Chances are that if you or someone you love is or has ever struggled with substance abuse then you have heard the term “enabling” before; the two just seem to go with one another more often than not. And it can be a hard term to come to grips with for a multitude of reasons; chief of which is that someone you love is in a fight for their life and no one wants to think that in an effort to save that someone they might actually be contributing to the problem. If it wasn’t a prevalent problem there would be no need to talk about it, but the reality is that it is a problem and it needs to be discussed. It is important to remember that we are not discussing helping versus not helping, but rather we are going to talk about what it looks like to help in a healthy and constructive manner.
Addiction Behavior is Not Rational
As humans we are both emotional and relational; we have the capacity to love one another. That is what defines us as humans. And nowhere is that love more evident than in the relationship between parent and child; it’s hardwired into our genetic and spiritual makeup. It is only natural to want to save our loved one to want to help in any way possible. That desire is good and pure; all the more reason to understand the difference between enabling and actually helping.
I have not yet had the blessing of being a parent and I don’t know what it feels like to be a parent watching their child struggle with addiction. What I do know is what it is like to be that struggling son watching my heart broken and terrified mother try to do everything she could to save me. That is my own truth. What my mother did not understand is that she could never save me from addiction or the hardships that came along with it, and neither can you with your child. I’m sorry if those words land hard, but I would rather they land hard than not at all.
What is Enabling?
The dictionary defines the word “enable” as giving someone the ability or authority to do something. When dealing with someone in active addiction it is really important to ask the question “What is it that I am affirming if I… (fill in the blank)”. Whatever action that is taken or not taken will ultimately affirm some sort of behavior one way or another, and the effects of the affirmation are usually blown out of proportion in the mind of the addict. It is important to understand that a person that is engaged in active drinking or drug use does not perceive reality the same way that you do; I know that I myself and countless others did not while in active addiction. The disease of alcoholism and addiction is many things, but one of its major defining characteristics is that it is a disease of perception centering in the mind of the alcoholic and addict.
From the outside looking in the behaviors of an alcoholic and addict seem nothing short of pure insanity, and you would be right in thinking this. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten the person engaged in the insane behavior does not view their behavior as being objectionable. And that is why it is so important to consider what will be affirmed when dealing with them. The fine line between helping them and enabling them is this: helping them means doing something for them that they are not capable of doing on their own, enabling is doing anything for them that they should be doing on their own. The great danger with enabling is that it affirms the delusional state of reality that the alcoholic and addict lives in.
Enabling Takes Many Different Forms
There are many way different behaviors that fall under the umbrella of enabling. They include: covering financial expenses, lying on their behalf, making excuses, bailing them out, cleaning up after them, not following through with promises and ultimatums; the list goes on and on. What all enabling behaviors share in common is that they allow the alcoholic and addict to avoid any responsibility for their actions. You may have been able to achieve some semblance of damage control, but as far as the alcoholic and addict is concerned nothing is or was wrong. And that whatever behavior they were engaged in has no real-life consequences. I know that when my mother did this for me it was not her intention for me to avoid taking any responsibility, but rather she was trying to give me chance after chance to pick myself up and get my life together.
But for any person to be able to pick themselves up and get their life together it means that they would have to at first fallen down. And eventually I did fall down, and it hurt in more than one way, but it was only then that I was able to take responsibility and get into action to pick myself up and get my life together. As counter-intuitive as it may seem all of my mother’s efforts to give me chance after chance were actually the very things that kept me from having a chance. And that may be a really hard truth for readers to digest, but it is far easier to digest that truth than to continue to allow the vicious cycle to continue. It is misery for both you and your loved one.
Living Life on Life’s Terms
There is nothing more empowering to an individual than the feeling that comes when life is met head on. Chances are great that the alcoholic and addict hasn’t felt that for a very long time, if they have ever felt it all. Even when the mess and hurt that has been created seems impossible to ever make right, the sheer act of be willing to face it opens the door for hope. Hope is something that has more likely than not disappeared from the heart of the alcoholic and addict, and perhaps has even disappeared from those that love the alcoholic and addict.
But a glimmer of hope is all that is needed to break the chains that bind the heart and mind of an alcoholic and addict. At my own end hope was gone, if I had any hope whatsoever is was that I would die. My mother however had not given up hope, and when I finally fell she did not reach down to pick me up. It is arguably the hardest thing that she ever had to do, and it is without a shadow of a doubt the greatest act of love that I have ever received in my life to do date. What her action or rather restraint (depending on your point of view) said to me was “I do not support or agree with your path of death and destruction”. No longer was I being enabled, rather a boundary had been set on what would and wouldn’t be supported. When the choice is made to support rather than enable, the alcoholic and addict will ultimately come to face a choice of their own.
We Do Not Get Better Overnight
I cannot promise that when that choice is made that everything gets better all at once, maybe it does and then maybe it doesn’t. What I will promise is that it will mark the beginning of a new period, one that will bring resolution and maybe even some peace of mind. Within this choice is the mindset of focusing on that which you have the power to control. You cannot save them, but you can guide them to a means by which the can save themselves. Here I feel it necessary that I am in no way saying that anyone should just step back and allow one person’s addiction to burn down the lives of everyone around them. What I am saying is that rather supporting via control, support via compassion should be the goal.
Compassion is defined as the sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. The path of compassion is not easy; however, it is rewarding. Frustration and anger are more often than not the primary feelings of someone with a loved one struggling with alcoholism and addiction. However, justified those feelings maybe I would challenge the reader to ask themselves how well those feelings have been working out for themselves or their loved ones. I promise that they are angrier and more frustrated with themselves than anyone else could ever be. Because of this the alcoholic and addict suffers, but they will often vehemently deny that fact of their lives even though it is plain as day to you. That is where compassionate support can begin. Just the sheer acknowledgement of that suffering has the power to begin breaking down the walls of denial that inhibit your loved one from taking the action to seek recovery.
Drugs & Alcohol Are Just A Symptom
Alcoholism and addiction along with all the behaviors that come with it are only but a symptom of a deeper problem. It is easy to become hung up on the external consequences, and while I am not advocating that they are discounted by readers I am advocating that they be looked past to the pain beneath the surface of your loved one. Here I strongly suggest some research of your own to bring understanding for that is the first step in love. Understanding begets empathy, empathy begets compassion, and compassion begets love. That understanding will also help you to have some compassion for yourself and the suffering that you are having to endure as a direct result of your loved one’s own suffering.
Continually shining the light onto the true problem at hand by re-directing all the excuses and deflections of the alcoholic will guide them to the choice of whether they want to do something about it. There is an idea in the world of addiction and recovery that an alcoholic and addict won’t stop until they want to, an idea which I strongly disagree with for many want to yet cannot. I would contrast that idea with the idea that an alcoholic and addict won’t stop until they work to stop, and the first step to that work is the acknowledgement of the problem.
Love Doesn’t Mean Making the Easy Decisions
I did not start that work on myself right away when I fell, it took some time. During that time my mother’s actions were to let me know that she knew that I was carrying around a lot of pain, she knew that I was suffering, that she knew this wasn’t really me. What she was doing was letting me know that I had a problem. For years I believed that I was the problem, and I was bound in chains by that idea. Because of my mother’s love and support those chains began to break, and though I was still blinded to much I began to see the problem for myself. Instead of enabling me she was empowering me to pick myself up and stand tall on my own two feet.
While my mother’s love is special to me personally, it is not special in the sense that her love is more powerful than another’s. The love that you have for your child or spouse is just as powerful and can guide any alcoholic or addict towards making the decision to live and fight for their lives. To circle back around to the beginning, it is impossible for any human power to save the life of the alcoholic or addict. But it is possible to be the conduit for love in the alcoholic and addict’s life to empower them to pursue action necessary to save themselves.