Family members often think that because they aren’t repeatedly bailing their loved ones out of jail or handing them wads of cash that they aren’t enabling. But if you’re helping your loved ones in other ways, you may be indirectly enabling them without realizing it. Here is how to tell if your attempts to “help” are causing more harm than good and what you can do about it.
1. You lie on the addict’s behalf
It’s common for family and friends of addicts to lie for their loved ones because they believe they’re helping to prevent the addiction from worsening while buying their loved one some time to get their act together. Family will call in sick on their loved one’s behalf, for example, reasoning that “he messed up, but he doesn’t deserve to lose his job over it.” This behavior, however well meaning, only enables the addict to continue using. Instead of getting written up or fired from his job for not showing up, for instance, the addict now has a reprieve from the natural consequences of his or her behavior. This prolongs the disease and delays the recovery process. Pain is one of humankind’s greatest motivational forces or as Anais Nin once wrote: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
Don’t rob your loved one of the opportunity to blossom into the person they were meant to become by making it easy for them to remain trapped in their dysfunctional behavioral patterns.
2. You make excuses for the addict’s behavior
This can be a difficult enabling behavior to stop because too often it’s a behavior loved ones don’t even realize they’re doing. Unlike other diseases, the symptoms and causes of addiction aren’t always so black and white. There are no definitive tests or diagnostic criteria that will say with 100 percent certainty that your loved one has an addiction. This naturally leaves room for doubt and a gray area that can cause friends and family members to question their instincts. He’s just gong through a rough time, they’ll tell others and themselves. He’s been acting different but he swears he hasn’t relapsed. He says its just stress. Remember that it doesn’t matter how reasonable your loved one’s excuses may be, if they occur frequently and just don’t seem to add up, odds are that that is because they aren’t true. Your loved one is likely lying to you and themselves about the extent of their problem. Stop making excuses and trust your gut instinct.
3. You avoid confronting the addict about their addiction
Confronting an addict isn’t easy. Those with a substance use disorder are often in denial about their addiction and will react defensively, lashing back at their accusers in angry and hurtful ways. But by avoiding potentially uncomfortable conversations, you’re ensuring the addict continues on the same destructive path. The addiction won’t ever dissipate unless there are people and circumstances standing in its way. If you love or care for this person, you’ll make the brave decision to speak up about your suspicions, no matter how difficult or painful having that conversation may be.
4. You think your loved one is “just going through a phase”
Addiction is not a phase; it’s a life-long disease that can only be managed through abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Once someone has made the transition from a “recreational” drinker/user to someone who is physically, mentally and emotionally dependent on the substance (or substances), there is no going back. There is no cure. Yes, many people go through periods in their life where they may drink or use more than might be healthy. And yes, most of those people will naturally transition through that period, either due to maturity or life circumstances. Approximately 10 percent of the population, however, won’t. Though you’ll never know with certainty which camp your loved one falls into, there are criteria that can give a strong indication that your loved one has a serious and irreversible condition. Your loved one probably isn’t “just going through a phase” if:
- He or she has a relative (especially a parent or grandparent) who has experienced addiction
- He or she has a history of mental illness, such as depression or anxiety
- He or she started drinking or using substances before the age of 15
- He or she has experienced some form of early childhood trauma
You can learn more about the signs and symptoms of addiction as it relates to alcoholism in our detailed alcohol guide. Whether your loved one is in the middle of a phase that he or she will eventually outgrow or not is a moot point, however. It doesn’t matter what the official diagnosis is, if your loved one’s drinking or using is causing problems in their life, they need help. Period.
5. You think the addiction will go away on its own
Like most diseases, addiction does not go away without proper treatment. In fact, if it’s not addressed and interrupted, it’ll likely only worsen. Although confronting the problem head on by staging and intervention and forcing your loved one to attend 12-step meetings or check into a drug or alcohol rehab can be emotionally, financially and logistically difficult, doing nothing and hoping the problem will resolve itself is wishful thinking; a fantasy that is not grounded in reality. If you’re struggling to get a loved one to seek help, read: How to Get Someone to Go to Rehab.
6. You manage the addict’s life for them
You may think you’re helping your loved one by making sure they complete basic life responsibilities like arriving to work on time, eating properly or paying bills. But if you’re doing tasks that a reasonable adult should be able to do on his or her own, then you’re not helping, you’re enabling. An addict needs to start taking control of their own life and all of the responsibilities that go along with it if they are to have a hope of recovering from their addiction.
7. You and the addict have a parent-child relationship
Even if the addict in question is your own child, if he or she is an adult, it shouldn’t be your responsibility to “parent” him or her. In fact, this can be unhealthy for both of you. This is especially true if the addict is your spouse. This means you shouldn’t have to “nag” your loved one in order to convince him or her to wake up on a time, go to work, help with the chores or take responsibility for their children. If they’re too drunk, high, hung over or sick to be able to manage their own life, they need help; not a parent.
8. You enjoy feeling “needed”
Enabling an addict isn’t always a negative experience. If you take the time to examine your feelings and motivations, you may find that, on some level, you’ve gotten a certain degree of pleasure from playing the role of caretaker. There’s no reason to feel ashamed about this; feeling needed feels good. And in a healthy relationship, feeling needed and valued can be a great thing. It has the potential to become unhealthy, however, when taken to the extreme and when the desire to feel needed overrides the desire to have an equal, respectful relationship. Think long and hard about the long-term affects your care-taking behavior is having on your life and the life of your loved one. Are you really doing the loving and caring thing when you do things for your loved one that they can do for themselves? Or are you helping them stay sick?
9. You’ve given the addict so many “second chances” you’ve lost count
If you’ve given your loved one an ultimatum, you need to stick to it. This can be tough, especially when the decision affects other people in the addict’s life or results in severe consequences. There’s nothing more difficult than telling an addict “no” when you know that doing so will mean they remain in jail, become homeless or lose custody of their children. But sometimes people need harsh consequences in order to change. Consult a therapist or addiction professional before doing so, but once you’ve made your decision to establish some clear boundaries with your loved one, you mustn’t waver in your conviction. Handing out second, third or fourth chances won’t help you, the addict, or anyone else.
10. You participate in risky behavior with your loved one
Oftentimes friends and family members believe that if they role model “responsible substance use” with their loved one that they’ll be able to have a positive influence on the addict’s behavior. But addiction doesn’t work that way. By definition, addiction represents a loss of control. Your loved one will never be able to “drink responsibly” no matter how much they may want to or try. Some may also find it hard to accept the fact that in order to get their friend help, they will need to permanently say goodbye to their “drinking buddy”. Particularly in the beginning of your loved one’s drinking or drug use, their reckless behavior may have been a lot of fun. You likely have some fond memories of the wild times you had partying on vacation or bar-hopping after a long week of work. It’s normal to feel a sense of loss; the “wild abandon” chapter of your friendship is closing. But trust that if the two of you are meant to stay close, that aspect of your relationship will be replaced by something far more authentic and fulfilling. It’s therefore important that while your friend or family member gets help that you don’t drink or use around them. You may think “I’m not the one with the addiction, so why should I have to change?” but your loved one will be extremely vulnerable during this time. If you don’t curb your behavior as well, you’ll be setting them up for a relapse.
How to Stop Enabling an Addict (and Get Them the Help They Need)
Get support for yourself first Before you can begin to help your loved one, you have to first help yourself. Confronting an addict about their addiction and taking the necessary steps to get them help is incredibly difficult. If you don’t have a support network at your side to keep you grounded, your attempts to help your loved one will likely fail. It’s important to join a support group like NarAnon, AlAnon and CoDA or take part in a family renewal program through a local addiction treatment center. While therapists can help, oftentimes the most useful confidantes are those who have been in your situation. Educate yourself You can’t help your friend or family member until you’re armed with the facts. Here are a few articles to get you started:
- 7 signs of a pain pill addiction on the LVRC blog
- How to tell if your loved on is a high-functioning addict on the LVRC blog
- The do’s and don’ts of dealing with an addict in your life on the Narconon website
Central Recovery Press offers a wide variety of books for family members looking to better understand addiction, including: Loving Our Addicted Daughters Back to Life, available through Central Recovery Press. It’s Not About You, Except When It Is, available through Central Recovery Press. Pain Recovery for Families, available through Central Recovery Press. My Life as a Border Collie: Freedom from Codependency, available through Central Recovery Press Don’t do it alone In addition to free support groups, there are numerous resources available to help you figure out the best options for your loved one. Las Vegas Recovery Center is available 24-hours a day to take your call and answer any questions you may have related to addiction or the addiction recovery process.