Wanting to help a loved one struggling with substance addiction is an understandable and natural response.
Many family members and friends feel that it is their job to help a person suffering from alcoholism and that if they manage the problems caused by the addiction, they can help reduce their loved one’s dependence on the substance.
However, the truth of the matter is these family members and friends, although their intentions are good, are often causing more harm and extending the addiction’s timeline through enabling.
Enabling comes in many different forms; however, in its original context, the term refers to when family members encourage dysfunctional behavior. Unintentional encouragement occurs when family members justify, ignore, excuse, deny, and shield an addiction. Unfortunately, addiction can often only end when a person recognizes and feels the pain their habit is causing.
By enabling a loved one’s addiction, family members prevent the dependent from understanding the full scope of their addiction and the consequences of alcoholism.
Alcoholism is a destructive and painful disease that can often leave friends and family members feeling helpless regarding their loved one’s health. While it may be difficult to accept, addiction is a complex issue that can only be treated by experienced medical professionals. Family members and friends who wish to help their loved ones can only encourage them to seek help and, in the immediate, recognize and prevent any enabling cases.
Making excuses for someone struggling with alcoholism:
Often, someone with an alcohol dependency will create excuses to reduce concern for their alcoholism and protect their continued drinking. Whether it be marital problems, depression, a social engagement, or a difficult day at work, dependents will try to rationalize their addiction to loved ones to downplay the seriousness of their illness.
Other times, people suffering from alcohol addiction will justify their drinking by showcasing the many ways they continue to function day-to-day. These examples often include a job promotion, frequently attending a child’s sports games, or never receiving a DUI. However, these examples only prove a person’s ability to be “high-functioning,” they do not excuse excessive drinking. To prevent long-term alcohol dependency, friends and family should be aware of the most common excuses for binge drinking and not accept these excuses’ continued use.
Doing things they can do themselves:
When someone struggles with alcohol dependency, those close to them can often feel the need to complete tasks on the person’s behalf, as they believe a person struggling with addiction cannot complete them themselves. This belief is untrue and one of the most common forms of enabling. While a person’s addiction may impact their ability to finish day-to-day tasks and chores, a person with alcohol dependency should still be held accountable for daily responsibilities. When possible, family members and friends should avoid offering help with any task they can complete themselves.
Some examples of this include:
>> Giving or loaning money that can be used toward their addiction.
>> Paying bills that should be covered by them, such as rent, insurance, and utilities.
>> Getting them groceries and other household necessities.
>> Researching things that the person can do, such as job opportunities, local AA meetings, and scheduling therapy sessions.
>> Paying for legal fees, bail bonds, or “rescuing” them from legal consequences.
>> Purchasing presents for loved ones on holidays or birthdays.
>> Lying for the person struggling with addiction.
However, not all helpful actions should be viewed as enabling. If a person can no longer get the necessary help to combat their addiction, then family members are encouraged to offer aid. For example, if a person has lost their driver’s license due to past DUIs, offering them a ride to and from AA meetings would be a kind act that provides an opportunity for the dependent to better their lives.
Not setting boundaries:
Setting boundaries is a necessity when preventing future enabling behaviors. Boundaries should be viewed as a way to protect both family members and those experiencing addiction by communicating expectations and future consequences. Family members of those suffering from alcoholism often believe they can help stop their loved ones from drinking. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case as alcoholism is a chronic disease that can only be treated by specialists and medical professionals. By creating boundaries, families of those with alcohol dependency accept that while they cannot control the behavior of the dependent, they have chosen not to suffer from it in the future.
It is essential that boundaries be set clearly and precisely and have direct consequences associated with them. Instead of setting a vague rule such as “no alcohol is allowed in the house,” a person should instead set a clear boundary like “no alcohol is allowed in the house, and if I see any alcohol or you drinking in the house, you will have 24 hours to find a new place to stay.” By clearly communicating expectations, families can prevent future confrontations and start to build back healthy, trusting relationships.
Shielding from consequences:
There can often be severe consequences that result from substance abuse, and many families often feel the need to protect loved ones from these consequences to keep things from “getting worse.” While it is tempting to shield a person from long-lasting or severe repercussions such as loss of employment, expulsion from school, or jail time, these consequences are often necessary to experience the pivotal “aha moment.”
A common example of this behavior is a significant other calling their partner’s work to tell their boss they are sick when, in fact, they are hungover or blackout drunk. The significant other may feel justified in this behavior because they have kept their partner from losing their job. However, this action has only helped their partner in the immediate. As they have not been fired or experienced other consequences for their actions, they have not learned how their alcohol dependency can negatively impact their life.
Allowing a loved one to face the consequences is not an easy task. However, the correct path is not always the easiest. Those who genuinely want to help in the battle against alcoholism must allow a person to find their “aha moment.”