“I Know I’m Enabling, But…” Recovering from Addiction in the Family

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After working for nearly 25 years with the loved ones
of people struggling with addiction, I’m still amazed by
how many come to their first session with me and say “I
know I’m enabling, but…”

Do you have an addicted loved one in your life? Are
you already aware that you’re doing things you probably
shouldn’t be doing, in the guise of ‘helping’ them?
And even if you’re not getting the results you’re hoping
for, do you still continue to enable them anyway—often
for way too long?

A logical question to ask yourself in a situation like this
would be:

“Why am I doing this?”

The reality is that there are, in fact, a few answers to
that question. The first reason may be that no one has
ever told you what you could be doing instead. As a
loved one, know that what you’re doing isn’t working;
in fact, in most cases, the problems continue and just
get worse over time. But if you don’t have a clue about
what actually can work in these situations, you may be
feeling very frustrated, helpless—and quite stuck.

<strong>WHAT IS “ENABLING”?</strong>

A simple definition of an enabling behavior is one that
will keep the addiction going. Here are a few examples:

• Each month, Randy gives money to his addicted sister
because he fears that she won’t be able to buy
food if he doesn’t—even though he knows that
she spends the money he gives her on drugs. He’s
even been known to drive her to the dealer to pick
up her drugs. He tells himself, “At least I know that
she’s safe here with me.”

• Julia pays her boyfriend’s rent when he’s lost all of
his paycheck gambling at the casino. Sometimes
that means she’s short of money herself when trying
to take care of her own bills and other expenses—
and she rarely receives a ‘thank you’ for her efforts.
But she is stuck in fantasy thinking when she
tells herself, “If I just love him enough, he’ll change.”

• At 35, Tess’s parents still allow her to live in the family
home due to her longtime crack addiction and
apparent inability to hold a job. They don’t set clear
and appropriate boundaries about what is expected
of her, so she brings sketchy people and illegal
drugs into their home. Tess is often high while
there, and she doesn’t contribute in any positive
way, at times becoming quite abusive with her parents
both verbally and physically. Her parents don’t
feel they can ask her to leave—“What if we kick her
out and she’s on the street?”

When this kind of enabling occurs on a regular basis,
the loved ones lose their own sense of self-respect and
the addict has no reason to do anything differently. The
dysfunctional, addictive behaviors continue—because
the most effective way to stop addiction is to stop the
enabling that so often accompanies it.

<strong>ARE YOU FEELING GUILTY?</strong>

Often, a major reason that loved ones of addicts use
enabling behaviors is that they feel guilty about the
addiction in the first place. If you’re like many loved
ones, you may mistakenly think that you’re somehow
responsible for the addict you love.

But you did NOT cause the addiction to happen. You
may be contributing to it continuing, but you didn’t
cause it. Even though no one chooses to become an
addict (in fact, most addicts believe they’re ‘special’
and can handle addictive substances and behaviors
without becoming addicted), there always comes a
time when addicts know there’s something wrong and
that they’re in trouble. It is at this point that they have
a choice—to either remain in active addiction or to
begin some type of active recovery.

Think about it this way—if addicts didn’t have this
choice, then no one would be recovering. Millions of
people are in recovery from addiction because they
made the choice to stop hiding from reality by using a
self-sabotaging behavior. As the loved one of an addict,
you are NOT responsible for the choices the addict
is making. If you feel you are contributing, then it’s
your responsibility to change what you’re doing. And
once you do that, you’ll feel far less guilt and a lot more
self-respect.

Remember: You can’t change another person, but you
can change yourself. It takes courage for you to look
within and to do whatever you can to contribute to
healthier ways of being the loved one of someone with
an addiction.

<strong>ARE YOU SCARED OF CONFLICT?</strong>

Another reason that family and friends of addicts
enable them has to do with codependency and people-
pleasing, which I see as one and the same. If you
are codependent, then you’re putting others’ needs
ahead of your own on a fairly consistent basis. You may
have convinced yourself that you’re doing this because
you’re a ‘nice’ person—and please understand, I’m not
suggesting you aren’t nice. But the truth is that you
may have an ulterior motive for acting this way.
Let me explain…

The real reason codependent people say ‘yes’ when
they really mean ‘no’—squashing down their own
needs in the process—is usually because they are terrified
of conflict and will do whatever it takes to avoid
it, even when it means they lose their own self-respect
in the process. Your need to people-please will have
its roots in making sure there are no fights or disagreements—
and this is because you’ve never really learned
how to deal with other people’s anger or frustration or
disappointment, especially when those are directed at
you!

When codependents consistently do this, it can become
an addictive behavior for them—and if you’re
giving in to the addict you so dearly love and not
setting effective boundaries, you are actually meeting
your own needs, not theirs. An addict does NOT need
to be allowed to get away with dangerous and disrespectful behavior.
What an addict truly needs is firm,
healthy boundaries with appropriate, self-respecting
consequences attached to them.

And when you finally learn how to handle someone
else feeling angry or disappointed with you, you will
become emotionally free—which is a much healthier
way to live!

<strong>DARE TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE</strong>

In reality, addicts need their loved ones to make it as
uncomfortable as possible for them to remain in their
active addiction. If you have an addict in your life, this is
actually the most loving thing you can do for them, because
it holds them to a higher standard and encourages
them to take responsibility for themselves. The more
we inappropriately behave as caretakers for people
who can—and should—be taking care of themselves,
the less belief they’ll have in their own resiliency and
capabilities. The addiction will go on and on, usually
just becoming more entrenched over time because
addiction is a progressive condition that needs to be
halted. In other words, if you love an addict, you need
to stop enabling their unhealthy life choices in order to
see any meaningful change happen.

And if your addict is abusing mind-altering substances,
you need to do this before he or she dies out there.
Of course, the problem is that when you, as a codependent
people-pleaser, start setting boundaries and making
things uncomfortable for the addict you love, you
yourself will become extremely uncomfortable too. We
use addictive behaviors of any kind to feel better, to remain
comfortable. But as the saying goes, life begins at
the end of our comfort zones and, as a loved one, you’ll
need to be the change you want to see in this situation.
You’ll need to love your addict enough to say, ”I care
about you so much that I’m not willing to support you
in your active addiction anymore. I love you so much
that it’s tearing me apart to watch you continue to hurt
yourself like this—so if you really need to keep doing
that, you’ll have to do it somewhere else. When you’re
ready to be in some sort of active recovery, I’ll be happy
to support you in that.”

Not only is this a loving act toward the addict in your
life, it is also the most self-respectful stance you can
take, because you will no longer allow yourself to be
treated abusively.

Letting our addicted loved ones know that we care
enough to want a healthier relationship with them is
often enough for them to understand that we’re not
trying to punish them by assertively maintaining our
boundaries. It’s acceptable and appropriate for us to
raise the bar and require more of them—just as we’re
requiring more of ourselves.

That is definitely the best way to love the addict in your
life.

If you’ve been enabling an addict—and I know that
many of you are aware that you have been—please
strongly consider changing some of your own dysfunctional
behaviors so that you’re actually helping instead.
The pay-offs of making that change could be amazing!
And remember: If not now, when?
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