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How to Stop Enabling Addiction and Encourage Recovery Instead

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I trampled my son on his second birthday.

We’d all gathered in the backyard – grandparents, aunts and uncles, me, my husband and our precious not-so-baby boy – to admire my sister-in-law’s new dog. Still a pup, he loomed large next to our toddler and didn’t yet know how to play gently.

I watched as the pup ran, full speed, toward my son. So, I ran too – a mother’s instinct, as it were. Then I tripped, changed course and charged right into my two-year-old, laying him aside as I continued on into the fence. Full stop.

The dog, distracted, sniffed around elsewhere in the yard while I rose to the gaping mouths of my relatives, a teary-eyed little boy and blood running down my forearm.

In my desire to protect him, I’d somehow done even more damage.

We laugh about this now. But I still can’t help but wonder: Is this what can happen when you love someone struggling with an addiction? When you hope beyond all hopes that your efforts lead to recovery only to realize you’re actually making things worse?

Maybe you, too, long to protect but end up acting in a way that’s enabling. Let’s talk about what enabling looks like, why it happens, and how you can put a stop to enabling and do what’s best for the ones you love.

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Why Would I Enable Someone I Love to Continue a Dangerous Behavior?

We’ve established this already, but I want to make sure the message is clear: If you’re enabling a loved one, the assumption shouldn’t be that you approve of what they’re doing or that you’re ambivalent about their actions.1

You should assume, instead, that you’re reacting to one of three forces at play:
  1. Guilt about the past. Perhaps you believe you’re to blame for your daughter’s alcohol abuse. After all, you worked long hours during her formative teenage years, when she really needed you. This is your chance to be there for her.2
  2. Anxiety in the present. You might fear the worst in confronting your brother about his drug use. He’s known for his short fuse, and you prefer to keep the peace in your close-knit family. You may think that saying how you feel wouldn’t change anything, but it can.2
  3. Uncertainty for the future. You’d love to help your son overcome his addiction, but you’re not sure where to begin. Your friends stand ready to judge much smaller problems than his, and you don’t really have anywhere else to turn. So, you show your support in other ways.1

Time to ponder which of these reactions rings true for you. Look for holes in your argument as you begin to ask yourself, “Why I am doing this?”2 Also consider learning how to stage an intervention with your loved one. Learn more about what a professional interventionist can do for you. Speak with one of our professional admission coordinators today.

What Can Happen as a Result of My Enabling?

Enabling thoughts – especially those coming from feelings of guilt, anxiety, and uncertainty mentioned above – play tricks on us. We might think, “What’s so bad about extending love and grace to my husband?”

And, sure, in theory love and grace are wonderful and needed, especially by a person battling addiction. But enabling actions, while appearing harmless on the surface, may not actually be the most loving and gracious way for us to engage.

Consider both sides of this scenario:

A. What’s the big deal with me giving $20 to my son for food? It’s just $20. And he’s my kid. No matter how old he gets. I don’t want him to starve!

B. Every time I hand a $20 to my son, I get an immediate jolt of good feelings. I feel in control and able to help with his basic need for food. But later on, when I find him high in the bathroom, I know he used my money for a hit.2

Same story both times, but each with a unique perspective. Even though enabling begins in a place of love, it ultimately leads to more pain. It doesn’t really matter that I wanted to protect my child from the dog. I’m the one who hurt him.

It pays to pause and consider our actions.

Not sure if you’re enabling? Psychology Today lists eight questions you can ask to clarify your own actions:
  1. Do you often ignore unacceptable behavior?
  2. Do you find yourself resenting the responsibilities you take on?
  3. Do you consistently put your own needs and desires aside in order to help someone else?
  4. Do you have trouble expressing your own emotions?
  5. Do you ever feel fearful that doing something will cause a blowup, make the person leave you or even result in violence?
  6. Do you ever lie to cover for someone else’s mistakes?
  7. Do you consistently assign blame for problems to other people rather than the one who is really responsible?
  8. Do you continue to offer help when it is never appreciated or acknowledged?”3

And here’s the kicker: enabling a loved one not only hurts them, it hurts you too. Science proves that the intense stresses endured by the family members of an addict can lead to complex post-traumatic stress disorder, including symptoms of dissociation, anger, and hopelessness.4

How Can I Stop Enabling and What Should I Do Instead?

Convinced that enabling isn’t the way forward, but not sure what is? You’ll do well to fight back against the reasons you’re enabling in the first place. Remove those actions and replace them with the following:

  1. Decide that you are not to blame for your loved one’s struggle.
    Because you’re not. As one mother, an expert in addiction herself, said upon reflection of her own son’s struggle with drugs: “Couldn’t I have prevented it, done something to protect him? The questions expose my deepest vulnerability, my greatest fear: That despite all my loving efforts, I was a “bad” mother . . . I smile now at the questions, because I know the answer. … All the knowledge in the world cannot prevent this disease from walking into your front door and taking hold of someone you love.”
  2. Actively work against guilt by encouraging recovery.
    When you enable, you effectively – though not intentionally – encourage dangerous behavior. By encouraging recovery instead, you take back control over your own actions and allow yourself to heal from any guilts about the past.2
  3. Combat any codependent tendencies.
    You can only help a loved one as much as it is in your capacity to help. With this in mind, your own self-care must become a high priority. Putting a stop to unacceptable behavior – especially in your own home – is vital for putting you in a position to care instead of cower.2

Above all else, experts advise that you remove all comforts you used to provide. That means you might allow your loved one to fend for himself in daily life and avoid cleaning up any destruction caused while he or she is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. As life grows increasingly more difficult, they’ll be forced to face the truth of their circumstances.

As you consider how best to support your loved one without enabling their bad behavior, consider speaking with one of our professional admissions coordinators. They’re available 24/7, are fully knowledgeable about how to stage interventions and are a wealth of information. They’re also free to speak to on chat or by phone. Contact them today.
By Stephanie Thomas

1Ketcham, Kathy. I Hated the Word ‘Enable’. Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, June 27, 2018.
2Plattor, Candace. When You Enable an Addict You’re Not Helping, You’re Hurting. Huffington Post, June 16, 2014.
3Khaleghi, Karen. Are You Empowering or Enabling? Psychology Today, June 11, 2012.
4Fleming, Alexandra Rockey. Opioid Addiction and Overdose in Children Devastate their Parents. Washington Post, June 30, 2018.
5Ketcham, Katherine. ‘When did it all begin to fall apart?’ A son’s addiction, and a mother’s guilt. Washington Post, April 2, 2018.