Today, over 24.5 million Americans struggle with a substance abuse disorder. Most importantly, while the public image of If your loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol, it can be difficult not to fall into an enabling role. Loving someone most often means wanting to take care of them, and whether that’s through monetary support, offering food and shelter, or caring for them in every way, it’s difficult to stop at a moment when it feels like they need that help most.
Unfortunately, doing everything in your power to keep an addict on their feet and moving forward is the worst thing you can do for them, because you are likely simply enabling them to keep using. Without your support, they would fail and would have to seek out addiction treatment, before their addiction got worse and before they caused more permanent problems for themselves.
While it can seem cruel to step away from an addict, it’s important that you learn how to stop enabling your addict so that they can get help.
What is Enabling?
Enabling behavior is most-often characterized by doing things for an addict that they would be able or expected to do themselves if not addicted. This can take many different forms, ranging from paying the rent to feeding and cleaning for someone who is supposed to be a primary care giver. Enabling behavior also means lying for and covering up for your loved one, so that they don’t face the social repercussions of their addiction. It can also take the form of directly purchasing drugs or alcohol to avoid bad behavior or withdrawal symptoms.
- Giving money for food or rent
- Paying debts
- Covering for them with lies
- Bailing them out of jail
- Giving them rides to a place where they might be using
- Cleaning up after them
- Covering for them by working more, taking on their responsibilities, etc.
- Purchasing drugs or alcohol for them
While most of us would never deliberately enable an addict to continue using, even simply stepping up to keep a child from losing a house, lying to stop a partner from losing their job, or taking on more responsibilities around the house can constitute enabling. The question is, how do you stop?
Detaching with Love
Detaching with love is the concept of stepping back and taking care of yourself first. It means that you still love your addict and that you care for them, but you don’t do so at your own expense. This means that you don’t lie for them, don’t work extra for them, don’t expect them to improve or be better, and don’t invest emotional energy into them.
It does mean that they can still live with you, you can still cook them meals, talk to them, offer help and support in a non-fiscal way, and otherwise treat them like you love them. Continuing to offer support and love is sometimes crucial in getting a loved one into care.
What’s a good example of detaching with love? You know that your loved one is going to use and you’re worried about them. You don’t spend hours begging them not to or yelling at them, instead you give them a dose of Naloxone and tell them to be safe. You don’t wait up for them to be home, but you leave food in the refrigerator for them in case they are. You suggest they attend an AA or NA meeting, and give them a schedule of meetings.
In short, you be there, without investing in them making good decisions right then and there. At the same time, you still show that you care and want them to be safe.
It’s extremely difficult to say no to an addict. Many will develop manipulative techniques, will lie, and will often very convincingly act in a way that makes you want to help. However, you should almost always use one criterion for whether you should help.
Would they be asking this if they were clean/sober?
If the answer is no, you probably shouldn’t help. How does that actually work? If your loved one wouldn’t ask for help with rent while clean or sober, don’t help them with it while they’re an addict. If they wouldn’t ask you to lie about why they are sick when clean and sober, don’t do it for them now.
Identify How You’re Contributing
Chances are that you are enabling your addict in several ways, many of which may take time to recognize. Stepping back and reviewing your actions and behavior and how that could or does contribute to addiction is important. For example, if you’re frequently drinking or using yourself, you can assume that’s a contributor. If they are stealing your prescription medication, that is a contributor. If you’re lying to your friends and family for them, that’s contributing to their continuing addiction.
It may be beneficial to write down a list of ways which may be enabling, and then examine how you could change those behaviors.
Create Boundaries and Stick to Them
While you don’t have to start practicing tough love (and you shouldn’t), you should create ground rules for your house. For example, you can make a rule that your loved one isn’t allowed to use at your home, that they aren’t allowed to bring people to your home to use, and that if they do, you will hold them accountable.
You should also openly communicate how and what you are changing, and how you are setting boundaries. If your new rule is “no more alcohol in my home”, you should communicate this, enforce it, and be willing to follow up with repercussions.
The addict in your life should know that you are aware of their addiction. They should also be aware they can turn to you for help. You don’t have to stage an intervention, although you may want to, but you do want to openly communicate that you are concerned about their health, that you don’t want to contribute to them hurting themselves further, and that you love them. Sometimes, the addict in your life will lash out and react with anger to open communication. They may be in denial, be unwilling to face it themselves, and may do just about anything to get you to not believe they’re addicted. Facing this will require self-control over your temper, staying calm, and the ability to calmly share how addiction is affecting them and you.
- Ask open ended questions about your loved one’s life and how things are going
- Communicate how their addiction has affected you
- Communicate how you see addiction affecting them
- Don’t talk about what others think or their career, just them, their health, happiness, and relations
Communicating with an addict can be difficult, but it’s an important part of establishing boundaries and ceasing to enable them.
Seek Out Help
Most people facing an addiction in a close friend or family do not seek out help. Addiction is largely seen as shameful and most of us don’t want to share it. At the same time, managing someone with an addiction is a lot of work, it takes time, emotional energy, and patience. You need help. You can attend meetings, bring your addict to meetings, and work to get your loved one into therapy or addiction recovery. Groups like Al-Anon give you the chance to share your experiences with others, get support in the form of knowledge and peer experiences, and get emotional support.
While your end goal should always be to get your loved one into rehab, where they can recover safely, they may not be ready for that. In the meantime, you can provide support and love without enabling, so that when they are ready, they will turn to you for help.