Watching her husband struggle with his substance abuse disorder, including drug and alcohol addiction, was extremely painful for Margaret, especially when he suffered through his failed treatment programs. Every time he entered rehab, Margaret and her family members believed it would be the time that stuck. All the family members thought they had effective ways to help him, that if they loved him enough, helped him as much as they could and made his sobriety their responsibility, then he would give up drugs and alcohol. They are still waiting for that day as they struggle to support him but not enable his addiction. This is the dilemma many family members face with an addict in their lives.
What is enablement?
As human beings, we intuitively support and care for each other; we love our family members through all the ups and downs in life. This care and support can shift and be distorted when there is an addict in the family.
Enabling occurs when the family of a drug addict unintentionally supports their loved one's addiction through thoughts and actions. Helping a loved one is often disguised as love, but in reality, it is a vicious cycle that will allow the drug addict to continue with their substance abuse problem. The reality is that long-term training deters the addict from seeking professional help.
There are many ways to train addicts, such as:
- Giving money to a drug addict to cover living expenses, putting gas in their car, or buying groceries because they've spent all their money on drugs or alcohol
- Allowing someone to use illegal drugs in your home because you think it would be safer than doing drugs on the street or in your car
- Taking on responsibilities for a loved one such as paying the bills, taking care of their children and running the household.
- Covering your loved one's substance abuse, for example, by calling for them with an excuse when they can't come to work.
- Setting boundaries with an addicted person but not enforcing them
- Allowing someone with an active addiction to stay in your house so they can continue to support their habit
- Lying to a drug addict or alcoholic to protect themselves from the consequences of their own behavior
- Tolerating mental, verbal or physical abuse from someone high or drunk because they "didn't mean it"
- Spending a significant amount of money to get someone out of jail for being accused of possession of illegal drugs, driving under the influence, or any other crime related to drug or alcohol abuse
Drug and alcohol addictions train even the kindest people to be masters of manipulation. This can change their entire personality to be harmful and destructive. As a family member, you may think that helping them is the same as helping anyone, fortunately. This belief is fueled by the fear that if you turn your back on your loved one, you will be responsible for anything bad that might happen related to the addiction.
But worries and "what if" scenarios, while well-intentioned, only allow the addiction to continue. Families can allow this thought process to keep them stuck in an endless cycle of enabling. The sadness they feel at the thought of practicing tough love controls their behavior. They will catch their loved one again and again with every fall, guaranteeing the addict that they will always have someone to catch them.
A family member may become very dependent on the addict and may try to control the addiction. They think that if they can just keep the addict from hitting rock bottom, their loved one will be okay. However, if the addict is allowed to bottom out and take responsibility for their own life and actions, they are more likely to be motivated to seek recovery.
How to support an addicted loved one?
Now that you know what addiction recovery looks like, it's important to refocus on support, including for affected family members. The family must make a brave decision to start making different choices for themselves. It can be a very painful and uncomfortable process to engage in healthy behaviors while still supporting an addicted loved one. It may not seem like it at first, but supporting and not enabling an addict is a gift that can push the addict toward recovery.
Educate the family about addiction
It's easy to fall into the mindset that an addict could simply stop drinking or using drugs if they really wanted to change. After confronting an addicted loved one, some family members may become resentful or angry because the addict will not stop using, even with threats, ultimatums, or repeated failed attempts at recovery. Every family member should be educated about the reality of addiction as a brain disorder and how ongoing drug use or alcoholism changes the way our brains are wired. There are many excellent resources online, including the website of NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Find peer support
Peer support groups, such as Al-Anon, Alateen, and Nar-Anon, can put family members in touch with others who know a lot about addiction. All of these types of support groups have in-person and online meetings. People who attend the meetings may realize for the first time the seriousness of addiction. They understand that other families face this problem and learn how those families focus on success. Some families go to meetings just to listen and that's perfectly fine. The key is to start and continue attending and get the support you need.
Look for a counselor
Family members may still believe that they can somehow fix the behavior and get the person off the drug addiction. They may remember how things were before addiction took hold and may be convinced that those good times are just around the corner as soon as they say or do the right thing.
These are thought patterns that are difficult to change, and meeting with a counselor may help. Individual counseling sessions and family counseling sessions can help people resolve their personal thoughts and feelings about addiction, and counselors can provide instruction that can help people when they are struggling.
Have an honest conversation about boundaries
After seeking support through meetings and counseling, families can gain an understanding of the habits and behaviors they would like to change. The best way to make these adjustments is to discuss the plan with the addict in an open and honest way. This conversation can be brief, but the family should emphasize the specific behaviors they plan to change, along with the reasons they are changing those behaviors. Family members should remain positive, emphasize that these changes are based on love, and be willing to stick to the limits and boundaries that have been set.
Stop making excuses
Some of the scariest things that happen during addiction happen when a person is actively intoxicated with alcohol or drugs. The family's goal is to make sure their loved one sees the effects of addiction, so that means the family can't be a cleanup crew. If someone stumbles home and falls asleep in the yard, they stay in the yard. If a person becomes loud at a party, the family does not smooth the social interaction. A person is forced to deal with all these consequences alone.
Families should also resist the urge to keep one's workplace reputation intact. Families might try to smooth it over by canceling work for the addict, or they might force the addict to stop working altogether, so there is less chance of embarrassment. All these actions must also stop.
Do not offer or buy alcohol/drugs to an addicted loved one
This advice seems obvious, but it's important to remember that drugs and alcohol are a regular part of the daily lives of many North American adults. Living with a drinking family can be difficult for an addict, as temptations are everywhere, but family training can take those challenges to a higher level. People with addictions often discuss drug use in terms of celebration. They "deserve" a drink or are "good all week" and can relax on the weekend. Falling into that trap might encourage families to buy drugs or alcohol, or families might consider celebrating with someone who is addicted, hoping to model restrained drug use.
Addictions are brain disorders, and in most cases, people with drug and alcohol addiction are simply unable to regulate their consumption. When they have access to drugs, they take them and take them all. Stopping the enabling cycle means respecting addiction as a disease and refusing to participate in it.
Allow criminal activity to be prosecuted
Much of the behavior associated with addiction is illegal. People with addictions may steal money or drugs, buy or sell illegal drugs, or drive drunk or impaired. These are crimes, and families may have money, legal connections, or both to help their loved ones avoid the legal consequences of these addictions. But in the end, it's not smart.
No one wants to go to jail and no one wants to have a criminal record, and it can be extremely difficult to watch a loved one go to jail or prison. The consequences are swift and usually severe. Families who intervene too early could remove the very real consequence of addiction that could prompt their loved ones to seek help. Families who do not interfere in this process could help the person they love.
Stop funding addiction
Drug addiction and alcoholism can be incredibly expensive and can rob a person of their ability to cover those costs. They might miss work altogether, or they might do sloppy work that ends up costing them their jobs. They may not be able to look for a better job, and in some cases the addiction prevents them from getting a job at all.
Families could ease that financial burden by helping their loved ones financially. Setting limits means that families stop paying for the addict to stay addicted. This may mean seeking separate living arrangements, or it may involve nothing more than a verbal promise that there will be no more money. Whatever step it is, it is important to take it. When addictions become too expensive to maintain and funding sources are difficult to come by, people may finally get the help they need.
Support the idea of addiction treatment
Because families set limits and boundaries and make the effects of addiction more tangible to the addict, they may lead a person to really think about recovery and getting sober. However, that person is unlikely to get better without the help of a treatment center and qualified professionals. Again, addictions are brain diseases that cannot simply be pushed aside with a conversation. They are caused by changes in brain chemicals and require in-depth treatment to restore brain circuitry.
Therefore, families should continue to bring up the idea of treatment as they move away from their previous stimulating behaviors. They should remind the addict that treatment works and that treatment could make the whole family feel better.
Also, family members should remember that some addicted people will not immediately accept the possibility of treatment. It's a scary idea and sometimes people have to think about it before they agree to take action. Families who respect this process of change and who refuse to give up hope, while continuing to support rather than enable, can see sobriety come over time.