how to help an addict without enabling

It is second nature to want to help a loved one in times of trouble. The natural tendency to want to help someone you care for applies to parents, spouses, siblings, and friends, and it is a good thing. However, when a loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol, this impulse to fix things may become toxic. In a word, offering excessive help and support is called enabling. 

Enabling behavior is very, very common among individuals who have a loved one battling active addiction. As they watch this person’s life implode and the negative consequences associated with their addiction pile up, there in an internal impulse to help them right their path. While this impulse to help is a noble one, it can actually do more harm that good in the long run.

Learning how to help and addict without enabling is key to being a valuable asset to your loved one while they are in active addiction, and especially when they begin the recovery journey. The difficulty lies in taking a back seat and, as much as you might want to offer advice, financial support, coaching, and cover for them, and allowing the person to own their disease and their recovery.

As hard as it is to sit back and hope the loved one in recovery will manage their daily life according to what they are taught in treatment, resisting the urge to help them is beneficial to everyone involved. Al-anon, a support group affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous created to help the loved ones of the addict, has a very helpful slogan: Detach with love. These three little words have taught thousands of well-meaning people to protect their own sanity and health by letting go. The very best gift you can offer your loved one is the simple assurance that you love them.

Addiction is a Family Disease

When a family member is battling addiction to drugs or alcohol it will affect each and every person in the household. The fallout from the addiction seeps into the very soul of the family, creating a destabilizing effect that is far reaching. Trust bonds are broken, finances ruined, feelings are hurt as lies and betrayals permeate the fabric of the family. There is an underlying sense of dread, of fearing the next shoe to drop as the consequences mount.

With the understanding that addiction is a family disease, approaching the recovery process should also involve the family. There should be a concerted effort to be a source of emotional support, while also being cognizant of the enabling trap. Understanding how to support without enabling is imperative, as this allows the family to be completely behind their loved ones own efforts to make fundamental changes in their life without doing the work for him or her.

What Enabling Looks Like

At first glance, enabling behaviors may look like the actions of a saint. It may be a parent who goes to the mat for their addict son or daughter, mortgaging the home multiple times to pay for DUI fines or rehab. The mother may spend her waking hours scouring the want ads for their adult child who ends up unemployed due to the addiction. A sister might cover for her big brother when he doesn’t show up for work.

In reality, these seeming acts of mercy only result in the loved one continuing in their addiction behaviors…because they can. They have learned to game the system. They have no motivation to change their ways because well intentioned, though clueless, family or friends are protecting them from experiencing the consequences of their behaviors.

Enabling actually has the reverse effect; instead of being loving, supportive, and helpful you are actually harming the loved one. You are aiding the addiction. If the loved one is in recovery, step away and let them work the program. Let them own their recovery and take control of it themselves. They need to become a stakeholder in their own recovery, in their survival. For a spouse or a parent to continue to nag them, question their whereabouts, or remind them to go to meetings, it only diminishes their own sense of self-worth and self-confidence.

How to Get a Grip on Enabling Behaviors

Once an enabler recognizes that they are being manipulated, or acting as a self-imposed martyr, they may become resentful toward their addicted loved one. Anger and resentment might actually serve a purpose in providing the fuel for making necessary changes. When an enabler finds him or herself worn out, battle fatigued, frazzled, and depleted, they need to ask themselves these questions:

  • Are the actions or reactions of other people causing me to suffer?
  • Am I allowing myself to be used in the interest of someone’s recovery?
  • Am I doing for them what they can do for themselves?
  • Am I manipulating situations so that the person will behave as I see fit?
  • Am I covering up for this person’s mistakes or misdeeds?
  • Am I creating a crisis by my enabling?
  • Am I trying to prevent a crisis even though it is the natural course of events?

If the months or years of covering for your addicted loved one left you feeling physically and emotionally worn out, while not exacting any measurable change in their behaviors, you have fit the mold of an enabler. You put out the fires, one after the other, thinking you were doing the loving thing for them at the time. In hindsight, it becomes painfully clear that all you achieved was your own broken spirit.

Now it is time to take care of your own wellbeing. Put down some sturdy boundaries, start a fitness routine, see your friends for dinner, take up a new hobby, and practice self-care. In addition, getting some psychological support by seeing a therapist for a safe place to convey your fears while gaining some practical advice is always helpful.

How to Support Without Enabling

So the question becomes what is the difference between supporting and enabling a loved one in recovery? First, it is important to understand that the loved one is not as weak and vulnerable as you perceive them to be. Mothers in particular are wired to care for their children. Well, children need that attention. They are dependent on parents for everything, at least until a certain age of maturity. Mothers are so accustomed to putting their children first that they become blind to the reality that their child is now a teen or young adult, and have the capacity to make decisions and take action themselves. They do not need mommy to do it for them.

So, support is saying I am aware, I am here, and I am available to talk. Enabling is I stocked your fridge (lest they starve), I paid your bills (don’t want the lights turned off), and will help you get out of that misdemeanor charge at court. The person in recovery needs to experience hunger if they refuse to spend their money on food. They need to go through the hassle and expense of getting their electricity turned back on. They need to handle their own legal problems that they themselves caused. In essence, the individual in recovery needs to assume the responsibilities of his or her life.

There are many different ways that family members can be supportive of their loved one in recovery. These actions send the message that you love them, and that you are supportive of their recovery efforts. Supportive actions may include:

  • Participate in family therapy. While the loved one is still in rehab there are usually opportunities to participate in family-focused events or therapy sessions. These sessions can be extremely beneficial toward the healing process for the family in general, as well as informative. The loved one in recovery will appreciate his or her family’s willingness to take the time to engage in these therapy sessions. It is a powerful sign of support.
  • Learn about addiction. Most people are not aware of the neurological aspects of addiction and are stupefied when their loved one can’t just quit using drugs or alcohol, even in the face of so much devastation. Family members should make the effort to become educated about how addiction forms and then how it alters the brain.
  • Set healthy boundaries. To avoid enabling behaviors it is important to establish clearly articulated rules and boundaries, and then be consistent in enforcing them. This is challenging, as there is some gray area involved during the recovery process, but in order to protect oneself it is imperative that the loved one understands that there are consequences when boundaries are breached or rules are broken. Again, do not protect them from the natural consequences of their actions.
  • Keep communication open. Individuals in early recovery will face challenges to sobriety. New coping skills haven’t been fully formed or adopted yet, making the loved one vulnerable to relapse. Create a space for honest, open communication. Be sure your loved one knows you are always available to chat with them about things they are struggling with. Be nonjudgmental, non-confrontational when he or she confides in you, but instead lovingly guide them toward executing their relapse prevention tools, such as calling a sponsor, attending a meeting, or distracting themselves through exercise or other activities.
  • Don’t use substances around them. To provide a supportive environment for the loved one in early recovery, it is important to be sensitive to the potential triggers for relapse. If the lived one lives with you, it is prudent to remove any sources of temptation to relapse. Dispose of, or lock up, any substance that can provide intoxicating or altering effects. It is also helpful to join them at family or social events as a sober companion to ease exposure to substances if they request the support.
  • Enjoy healthy activities together. For someone new to sobriety, it is a little challenging to establish a new sober lifestyle. They may be feeling a bit down about having to give up certain friendships and activities in their newfound sobriety. You can help ease them into a sober lifestyle by spending time with them. Offer to join them for a run or a hike. Invite them to a movie or out to lunch. Ask them to join you in volunteering at a community service event.

Learning how to support without enabling is the key to changing the dysfunctional dynamic that took root during a loved one’s active addiction. Now that they are in recovery, take that opportunity to start over with a fresh slate recognizing how to offer invaluable loving support without doing for them what they need to do for themselves in order to achieve a sustained recovery.

Your Loved One is Still in Active Addiction

Understandably, if the loved one is still using drugs or alcohol, you are still in the thick of the addict’s distressing behaviors and challenged daily to refrain from enabling the substance abuse. As difficult as it is to stand by and not respond when they are engaging in self-destructive activities, continue to invite them to seek treatment. This is the most important thing you can do for a loved one with a substance use disorder. In time, after they experience the brunt of the effects of their addiction, there is great hope that the next time you suggest they get help they may just surprise you and say yes.

Next Level Recovery Addiction Recovery Near Salt Lake City

Next Level Recovery takes a special interest in guiding family members toward establishing healthy boundaries for their loved one in recovery. The family-focused group sessions help family members understand how enabling behaviors can be detrimental to their loved one’s recovery, and teach them the difference between being supportive versus enabling. Next Level Recovery seeks to not only prepare the individual for managing their recovery, but also the family members on how best to offer support without crossing over into enabling behaviors. For more information about the program, please contact Next Level Recovery today at (888) 759-5846.