When seeking intervention services for loved ones, family and friends are often surprised to find their own behavior questioned. Any experienced clinician will be looking for how those closest to an active addict/alcoholic knowingly and/or unwittingly protect the addict from the natural consequences of their choices. This is what it means to enable and to do so is to rob an active addict of the greatest motivator toward recovery.
Different Forms of Enabling
Enabling is fairly easy to identify when we’re cleaning up the messes our loved ones make. Whether we’re lying for them, giving them money, or fulfilling their major responsibilities in life; we will experience pangs of guilt and irritation, knowing that we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.
Enabling can also be subtle. When we deny our true feelings, forsake our own needs, or tolerate hurtful behavior, we are enabling the addict and building resentment within ourselves. The most challenging part of eliminating these behaviors is that they come naturally and usually feel like the kind and loving thing to do.
Separate the Person from the Disease
Depending upon the nature of our relationship with the active addict, we often feel trapped in very stressful relational patterns. While we are likely to remain committed to our loved one, we must differentiate the person from their disease. Upon entering recovery, we have the prospect of welcoming them back. As long as they remain active, setting boundaries and limits for ourselves is vital and beneficial to all concerned.
When the Addict is Your Partner
One of the first things a partner of an active addict/alcoholic will tell me is exactly how long they’ve lived with an intolerable situation and everything they’ve tried to inspire change. They will then explain that they are too invested that they cannot walk away. While I understand this sentiment, I also know that this creates opportunities for coercion. The active addict knows our motivations and will use them to manipulate.
Addiction in a partnership creates patterns of unspoken agreements and expectations. What is expected of the healthier partner steadily increases while expectations of the addict dwindle. The key here is that these arrangements are unspoken. Bringing these issues out into the open can easily lead to conflict. The key to change then is to simply state (and consistently reinforce) what we are and are not willing to do.
When it’s Mom or Dad
Relating to our parents/caregivers changes throughout our adult years in response to a myriad of factors. Regression, the need for additional support in daily living, and medical concerns are natural parts of our parents aging. The impact of any form of addiction is most often to exacerbate these challenges and to complicate how we relate to our elder family members. In most families, this goes to one of two extremes: sharp increases in enmeshment and dependence or isolation and avoidance.
I urge folks to examine the support they provide and to consider which aspects are healthy and which support their parent(s) in continuing to abuse substances. Expressing concerns to those who raised us is uncomfortable at best. The best approach is to be a unified front (amongst other family members involved) in sharing what we need the active addict to understand.
The most important distinction with our children is whether or not they are minors. If so, we can dictate whether they will be in treatment and what types of restrictions will be in place. If they are adults, what we can demand is little or nothing. Either way, addressing addiction in our children is the ultimate example of tough love.
Providing financial support, housing, transportation, or other privileges to a young adult in active addiction can only be seen as contributing to destruction. Communicating our concerns indirectly or passively will fail. Ask directly for what you need to know and speak clearly what your concerns are. Set limits on what support you’ll provide and make it contingent upon abstinence.
Dr. Seuss said it best, “Be who you are and say how you feel…” If you’re angry, be angry. Bottling up your negative emotions while your loved one “hits the bottle” is a disservice to you both. View arguments and other types of conflict as an invitation that we’re free to decline. Spot the guilt trip/manipulation when it’s coming and choose not to go. Just as I urge people in recovery to be rigorously honest with themselves and to consciously choose their response to life circumstances, so too do I recommend these approaches to those who love an active addict.
Jim LaPierre LCSW, CCS, is a recovery ally, clinical therapist, and addictions counselor. He publishes weekly for the Recovery Rocks section for the Bangor Daily News and welcomes your questions and concerns via firstname.lastname@example.org.