When Does Supporting Become Enabling an Addiction?

Many family members of alcoholics will do anything to help out. Offering a place to stay or loaning money are a few examples of the ways loving families try to show support. But when is the line from supporting to enabling an addiction crossed?

Enabling in Active Addiction

Each alcoholic and addict’s story is unique, and the point at which they are willing to get sober can be vary different for each individual. Enabling in active addiction then, can be thought of as any outside help that allows the alcoholic to continue drinking and using comfortably. This would also include alleviating negative consequences that someone would experience as the result of their behavior. A few examples of this type of enabling are protecting an alcoholic from the consequences of their actions, not following through on threats and making excuses for their behavior surrounding drinking and using.

Enabling Addiction in Recovery

When the alcoholic is protected from the consequences of their actions, they don’t see how they are hurting themselves and others. This sentiment remains true, whether someone is sober or using. Many of the enabling behaviors that come up when someone is actively using drugs and alcohol are also issues in recovery if family members allow them to continue. This could look like various forms of rescuing someone from any form of discomfort, covering for a loved one’s mistakes, or believing that the alcoholic’s success or happiness is anyone’s responsibility but their own.

Supporting An Addicted Loved One

There is a marked difference between supporting an addicted loved one and enabling them. Just because someone is addicted does not always necessitate a complete disconnection from them in every way. Each situation is different and there are no hard and fast rules regarding what is appropriate. There are some basic ideas to keep in mind though. Offering help for a loved one to recover from their addiction is a valid way to support. Usually, this is done most effectively with the assistance of a professional.

Reaching out to a structured sober living or an experienced addiction therapist are good places to start. It is important to appraise the individual’s circumstances before deciding what healthy support should look like. There are different options depending on what is going on in the loved one’s life, like offering a treatment program, a structured sober living or another form of addiction support. Letting a loved one know that they are cared for and loved but will not be rescued if they are not willing to change can be very helpful. Financial issues are more complicated, but can be navigated as well. For example, if a family made the decision to pay for a lawyer to help a loved one deal with a legal situation, it could be conditional upon their willingness to enter treatment following release from incarceration.

Supporting A Loved One In Recovery

Regardless of whether a loved in is sober or actively using, Al-Anon is a great place to go and find support and a healthy sense of what boundaries and support should look like. Once a loved one is sober, it can be tempting to forget that they are still an addict and will take some time to fully buy into recovery and change many of their behaviors. Remaining educated and involved in their recovery is very important, while understanding that rescuing is still enabling.

Offering guidance, support and an active participation in their new lifestyle is a good way to support a recovering loved one. There may be times when financial support is needed, and this can be appropriate in some situations if healthy boundaries are established. Offering to help with things like school and vehicles once a loved one has time sober and trust has been rebuilt, are potential ways to support – but only if the family has the financial means to do so.

A Family Disease

So how can a family figure out if they are supporting or enabling? One of the best ways to figure out if a family member is truly helping and not enabling is to pursue their own recovery at an Al-Anon meeting. This is where the family can begin taking steps to recover from the ways that their loved one’s alcoholism has affected them as well as learn to differentiate between supportive and enabling behaviors. It is easy to forget that alcoholism is a family disease and that more than just the alcoholic or addict are affected by it.

Family members can gain a lot by going to meetings so they can talk to people who understand what they are going through. It is here that they can find a support system that can be there when they need help and guide them towards taking care of themselves, whether their loved one is sober or not. If you have a loved one who is an alcoholic or an addict, what is your experience with supporting versus enabling? What have you done to begin differentiating between the two?

-This article was written with contributions from Jack B., New Life House alumni

Last Updated on May 24, 2022


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