There are almost 20 million Americans who are battling some form of substance abuse problem. Several factors tend to exacerbate the problem, everything from the increased availability of illegal drugs and prescription medications to glamorous portrayals of drug and alcohol use in the media. One of the less frequently discussed factors, however, is the often unintentional enabling of the alcoholic or drug addict by caring friends and family members.
What Is Enabling Behavior?
When we see our loves ones in physical or mental distress, our natural reaction is to want to help them. For example, a mother who sees her child fall and hurt himself naturally wants to pick him up and ease his pain. A sibling who sees a brother or sister struggling financially is usually quick to offer money to help.
Unfortunately, our desire to help often extends to circumstances in which a family member or friend is hurting as the result of substance abuse. In these instances, the natural desire to help can inadvertently extend or exacerbate the addiction problem.
For example, a person who has a problem with drug addiction usually needs money to feed his or her habit and will lean on family members to obtain that money. Caring family members concerned that the addicted person won’t be able to buy food or pay rent will accommodate him by giving him cash which he then spends to buy more drugs or alcohol—and the cycle of addiction continues.
Very Well Mind describes enabling behavior in this way:
“Enabling is defined as doing things for the alcoholic that they normally could and would do for themselves if they were sober. In contrast, helping is doing something that the alcoholic could not or would not do for themselves if sober. Helping does not protect an alcoholic from the consequences of his or her actions.”
Are There Things Family Members Can Do to Stop Enabling an Addict?
The first thing family members need to do is fully accept and acknowledge the problem and the danger it creates for the addicted person should their behavior continue. Beyond this, you need to carefully examine your own behavior to see if anything you’re doing constitutes enabling behavior.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t take proactive steps to help. For example, you should support any efforts to seek out recovery and rehabilitation, set appropriate boundaries and ensure that there are consequences for negative behavior. What you should not do is make excuses for bad behavior, assume responsibilities which the addict should be handling on his own or protect him from any legal problem his behavior engenders.
To be specific, here are 5 things you can do to stop your enabling behavior:
- Don’t support an alcoholic or addictive lifestyle: this means you shouldn’t pay bills he would be paying if his substance abuse hadn’t caused him to lose his job or give him food or shelter because he can’t pay for them on his own. This can be difficult—it’s hard to see a love one in this situation but subsidizing his lifestyle will allow him to continue drinking or taking drugs. You should also persuade an addict, on his own and without your help, to take the steps necessary to get a job or find sources of help, like the address of the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
- Stop making excuses: accepting and acknowledging the extent of the addict’s problem is critical to putting him on the path to recovery. That means you need to stop lying and making excuses for him, like calling his boss to say he can’t make it to work because he’s “sick.”
- Don’t take on responsibilities which would normally be his: if an addict has a dirty house, don’t clean it for him. If he has children, don’t become a substitute parent. Again, this can be challenging, but by making things easier for an addict, you’re unintentionally relieving him of the consequences of his addiction.
- Stop giving him money: 9 times out of 10, if an addict says he needs money for groceries, tuition, school supplies or virtually anything else, you can rest assured he’s going to spend that cash on drugs or alcohol. The simple solution: don’t give him money, even if the two of you agree that the money is a “loan” and not a gift.
- Don’t bail him out of jail: if your addicted loved one is arrested, he’ll probably call you or another family member to post bail—don’t do it. A stint in the local jail won’t kill him, and it could be just the push he needs to understand that he’s hit bottom and needs to change his behavior.
Family Help for Addiction Treatment in the Central Valley
Needless to say, none of these steps is easy, but neither is watching someone you love sink deeper and deeper into a protracted addiction. By understanding that the physical and psychological consequences of drug or alcohol addiction are likely to be devastating, showing an addicted loved one that you understand this, setting appropriate boundaries, and forcing him to take responsibility for his actions, you move him and you one step closer to a lasting recovery.
First Steps Recovery in Clovis, California, specializes in family care and can offer important information for you as you navigate how to best love the person in your life struggling with substance use disorder. Call us today for a free consultation and advice on your best next step.