I’m hoping that Part One of this article got you thinking about some of the potential ways you may be enabling the addict in your life, so that you can begin to take the steps necessary to truly help them.
It’s understandable if you feel anxious about setting healthy, appropriate boundaries or about making your own self-care a priority. But if you want your addicted loved ones to begin to make better choices for themselves, you will need to make your own healthier choices too.
Here are my Top 5 Reasons to Stop Enabling the Addict You Love:
#5 – Others around you are watching what you’re doing.
When we deal with an addict of any kind, there are always ripple effects that occur—positive or negative.
Consider a scenario such as this: Your teen or adult child is actively using drugs or other addictive behaviours. If you are enabling this person and you have other children, they will be watching as you ‘favour’ the addict, even while the others are trying to do well in their lives. In fact, those children may sometimes resort to acting-out behaviours of their own because #1 – they feel resentful, and #2 – they begin to believe this is the only way to get your attention.
Or perhaps your partner feels somewhat estranged from you because you are so focused on the addict. He may distance himself from you because he feels hurt or disagrees with how you’re dealing with this situation. Or she may collude with you to enable that child, just so the two of you can be on the same page and have something to share with each other. Either way, you may find your world becoming smaller because you’re not reaching out to friends and family—often as a result of the shame you could be feeling. Whether you and your partner are distanced or enmeshed, you will be riding together on the roller coaster chaos of the addiction.
If the addict in your life is your partner—and if you are minimising, making excuses, blaming, and putting up with inappropriate behaviour from him or her—you are undoubtedly teaching your children how to handle this situation. Because it’s what they’ve seen, known, and feel comfortable with, there is a good chance that they will either choose partners of their own who hide from life by using addictions, or they may choose to live that way themselves.
No matter how the dynamics of addiction play out for you, the others in your life will inevitably be watching—they will observe how you handle these types of situations and take their cues from you. The good news is that you are also at choice—you can make the decision to stop enabling and instead heal from your own unhealthy behaviours—thus role modelling something different in the process.
#4 – We cannot control anyone but ourselves—really!
Because we live on a planet of free will, we are not able to control anyone else’s choices or behaviours. We all get to choose what we will do, what we won’t do, and what kind of life we want to have. This holds true for both addicts and their loved ones.
Obviously, you would like the addict you love to stop choosing active addiction. Some of you, as you are reading this, are very worried about what is happening to them. You may not even know where they are or how they’re doing. And, as anyone who has experienced this knows, it’s a horribly difficult place to be.
Unfortunately, there is no magic wand that will give you the ability to “make” the addict behave differently. Many of you already know this, having tried absolutely everything you could think of. The reality is that the only person you can change or have any control over is YOU—and, like it or not, life actually gets easier when we surrender to that truth.
Let’s take an example: What if you wanted a 5-year-old to clean up his room? You tell him to go pick up his toys, and after considering this for a moment, he puts his hands on his hips, looks you straight in the eye and says “NO!!” Short of trying to physically force him to do what you’re asking—which is never a good idea—you really can’t make him do it. So, what’s the answer?
The best idea is to set out some clear boundaries as well as consequences that mean something to him. You could say, “Okay, if you don’t clean up your room, you won’t get to have ice cream for dessert.” Perhaps a consequence that would mean more to that particular 5-year-old might be “Unless you’ve cleaned your room, you won’t get to watch TV with us this evening.” You get to decide what the boundary is and what its consequence would look like. Once the child knows what that consequence is, he understands that he is at choice—he can either clean up his room or not. If he chooses to do it, he gets ice cream after dinner or watches TV with the family. If he doesn’t, he won’t. Either way, you get to set the boundary, and he gets to make the decision about whether or not he’ll take action.
The same is true for the addict in your life. You simply cannot make them stop, it just doesn’t work that way. What you can do is decide what your boundaries are, set out the consequences clearly, and be sure to maintain them if your addict chooses not to comply.
The good news is that we can explore the enabling behaviours we’ve been doing with the addict in our lives and make the necessary changes around that. In my opinion, this is a very courageous stance, because it’s difficult to create change within ourselves. It is also courageous to accept the reality that we are powerless over anyone else’s choices. For some loved ones, this is one of the hardest inner shifts to make. But please don’t give up trying—and get some help with this if you need it. When we stop enabling, we take a very loving stance with the addicts we care so deeply about.
#3 – Enabling only creates more drama—stop cooking with cheese!
Not long ago, there was a fascinating cheese commercial on TV in North America that had its roots in the dynamic of enabling. Allow me to describe the scene to you:
The elderly parents and their middle-aged children are sitting around the dinner table together, as—it seems—they’ve been doing every night for a very long time. We see the parents roll their eyes at one another in frustration, as if to say, “Our kids are still here—how on earth can we get rid of them??”
The adult children just sit there waiting as the old woman waddles into the kitchen, coming out with a heavy plate of food. Everyone simply watches with mild disinterest as she precariously carries that weighty serving dish and ladles the food onto her children’s plates—something they could easily do for themselves. No one offers to help her—everyone just expects to be served in this way. As viewers, we get the sense that this exact scenario has been going on for many years.
Next, we hear the voice-over saying, in a somewhat exasperated whine, “Stop cooking with cheese!” The message, of course, is that if the mother would only stop using such delicious cheese in their meals, her children would move out on their own and give her some peace. When I saw this ad, I was struck by the quintessential codependency of it.
In other words, stop making it so easy for your addict to depend on you in ways they shouldn’t. Stop making it so comfortable for them to behave badly and continue to engage in their addictive behaviours without any real consequences. Instead of getting caught up in the drama of their addicted lives, over and over and over again, making things so easy for them—I urge you all instead to stop cooking with cheese!
#2 – Enabling keeps everyone in their comfort zones.
“Comfort zones” are aptly named because their function is to keep us emotionally comfortable. Addiction of all kinds is also used to keep us emotionally—and sometimes physically—comfortable. It’s easy to see how the two can so often go hand-in-hand.
People use addictive behaviours so that they won’t have to face the reality of their lives. They don’t want to have to feel what they’re feeling, so they hide in an addiction—and they often become experts at citing why they have to do this, especially when the addiction goes on for long periods of time. But there is a difference between a reason and an excuse and, in my opinion, there is no reason to remain entrenched in an addiction. The excuse is that addicts want to feel comfortable.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m a firm believer in being comfortable, but only when that comfort has its roots in healthy solutions. Addiction—that feeling of “I can’t stop doing it”—is never based in anything healthy. There are indeed other ways to deal with life, even when there are physical or mental health issues involved.
Using addictive medications is something that I had to grapple with myself many years ago. When I decided to stop my addiction to the various prescription meds I was receiving from doctors for my Crohn’s Disease, I was very uncomfortable for quite a while, both emotionally and physically. Over the years, I chose to learn about alternative pain control methods instead—and today, more than 30 years later, I take virtually no meds for my ‘incurable’ and at times debilitating condition. When I do really need something for pain control—which does still happen occasionally—I only do this for the shortest period of time possible, precisely so that I don’t become addicted again.
In short, the only way to be able to stop an addictive behaviour is to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable for a time. We need to be open to learning new ways to cope with whatever the addiction was allowing us to hide from. As a loved one, if you want the addict you love to change his ways—and be uncomfortable in the process—then you will also have to change yours.
As we discussed in Reason #8 (in Part 1), when we enable we are really only meeting our own needs, not the needs of the addict. We are in essence staying emotionally comfortable by not requiring very much of the addict. This is not healthy or helpful for anyone. We need to role model something different—a better way to deal with life—by becoming willing to come out of our own comfort zone. It’s not going to work if we expect the addict we love to be the only one struggling to reach that ‘new normal.’
There is a great saying—“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” This is true for enablers as well as anyone else with an addiction. We simply cannot live our best lives if we continue to choose to be chained to any behaviours that do not promote our health and self-respect. You can choose instead to love your addict enough to raise the bar for both of you, so that everyone in this dysfunctional scenario can become healthy.
What an act of courage it is to come out of denial and do what needs to be done—especially when it’s uncomfortable!
And the most important reason of all to stop enabling is . . .
#1 – Enabling an addict is NEVER A LOVING ACT
When you look through the above nine reasons to stop enabling the addict in your life, you can see that trying to rescue someone from themselves does not help them. In fact, most of the time it hinders the person and actually takes them away from the life you’d like for them. Enabling is a classic lose-lose.
There are times and situations when people need to receive extra care from those around them—and when those times occur, it’s compassionate and appropriate to help them. This may happen with young children or when people are ill or unable to fend for themselves for other reasons. An example of this might be the assistance that many countries have been offering to refugees from Syria, who arrive with virtually nothing except the desire for a better life for themselves and their families. But we know that this must be a short-term solution, and that the time will come when they need to provide for themselves. The wrong thing to do would be to continue—without an end in sight—to give and give to people who have the ability to help themselves.
The same holds true for people struggling with addiction. If they continue to be rescued and enabled—especially when they truly are able to make a different decision and begin to look after themselves—why should they try to be productive and self-respecting? If we take that possibility away from them on an ongoing basis, how is that helping them?
Ask yourself this question: Is it really loving of me to spoon-feed someone who needs to start figuring out his or her own life?
Think about why you are enabling the addict you love and see if you can come out of your own comfort zone. How can you help them learn how to help themselves instead? If an addict chooses to stay in active addiction, rescuing them just keeps it all going, as most of us have seen over and over again. How could it possibly be a loving act to assist addicts to stay entrenched in unhealthy, unproductive behaviours that could kill them?
When the enabling stops and the addicted person truly becomes ready to face their own demons, that is when we can step in and really be helpful. To the best of our ability, we can support that person to shift into active recovery. There are many ways to do this—we can financially support their time in residential treatment if we have the means to do that. We can offer emotional support and let them know how proud we are of them. We can share with them what our own recovery from codependency looks and feels like. We can hug them when they’re going through a difficult time but still choosing to remain in recovery, rather than hiding from life in an addiction.
What if we all loved the addicts in our lives enough to do what is right for THEM? What if we recovered right along with them, so that healthy relationships could be forged? What if we stopped the enabling that keeps everyone stuck and serves only to continue the addiction? What if we were courageous enough, compassionate enough, and wise enough to do things differently—and do our part to stop the addiction in its tracks?
To paraphrase that age-old song—what a wonderful world this could be!
This article was kindly provided by Candace Plattor, Registered Clinical Counsellor and Addiction Therapist at candaceplattor.com.
Candace Plattor, M.A., R.C.C., is an Addictions Therapist in private practice. Candace specializes in working with the family and other loved ones of people who are struggling with addiction, in her unique and signature Family Addiction Therapy Program. Candace believes that everyone in the family is affected by addiction and everyone needs to heal. For more than 25 years, she has been helping both addicts and their loved ones understand their dysfunctional behaviours and make healthier life choices. You can visit her website and sign up to receive Chapter 1 of her book, Loving an Addict, Loving Yourself: The Top 10 Survival Tips for Loving Someone with an Addiction, and “Like” her Facebook page.
If addiction is causing pain and suffering in your family, and you’re ready to do what it takes to reclaim your sanity and serenity so you can live your best life, click here for a free 60-minute consultation.