Putting an End to “Enabling” Addiction

If you’ve came to this site because you need help with someone you love who struggles with addiction, then you’re in the right place. Enabling, as it relates to the disease of addiction can be defined as: The act of doing something for an addict, in an attempt to help, that they could or should be doing for themselves.

One of the most dangerous things we can do is enable an addict because it makes it easier for them to continue in the progression of their disease.


Enabling Addiction is the #1 Cause of Deaths Among Addicts

According to Families Against Narcotics even though families will try to help a fellow family member with their addiction, they end up doing more harm than good. When we do too much for the alcoholic or addict in our family it creates a clear pathway for them to continue using and abusing their drug of choice. If the addict had to take responsibility for him or herself – without family interference or bailout – they would actually be better off. It really only takes one member of the family to enable an addict, especially if that member wants to shield their disease from the outside world, or even the rest of the family.


What Constitutes Enabling

Imagine you are living with an alcoholic whose drinking has been out of control for sometime. One night after just finishing off a bottle of whiskey, they decide to go on a joy ride. Keep in mind when a person drinks alcohol about 20% is absorbed instantly in the stomach, and then remaining amount travels to the rest of the body including the brain. The full effect of the alcohol isn’t felt instantly but soon it will be. Within a few minutes of starting the car the alcoholic becomes blackout drunk. The impairment leads to them hitting a pole and now the front bumper is dangling from the car by a thread. They are momentarily startled and manage to park the car at home. They stumble into the house and pass out, barely aware of what they’ve just done.

When you wake up in the morning you look out the window and see the damaged bumper. You’re upset but not terribly surprised. Adrenalin kicks in and your immediate concern is getting the car off the driveway and to the auto body shop. You don’t want the neighbors to see the damage and pass judgment, or have the other members of the household ask questions or worry. The car is swiftly removed and you’ve dodged having to give explanations, all the while the alcoholic is just “sleeping it off”. We may think doing “damage control” is helpful but in the long run it’s not. The alcoholic doesn’t get to remember hitting the pole as a bad, embarrassing or dangerous experience and feel discouraged by the act of drinking and driving. Their actions have virtually no consequence; it’s a slight inconvenience at most and you have given them the green light to do it all over again.


Ten Steps to Breaking the Enabling Cycle


1. Acknowledge that Enabling has taken place:

Enabling happens for many reasons including our desire to spare the addict or the whole family from embarrassment. Because of the “family mentality” and our urge to help and protect our loved ones, we may not realize we are doing anything wrong, let alone that we’re fostering behavior that carries great risk to the addict and others. It’s time to open your eyes, step out of denial, and begin to recognize the subtle things you may have done that constitute enabling.


2. Reach out to others with experience:

Learning that you’ve been enabling an addict, despite good intentions, can be hard to admit. Enabling is something that most families don’t talk about. Sweeping the enabling behavior under the rug seems the easiest option; you just hope you don’t have to bail them out again or that nobody finds out that you did. It’s time to break that cycle!

This website and peer support groups can be your best resource in identifying enabling patterns and learning how to break them. These support groups are made up of parents, spouses, and family members that have gone through similar experiences, and you can take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. You’ll come to find that topics such as addiction and enabling are now mainstream.


3. Communicate about the changes that need to be implemented:

If you haven’t yet educated yourself on the disease of addiction it behooves you to attend an Al-Anon meeting (see step two above). New Al-Anon attendees report that it wasn’t until they’d been to several meetings that they began to understand their own codependency issues and the disease of addiction. As you participate, or even just listen, you’re gaining the knowledge and strength to talk to your loved one about how and why past enabling behaviors must now shift.

There’s going to be a new dynamic between you and your loved one and that should be made clear. Chose a time when your loved one is sober to explain this so they can absorb the gravity of the situation. They may be shocked to learn you won’t be making accommodations for them as you had in the past, but tell them it doesn’t mean you’ve stopped loving them. This is love in its toughest form, but you’d actually be showing them less love and concern for their safety by letting them stay on this dangerous path. Tough love requires you to set and enforce boundaries and define their consequences.

Make sure your loved one knows it’s safe for them to speak honestly, and don’t be afraid to ask them open-ended questions to get the ball rolling. Be obliged to share your own fear that your prior actions contributed to the progress of their addiction. Always do your best to keep a positive tone and be prepared for them not to take this first conversation without pushing back on you or trying to manipulate the situation in their favor.


4. Find Strength in Numbers:

Now that you and your family have made the choice to stop enabling the addict, agree to stick together in that decision. All of you may have given in to or been manipulated by the addicted person in the past, therefore it’s best to limit one-on-one time with them while the shift occurs. The family should remain unified and not give in to the pressure or guilt coming from the addicted loved one. You don’t have to fear being around them nor do you want them to feel alienated; you’re simply taking precautions so nobody enables their addiction.


5. Stop Concealing and Making Excuses

Often times the addicted person has no recollection of what transpired when under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It only takes one or two drinks to cause a change in a person’s demeanor and even memory loss. The more people drink, or get high on drugs, the less likely they are to be in touch with what’s going on. This can cause a person to miss work or even pass out on the front yard after they’ve been out drinking or getting high.

Don’t make excuses or try to cover up the less than flattering behavior of the addict. If an employer calls for the addicted person asking where they are or why they’re late, don’t lie about their whereabouts or vaguely say, “They aren’t feeling well”. If they pass out on the lawn, don’t assemble a team to move them before the neighbors see. It’s much more dignifying for them to wake up in their own bed than to wake up on the lawn, but that’s not going to help them make future choices that will prevent it from happening again. Let them be humbled, feel remorse, face the consequences of their actions and ultimately have the dignity to fail.


6. Don’t Support the Disease:

In the U.S. alcohol is served in many different settings, both public and private, to include sporting events, weddings, baby showers, restaurants, movie theaters and airplanes. Well over half of American adults drink alcohol on some occasion. Because alcohol is so common at social gatherings and celebrations it seems “normal” to have a drink when in attendance. Can someone who has struggled with alcohol have a celebratory drink at a party here and there, or after a full week of making it to work and being sober? No, they CANNOT. To understand why this isn’t ok you have to consider what’s going on in the mind and body of the addict, and how they are truly powerless to the disease of addiction.

Addicts and alcoholics have become dependent on drugs and alcohol due to several factors that include: genetics, environmental triggers, past trauma, and activity in the midbrain. The midbrain, or unconscious part of the brain controls our involuntary actions related to survival. For example it signals us to breath and feel hungry because we need air and food to survive. It also plays an integral role in an addict’s behavior. When using their drug of choice, an addict’s midbrain says, “that feels good” and signals the body to do whatever it takes to keep that high. The “high” to the midbrain is now a part of survival. Because the addict can build a tolerance to a drug after sustained long term use, they end up needing more and more of it to reach that high. That’s why we see the lives of addicts and alcoholics, including our loved ones spiral out of control.

Addiction is a part of their brain and once it’s triggered by a past drug memory and that euphoric “high” feeling the floodgates will open. The brain then tells them, “keep going, go ahead have another two or three or four more drinks” because the feeling of drinking is ingrained in them as a means of survival. Even if an addict never had an alcohol problem in the past, but instead abused narcotic drugs such as cocaine or heroin, it doesn’t mean it’s ok for them to drink. It’s trading apples for oranges, except in this case it’s replacing one addictive substance for another. Once the addiction triggers are sent to the midbrain the whole cycle starts up again.

Realize that addiction is a disease that comes in many forms. For addicts and alcoholics their drug of choice can change or even overlap with others. The potential to use and abuse something new is always there. Be aware of that and avoid playing a role in their substance abuse with a zero tolerance policy.


7. Let the Police Intervene:

When the disease of addiction takes over a person’s life their judgment is greatly impaired. They end up doing things they wouldn’t normally do had they not been under the influence or craving a drug. This includes many illegal activities such as stealing money, drugs or alcohol, driving while under the influence or intoxicated, forging documents, and purchasing illicit and illegal substances.

This behavior is simply unacceptable. It’s dishonest, dangerous, and comes with legal recourse. The unpleasant experience of being locked up for a night, and any criminal charges, court dates and community service hours that follow can be the rude awakening the addict needs to inspire a significant change. As they start to detox and become sober they may think, “Wow. I don’t want to be in here EVER again” and come to realize it was their addiction that led them there in the first place.

It is important to let the law enforcement do their job. Addicts can be expert manipulators of their family, but they won’t have the same luck with the police.


8. Pull the Plug on Financial Support:

Sharing a home with an addict also implies sharing resources. If your spouse has a gambling problem it’s not fair for them to squander the family savings because they’re trying to hit the “big one”. With chronic gamblers the “quit while you’re ahead” mentality fails to kick in; they keep chasing the next high. When they’re losing they become more steadfast in the chase of the win to both get the high and recover the loss they’ve incurred while gambling.

If you live with someone suffering a gambling addiction, or any addiction for that matter, consider keeping separate accounts. If you fear the addict may sell or trade your belongings to support their addiction then you should consider separate living arrangements. If you’re loved one is having serious withdrawal symptoms do not give them money or buy for them their drug of choice to alleviate the pain. Seek medical help if necessary.


9. Work with a Skilled Addiction Professional:

It’s fair to say that most people living with addicts are NOT addiction specialists. Sure, they may know how “their” addict or alcoholic acts when they are using, drinking and craving but the scope of the disease is greater than anyone can hope to naturally understand. Much of the cognitive-behavioral topics we’ve discussed, including boundary setting, curbing enabling and codependency may even be new to you. We encourage you to work with professionals in the field of addiction as they can help you understand the disease, give advice, and teach you techniques to deal with stress and modify behaviors. A counselor or field professional can also serve as a trusted confidant and resource for those times you just don’t know what to do.

If the stress and worry of living with a loved one has left you with physical or psychological pain, don’t be afraid to seek help for yourself. Just because you personally don’t have a drug or alcohol problem, and you haven’t been physically harmed or abused by the addict, doesn’t mean you don’t feel symptoms in other ways. The experience as a whole can lead to headaches, back pain, anxiety symptoms, a weakened immune system, depression, fatigue, and so forth. The mind and body are interconnected meaning that when we feel stressed, anxious, or depressed that negative energy can put our physical health in distress. Speaking with a counselor specializing in addiction, or pursuing one-on-one talk therapy with a psychologist can help alleviate the mental pain that’s also causing you physical pain. Attending free support groups like Al Anon and Nar Anon is highly recommended.


10. Emphasize that Treatment is Available

Set limits and show the addict that even though you refuse to enable them you still love them. With commitment, consistency and time this can aid their recovery, as well as your own. Although you’re making a big leap in the right direction, your boundaries might not be enough to keep them from using. Because addiction is a disease with no “cure” it is crucial to know what options are available. People enter recovery all the time, and many find success in maintaining their sobriety. Statistically we know that not everyone will be so lucky, and some will try and fail to stay sober at least once if not many times during their journey towards sobriety.

Remember, you cannot force someone else’s recovery. What you CAN do is keep brochures around and be ready to listen to your addicted loved one with open ears and an open heart. Inform them that treatment options are available if and when they’re ready. They may open up to you about why, as they see it, they can’t give up the drug. Although addiction can be hereditary, something in the environment has to trigger it, like trying a drug or a drink for the first time with friends. If you loved one tells you most their friends use, they have easy access to drugs, or that the temptation is everywhere, you should talk to them about inpatient treatment.

There are many roads that can lead a person down the path to a lasting recovery. Even if the first attempt at treatment doesn’t turn them sober, the change in place and some sober time under their belt can show them recovery is possible. Outpatient care is another option that won’t require your loved one to move into a treatment center, but still provides them the opportunity to work with addiction doctors or counselors and participate in group therapy sessions with other patients who are similar to them.

With the love and support of the family and the option for professional counseling, group therapy, 12-step meetings THEY CAN DECIDE to change the way they’ve been living and receive the courage, strength, and hope for a future with long term sobriety.

FAQs on Dealing with Life After Enabling

Making the modifications that limit or terminate the “enabling” behavior is a healthy start to everyone’s recovery. Anytime change is underway an adjustment period follows which can be intimidating. Some people are so uncomfortable with changes they avoid making them entirely. Addiction is a family disease carrying the potential to put health and safety of each family member at risk. We know we can’t “cure” the addiction, but we also know that we didn’t cause it and we can’t control it. What we CAN control is our perspective, demeanor, and our routines.

When you decide to stop enabling your addicted loved one, don’t expect them to be happy about it. They may get sad, angry, or try to make you feel guilty for abandoning them. Despite their apparent resentment, remind them you love them and don’t want to contribute to them falling deeper into addiction.

Families of addicts can have a restless “what do I do now” feeling after the enabling pattern is broken. Below are some frequently asked questions from people who have stopped enabling yet still find their loved one struggling with addiction:


1. Can I now confront my loved one about their addiction since I have stopped contributing to it by enabling?

Prior to stopping your enabling behaviors, you or other family members may have tried to ignore your loved one’s addiction. There were times you just hoped they weren’t out drinking or using when they were nowhere to be found for hours or days on end. You might have even turned the other cheek during those times they were getting high in the house because at least you knew where they were. Now that you don’t make it so easy for them, especially if you bailed them out in the past, it may feel hypocritical to also confront them about their addiction—it’s not. Things change and the fact remains that addiction can harm everyone in proximity to it, not just the addicted person. Don’t feel like you have to live with active addiction in your life. Confront it before it gets a strong hold.

Since the enabling behavior has shifted, now is as good a time as any to talk to your loved one about their substance abuse problem. When you do so, just make sure to do it with love. Let them know you are available to listen and you will support them if they decide they want to change. Initially, they may not jump at the opportunity but at least you’ve shown them the lines of communication are open. Stay consistent with them and tell them your love is unconditional. They don’t need be afraid to ask you for help in finding their path to recovery, and they should know they have your ongoing support.

You also shouldn’t be afraid to share your own fears about them using and abusing drugs or alcohol. This isn’t an opportunity to give them a “guilt trip”; past experiences have probably proven those ineffective on the addict anyway. Instead express your worry that they might end up killing or seriously harming themselves or someone else as a result of their addiction. If they drive under the influence and crash, explain that even if they survive and walk away with no serious injuries, other innocent people might get injured or die. You’d hate to see them serving out a prison sentence and living with the guilt of what they’ve done if that were to ever happen.

It’s ok to talk to your loved one about addiction. Do your best to do it in a non-reprimanding manner and instead do it with love.


2. My loved one has been angry with me ever since the enabling has ceased. What should I do?

Just like when a young child must put their favorite toy away at bedtime, your loved one will be angry and confused. As children grow older and their cognitive skills develop, they understand what bedtime is and that toys get put away. Your addicted loved one will have to learn and accept the same about your enabling behavior.

When a young child doesn’t get their way they may cry, kick and scream. They eventually tire out. Problem solved. Addicted teens, young adults, and adults have a much more advanced skill set at their disposal when they want something their way. Addicts can use language, trickery and manipulation tactics or threaten you, say hurtful things and find ways to guilt you or pull at your heartstrings. Don’t fall victim to this behavior; chop it up as a form of an “adult temper tantrum”. Their anger is their emotion, and how you react to it (or even better how you don’t react to it) remains up to you. Like a young child, your loved one can throw a fit but it won’t do any good. That childish behavior can’t be rewarded even with your attention, and you are not expected to give into their threats. The boundaries have been set and enabling their addiction is over.


3. I know my loved one is still using even after I have stopped enabling. Can I still have a relationship with them?

Never feel ashamed to have a relationship with your loved one. If your addicted loved one reaches out to you it can be a good sign. Invite them to spend time with you, but make sure you tell them you’re doing so under the condition they arrive sober (Think about “boundary setting”). During your visit if they express an interest in sobriety let them know treatment is available whenever they’re ready. Be sure to tell you love them no matter what.


4. Find Strength in Numbers:

It’s fair to say that living with and loving an addict can take you to hell and back. Although you’ve learned to limit your participation in their addiction, you might not have a handle on how or why the past emotional pain and worry is still affecting you. Do not be afraid to ask for help for yourself. You may decide to schedule your own therapy sessions to help work through these issues and give you strength for the future. Counseling—either on an individual basis or in a group setting (Al Anon & Nar Anon)—for you and even other affected family members can jumpstart everyone’s healing process. Perhaps one day your addicted loved one will even accompany you to a session. Either way, this is a time to focus on your own self-care.

If you ever feel like you failed as a parent or spouse know that you didn’t and you’re not alone. Find comfort in addiction support groups such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, which were created in particular for the friends and family members of alcoholics and narcotic drug users. Celebrate Recovery is a Christianity-based support group that integrates scriptures from the Bible into the traditional step-work. These groups are open to everyone. If your son or daughter has an issue with narcotic drugs but was never a big drinker, it doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to find value in or relate to those who attend an Al-Anon meeting.


5. Stop Concealing and Making Excuses

There is no exact science to how and when someone will stop using or abusing drugs and alcohol, or if they ever will at all. In some cases, a person will make the choice to pursue sobriety on their own because of a major life event. For example, a husband might give up drinking for good when he finds out he’s going to be a first-time father. In other cases, the addicted person will have to hit a bottom like the a stay-at-home-mom that has a few glasses of wine during the day while her husband is at work and her children are in school. If she leaves to run an errand and gets in an accident (even if it was the other driver’s fault) she can end up in jail for Driving While Intoxicated. She will likely be ashamed or embarrassed and realize she’d been in denial about her drinking problem. Although up until now she had concealed her relationship with alcohol from her family, she no longer wants it in her life and decides to give it up entirely. There are many reasons for how and why people pursue sobriety, and your loved one will have to find the same on their own. The most extreme reasons, most commonly referred to “bottoms” are “Jails, Institutions, and the possibility of Death”.

We can only hope our loved one doesn’t fall down the “Jails, Institutions, and Death” path. The absolute best thing we can do to keep them off of it, and the only thing we can actually control is to stop the enabling. Think for a moment, if you are always there and readily available to bail them out or cover up their mistakes, what sense of accountability will they have for their actions? They wouldn’t have the opportunity to see the real consequences of their behavior, or feel the magnitude of how precious it is to be alive and in the free world outside from jails and institutions.

If you give it time and maintain consistency things can turn around for your addict. You’ve already done your part to stop enabling, now it’s time to start encouraging them more. Tell them you want them to live a good life—happy, healthy and free. That doesn’t just mean free from “Jails and Institutions”, it means free from the danger, shame, embarrassment, craving and the pain the substance abuse brings. You don’t want to see the addiction get the best of them or prevent them from reaching their full potential. Let them know that regardless of what’s happened in the past they can still change if they put in the effort. If they decide to get clean they can get the love and lifelong support from you.

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