sounds easier said than done, right? How can you reverse years of behavior patterns between yourself and your loved one? How do you just start saying “no” when the answer has always been yes before? It may be very difficult at first. You may doubt yourself and want to give in to an addicts request “just this one time.” Get very clear about the things you need in your life to be happy and healthy and do not allow your child or loved one to infringe on these things. You need to do certain things to maintain your lifestyle, health and happiness. You may need to go to work, a certain amount of alone time or time with others, or you may need to stop lending money so you can pay your bills. Let them know that you are there to help them if they want to get real help for their addiction, but they cannot have the time and resources you need to feel happy and safe.
Decide to cut off all financial help RIGHT NOW! From here on out they buy their own food. They buy themselves a car or take the bus. If they don’t have money…they get a job! If they live with you, they start paying rent. If they can find the money and resources to drink or do drugs, they can find the resources to eat, sleep and take care of themselves.
Say “NO” and keep saying “NO”! Can he borrow 20 bucks? “NO!” How about just 10 bucks? “NO!” Can she borrow the car to go to the job interview? “NO!” Can they stay on the couch for just a few days? “NO!” In jail? Need someone to bail them out? “NO!” Say no and keep saying no. DO NOT back down! The situation may look dire, like they will never get themselves out of this scrape. Say “NO” anyway! Until your child or loved one can actually experience the terrible lows and demoralizing, horrible times that come with addiction, they will never get help. They will continue to use drugs or drink until they are dead. Do not back down
No means no. Never soften and say “Okay, but just this once.” An addict or an alcoholic will use any signs of weakness to manipulate you and get what they want. If “no” sometimes doesn’t really mean “no” then your child or friend will not feel forced to find other options.
“We cripple people who are capable of walking by choosing to carry them.”
On the other side
Listen, we know that if you are reading this article, you know the toll addiction can take. It can ruin lives, deplete resources, damage health, well-being and shatter relationships. If you are watching someone you love tear their life apart with drugs and alcohol it can be gut wrenching. Setting boundaries and cutting off resources to an addict can also seem impossible. What if they get killed on the streets or need food or shelter and I don’t know where they are? Contemplating the myriad “what-if’s” is maddening.
What if we looked at different “what if’s?” What can happen on the other side? What if you say no and keep saying “no” until your child gives up and decides to get help? What if your brother or husband or friend hits rock bottom out there and walks in to an AA meeting one day instead of the liquor store? What if the person you love so much can turn their life around and become the person they were always meant to be? What if they become happy, healthy and filled with joy and purpose instead of hopelessness? Is the pain of saying “no” and setting boundaries worth these what ifs?
When you feel weakened and want to help your addict, remember why you are doing this. Saying “no,” cutting someone off financially, interventions and al-anon meetings are all acts of love and kindness. You are doing the very best things you can for someone you love. Write down your intentions and keep that paper with you so you don’t forget. Decide today to do something constructive for yourself and the people around you who are not addicted to drugs or alcohol. By helping yourself and making your child or loved one fend for themselves, you may be giving them the best gift they could ever receive: enough desperation to change their lives and find sobriety.