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Supporting vs. Enabling Addicted Loved Ones

Watching a loved one struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction is one of the most painful experiences you can have. You’re inclined to do everything you can to help your friend or family member, and wanting to ease their suffering is a natural reaction to the situation. However, many do’s and don’ts come with the territory, and knowing the best way to behave is not always easy. There can be a fine line between supporting your loved one and enabling addiction further.

Many people have trouble knowing what is and isn’t appropriate in interacting with someone struggling with addiction, and it’s easy to cross the line without realizing it. Supporting your loved one is essential, but enabling them hurts both parties. Being able to tell the difference will allow you to be there for your loved one without encouraging the continuation of drug or alcohol use.

What’s the Difference Between Supporting and Enabling an Addict?

Support is the act of helping someone in recovery, in a way that does not facilitate their use of drugs or alcohol. Enablement, on the other hand, consists of actions that directly or indirectly make it possible for a person to continue their substance abuse. Let’s take a look at the crucial differences between these two behaviors.

Characteristics of Support

When you’re supporting someone, you’re backing them up. You are showing you’re proud of the decision they have made to stop substance abuse, and you encourage them to continue on their positive path. This support can consist of actively helping them stay in recovery, by doing things like reminding them why they are going to treatment, or even giving them a lift to their program or support group when they need it. You’re aiding them in only in behaviors that support recovery. These tips can help you be more effective in your support.

  • Establish your support: The first step in providing support is to openly declare your intention to help. Some people may be too embarrassed or unsure to ask for your help when they need it.
  • Outline what you’ll do: It’s essential to set clear expectations of what actions you’ll take to help the person. Suggest some ways you can assist, like reminding them to take medication or giving them rides to the doctor or clinic.
  • Make yourself available: A significant portion of support is being there to listen and provide understanding. Let them know when you’ll be available, so they know what to expect.
  • Learn about recovery: You can’t be an effective supporter if you don’t know what the person is going through. Learn more about recovery on your own, and ask the person about their experience if you feel it’s appropriate.
  • Give honest feedback: Don’t be critical, but offer praise and constructive feedback without being judgmental.
  • Promote responsibility: Don’t allow yourself to take on responsibility for another person’s recovery. Offer them gentle reminders that their recovery is in their hands.
  • Promote healthy choices: This form of support can be as simple as preparing a healthy meal with them or joining a gym together. Supporting healthy lifestyle choices makes a big difference.

In essence, support is about helping the person in recovery help themself, while doing all you can to maintain your mental health. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you start to get overwhelmed by your role, or you feel your support is starting to slip into enablement.

Characteristics of Enablement

Enabling is performing any action that facilitates the use of drugs or alcohol by your loved one. It can be any behavior that puts a person with addiction in a position to make bad choices. The most common form of enablement is giving money directly to a person newly in recovery. People who have just begun their journey are particularly susceptible to making poor choices and relapsing when given opportunities that seem too good to turn down ⁠— such as getting free money or having someone else pay their bills.

Plenty of other examples of enablement are harder to identify. These actions may seem relatively harmless, but they fall under the umbrella of enablement:

  • Calling in sick on behalf of the person because they were drinking or using drugs the night before.
  • Making excuses for a person who is using drugs or drinking, such as saying, “He had a rough day at work, and he’s just trying to relax.”
  • Making excuses to friends and family when the addicted individual continually misses gatherings or events.
  • Caring for the children of the addicted individual, thereby allowing them to drink or misuse drugs without having to worry about the kids.
  • Accepting verbal, emotional or physical abuse on the part of the person with addiction.
  • Taking over household responsibilities that the person with addiction has dropped.
  • Failing to acknowledge when the person is clearly intoxicated.

Enabling behaviors come from a place of not wanting to “rock the boat.” The friends and family of people with addiction are often afraid that setting boundaries and directly acknowledging the effects of substance abuse will somehow make the situation worse. In the case of someone assuming childcare responsibilities, it feels like the right thing to do to keep the kids safe.

Offering financial assistance is another example of enabling someone’s struggle with substance abuse. You may think that you are helping them with their financial needs, but the funds you are proving may be used to fuel that person’s drinking or addiction. Providing any type of financial assistance can be very dangerous and should be done with extreme caution.

However, in all cases, enabling addiction will only serve to make the addicted individual’s behavior worse and stifle their chances to get back on the road to recovery.

Avoiding Codependency

Codependency is a relationship state in which two people rely entirely on one another to provide the things they can’t provide for themselves. With addiction, codependency is a precursor to enablement.

The person with the addiction usually relies on family members or friends to fund their lifestyle. They may also become unable to fulfill their basic needs, like having a job, eating and having adequate shelter. People with addiction may also seek love and affection from people close to them, especially if they have burned most of their bridges in other relationships.

The family members or friends of the person with addiction usually find motivation in the need to feel they’re being a good spouse, sibling, parent or friend to the addicted individual. Whether intentionally or not, people struggling with addiction are often adept at manipulating these emotions for their gain. These characteristics will help you identify if you’re participating in a codependent relationship:

  • Feeling personally responsible for the other person and their feelings, choices and well-being.
  • Feeling guilt and symptoms of anxiety, like a pit in your stomach, when the other person is experiencing a problem.
  • Feeling strongly compelled to help the person by offering advice and suggestions or offering to fix the issue yourself.
  • Feeling angry and helpless when your attempts to assist are not effective.
  • Constantly trying to anticipate what the other person may need and feeling guilty if you fail to see problems coming.

Setting Boundaries

Boundaries are not easy to set up, and can be even harder to uphold when you’re trying to support someone with an addiction. Substance abuse often comes with crisis moments that can easily convince you to abandon any boundaries you may have set and jump right into enabling your friend or loved one. These three tips can help you in your quest to set appropriate boundaries in your support.

1. Learn to Say “No”

Enablement’s classic symptom is an inability to say no to the person you’re trying to help. Many of us have trouble saying no under normal circumstances, so having to do it in a situation where you feel the other person might then cause harm to themselves in response is even more frightening.

You have to recognize that more often than not, the selfish and manipulative behavior you’re witnessing is the product of the substance talking, rather than your loved one. What you’re saying no to is in your loved one’s best interests, and that’s why you have to put your foot down and stick to it even when there is begging or hurtful behavior involved. Failing to reinforce your “no” will let the other person know they can wear you down in the future.

2. Prohibit Substances

Do not allow the use of drugs or alcohol while the person is in your house. They have to know with all certainty that if they show up with the intent to use a substance in your home, you will turn them away without hesitation. Many people end up enabling their loved ones by purposely turning a blind eye to substance use, or accepting the claim that “this is the last time.”

You should also make it clear that you won’t allow people you know to be drug users or addicted to alcohol in your home. In some cases, a person with addiction may attempt to intimidate you out of upholding your boundaries by inviting over other people with whom you haven’t set any.

3. Don’t Interfere With the Consequences

People with addiction often rely on others to get them out of risky situations. Arrests and other run-ins with the law are unfortunate consequences of substance abuse that friends and family often rush in to help with. Let your loved one know that if they get arrested, you are not going to pay their bail or for a lawyer to defend them. It can feel like you’re being unnecessarily cruel and heartless, but in reality, you are reinforcing the idea that their actions are their responsibility and no one else’s.

Healthy Communication

Boundaries and appropriate support can’t happen without healthy communication. When communication breaks down, all parties can experience frustration and develop deep resentment. When you handle communication effectively, you and your loved one will better be able to reach understanding and create mutual respect. If you’re feeling worn out, hurt, anxious or any other negative emotions in regard to your relationship with a person with addiction, it’s time to use your communication skills to set up boundaries.

The best method of communication is the use of “I” statements, which draw attention to your needs rather than attacking the person you’re talking to. Examples include:

  • “When you get drunk and drive anyway, I feel afraid.”
  • “I need you to get help, because I can’t handle the stress anymore.”
  • “If you continue to use drugs, I will ask you to move out.”

If the person has already violated boundaries you’ve set, you can use “I” statements to clarify and strengthen your follow-through consequences without inspiring the animosity that arises from accusatory statements. Practicing this type of communication helps ensure you’re able to implement it well when the time comes.

Helping a Loved One Seek Help

If the person struggling with addiction hasn’t done anything to seek treatment, one of the best things you can do to support them is to encourage them to get qualified care. However, you already know that they will likely be resistant to hearing what you have to say. Denial is common, and even if they admit a problem, they may still not want to stop using and refuse your help. Listening is your most powerful tool in this situation, and asking guiding questions can help lead the person to the logical conclusion that they need help.

The first thing you need to do is educate yourself on addiction. Learning about how addiction works, how it feels and how the specific substance affects the mind and body are essential in providing useful support.

In some cases, an intervention may be necessary or beneficial. While it is possible to coordinate an intervention by yourself or with other friends and family members, a trained interventionist will be able to maximize your group’s chances of success thanks to years of training and practice with this complex procedure. Interventions are always tense, and can quickly escalate to verbal fights or even violence if the person feels cornered.

Remember, you have no control over your loved one’s addiction, and you can’t stop it. Supporting the individual with strong boundaries and avoidance of enabling behaviors is the most you can do to help, and in many cases that help can make an immense difference in a person’s ability to maintain sobriety.

Get in Touch With Tranquil Shores

If you’re experiencing life with someone struggling with addiction, you’re not alone. Addiction affects everyone in the addicted person’s life, and you deserve support too. At Tranquil Shores, we understand the critical role family plays in recovery, and we invite you to participate in your family member’s treatment through family therapy for drug and alcohol addiction.

We design our family therapy sessions around your unique family dynamic, allowing you to explore the causes and effects of addiction with the help of a highly qualified counselor. Tranquil Shores can help you heal the damage to your family relationships caused by addiction, and provide tools that will help you and your loved one build a strong recovery in a manner that’s healthy for all of you.

If someone you love is wrestling with the influence of addiction, it’s time to take action. Call Tranquil Shores at (727) 591-4119 to learn more about our values and our evidence-based treatment programs for drug and alcohol addiction. With our expertise, your loved one’s hard work and your support, recovery is within reach.

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