Enabling an Addict – When “Helping” is Destructive

It’s human nature to want to help a friend or loved one who is in need.  There is certainly nothing wrong with helping – when it’s appropriate.

Unfortunately, when it comes to “helping” someone who is abusing or addicted to alcohol or drugs, you may not be helping at all.  In fact, chances are good that what you’re really doing is “enabling” that person.

The difference between enabling and helping boils down to this:  helping means that you’re doing something for them that they can’t do for themselves (or can’t do alone), while enabling means that you’re doing something for them that they can and should be doing for themselves.

Sadly, the line between enabling and helping is all too easily blurred by a variety of things including misguided love, fear, and exhaustion.

Why Is Enabling So Destructive?

Substance abuse and addiction are very serious problems that should never be taken lightly.  They damage relationships, tear apart families, ruin careers, cause severe financial loss, cause serious medical problems, lead to violence and crime, or worse.

The harsh reality is that far too many serious injuries and deaths – from car accidents, suicides, homicides, assaults, or high risk behaviors – are directly related to drugs and alcohol.

When you enable an addict you’re both condoning and perpetuating his or her addiction, even if that’s not your intent.  You’re sending the message, “It’s okay if you keep using; I’m here to help so you can avoid the consequences of your behavior.”  Sadly, enabling an addict is really no different than handing a suicidal person a loaded gun while saying, “Go ahead and kill yourself; I’ll clean up the mess.”

Enabling allows addicts to keep on using without worrying about the consequences. It makes it easy for them to continue down their path of destruction (which is negatively impacting your life as well), without taking any responsibility.  As long as you keep rescuing them and taking care of them they have zero incentive to stop using.

And guess what?  The longer they keep using, the stronger the addiction becomes, and the more difficult it will be to get clean and sober down the road – if they ever do get into treatment.

Is that really what you want?

Why Do People Become Enablers?

Please be aware that the goal here is NOT to beat you up for enabling someone you love.  Trust me; you’re not alone.

In fact, like many enablers you may feel caught between a rock and a hard place.  From your perspective, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  You don’t want to enable your loved one, but you’re worried or even terrified of what will happen if you don’t.  Or, perhaps you have a desperate need to feel needed.  When your loved one is dependent on you, it makes you feel important.

Following are some of the most common reasons why people enable addicts:

Misguided Love

It’s heartbreaking to see your loved one at risk of going without food, losing their job, or being evicted.  You think you’re being loving by stepping in “this one time” by calling in to say they’re sick, paying the rent, or giving them some cash to buy groceries.

Fear

If the addict is someone you depend upon (for example, your spouse whose income is paying the mortgage, etc.), you may be enabling them out of the fear of what will happen to you (and even worse, your children) if they lose their job, go to jail, etc.

Enabling is also often motivated by fear when you’re terrified of what will happen to the addict if you don’t help; for example, if they end up out on the street, in jail, etc.

Codependency

It’s very common for addicts to be in relationships with people who are codependent.  Codependent individuals enable their addicted loved ones because they’re too emotionally dependent on the dysfunctional relationship to risk losing it.

Protecting the Family Image

Many families enable a loved one to protect the family’s reputation.  They’ll go to great lengths to make sure no one “on the outside” knows that there’s an addict in the family.

Learned Behavior

Enabling behavior is often learned at an early age.  Children who grew up in homes where one parent enabled the other often end up in a similar situation when they become adults.

Weariness

Dealing with an addict can be exhausting.  Some people end up enabling because they simply get tired of fighting what feels like a futile battle.  Even the strongest, most determined individuals can get worn down eventually.

Ignorance

You can only do better when you know better.  Some enablers really don’t understand addictive behavior at all. They fail to recognize that they’re only making things worse by enabling their loved one. They think they’re helping when they’re only making things worse.

Forms of Enabling

There are many different ways you can enable an addict, including:

  • Lending him money or paying for things for him (e.g. groceries, rent, utilities)
  • Bailing him out of jail
  • Accepting his excuses
  • Continuing to give him another chance
  • Turning a blind eye
  • Making excuses for him
  • Lying for him
  • Rescuing him (e.g. letting him live with you after he’s been evicted)
  • Using with him
  • Supplying him with drugs or alcohol
  • Blaming other people (including yourself) or circumstances for his addiction

How to Stop Enabling

In order to stop your enabling behavior, there are two things that must happen first:

  • You need to understand why you’re doing it
  • You need to recognize and accept that you’re only making things worse

Neither of those is easy for anyone.  You may not even really know why you’re doing it.  Or perhaps you do know, but you’re terrified of what might happen if you stop.

If you’re unsure or scared, you need to reach out for help.  Consider talking to a therapist or an addiction specialist, going to a support group (e.g. Al-Anon), or reaching out to family and friends for support (e.g. to help you come up with a game plan).

Your loved one’s addiction is not going to go away on its own and bad consequences are inevitable if it continues.  Don’t continue to be part of the problem by enabling your loved one.

Help is available – for both you and for your loved one.

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