Editor's note: The following column is part of an occasional series by Melissa Perrell, patient advocacy officer and vice president of patient services at Novant Health. See links to all installments below.
Those of us who love addicts are desperate for them to stop doing things that hurt themselves and others. Most of us would do and have done almost anything we can to help. As I have shared in previous articles, the best way to truly help is by taking care of yourself and focusing on your own recovery. The next step is to stop enabling the addict in your life to continue his or her addiction.
Enabling is one of the recovery concepts that was most difficult for me to grasp. Sometimes the ways that we show love in a healthy relationship can be the exact things that enable an addict to continue acting out.
The best illustration I’ve seen of enabling was shared at a family workshop on addiction. The speaker asked a woman to stand on top of a chair and her husband to stand on the floor beside her. The speaker explained that addicts are like the woman standing on the chair. They have their head in the clouds and are not living in reality. He then grabbed the back of the chair and started shaking it violently from side to side. The husband instinctively reached out to steady the chair and support his wife so that she would not fall. When a person in active addiction begins to experience shakiness in life, the natural instinct of loved ones is to jump in and rescue the person from falling like the husband in this illustration. As a result, the addict doesn’t experience the consequences of the addiction. This “help” allows the addict to continue “standing on the chair,” or staying in denial and not experiencing the reality that is necessary for him or her to become willing to change.
Because many of us have developed patterns of taking care of others, including protecting them, it can be very difficult to discern that what we are doing is really hurting, rather than helping, our loved one. Changing our behavior is even harder.
To me, enabling is doing anything for the addict that allows him to continue in his addiction. This includes doing things for him that he should be doing for himself: solving his problems, supplying resources (such as money, cell phone, car to drive, place to live) or doing anything to rescue the addict from experiencing the consequences of his actions. I am not suggesting that we stop supporting an addict who is asking for help. Rather, I am talking about how to engage with someone who is in denial and not ready or willing to change.
Many of us have lived as “victims” reacting to whatever chaos results from someone else’s addiction. Things start to change when we realize that we too have choices regarding what we will do or will not do. When we bail someone out of jail, call his school or employer and make excuses on his behalf, or otherwise cover for him, we are helping to “feed the addiction.” It takes a lot of courage to allow those we love to experience consequences. But until they do, they will continue their current lifestyle with no reason to change.
The same is true when we provide things for them that allow the status quo to continue. At first, taking away things we have been providing, like a phone or car or spending money, may feel very uncomfortable. It may seem harsh or “unloving” to ask the addict to move out. But it may take facing the reality of homelessness (or for a teenager, the reality of being sent to live somewhere else) for that individual to become willing to change. Every situation is unique.
I am not advocating kicking the addict out in every circumstance or never bailing someone out of jail. Rather, I am trying to provide examples of how our behavior, which may seem loving and kind, may actually be allowing the situation to continue and, rather than really helping, likely is making things worse or simply prolonging things.
When those of us closest to the addict stop enabling, he or she likely will widen his or her circle and reach out to others for help. While our natural reaction may be to “help” when everyone else has turned their backs, what we don’t realize is that we may be the one family member or friend who continues enabling so that the addict never has to truly face negative consequences.
Remember that nothing changes if nothing changes. As you get stronger and healthier in your own recovery, things will become clearer. Over time, it will become easier (not necessarily less painful) to discern how to truly help your loved one rather than enabling them.