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It Takes Courage To Stop Enabling The Addict You Love

It is the loved ones who need to be the people who say to the addict, "We love you enough to no longer support you in active addiction. When you're really ready to be in active recovery of some kind, let us know and we will do whatever we can to help you make that happen." But this is a very scary prospect for most loved ones, and for many different reasons.
Meeting Of Support Group Looking At Each Other Talking
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Meeting Of Support Group Looking At Each Other Talking

We all know that addiction is rampant -- it's a horrific problem for far too many people, all over the world. And even though addiction can take many forms, from mind-altering substances to mood-altering behaviours, one thing is for sure: Most everyone on the planet today is either affected by addiction -- their own or someone else's.

These days, I work primarily with the loved ones of addicts because that is where the changes need to happen first -- or, at the very least, in tandem with the changes needing to be made by the addict. Until friends and family members modify what they're doing in these very difficult situations, it is quite unlikely that the addict in their lives is going to come to them and say, "Please set some boundaries for me! Please let there be some consequences for my behaviour!"

Rather, it is the loved ones who need to be the people who say to the addict, "We love you enough to no longer support you in active addiction. When you're really ready to be in active recovery of some kind, let us know and we will do whatever we can to help you make that happen."

But this is a very scary prospect for most loved ones, and for many different reasons, which we will explore here. I have been an addictions therapist for over 25 years, a recovering drug addict with close to 30 years in active recovery, and a person affected by other people's addictions for my entire lifetime.

This is what I know to be true: When loved ones can develop the wisdom and the courage to stop enabling addicts, changes start to happen -- and often not a moment before.

Just in case you still have a question about why we need to stop enabling addicts and begin to truly help them, here are five reasons.

Enabling keeps the addiction going.

An enabling behaviour is one that makes it just too easy for your addict to continue to stay in active addiction -- such as giving money to him with no accountability, or driving her to the liquor store to pick up her booze. If you're wondering why the addict you love isn't becoming or staying clean and sober, it's always a good idea to take a look at what you're doing -- is it helping or is it enabling?

There is a wonderful saying to consider as you do this inner reflection: "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten."

Simple, profound -- and true.

Enabled addicts lose faith in their own resilience.

When we enable addicts, we generally try to take over their lives and do all kinds of things for them that they are actually quite capable of doing for themselves. We give them money that they haven't earned, we buy and cook their food, we do their laundry, we pay their rent -- or let them live with us, rent-free -- making many excuses as to why. We drive them around when they've lost their licenses to DUI charges, we pay the hydro bills that allow them to have those nice long, hot showers. And the list goes on.

In short, until we see what we're doing and that this isn't helpful, we end up working way harder than they do. In fact, many of them are sleeping all day while we're out earning the money to do all of this for them.

We do this because we're so fearful of what will happen to them if we don't continue this practice. And the excuses we tell ourselves about this generally go something like this: "He can't hold a job" or "She doesn't have any education or training" or "If I don't do these things, her/his life will fall apart."

As we do more and more for the addicts, it gives them the message that we have lost faith in them -- and then they begin to lose faith in themselves. As a result, they depend more and more on us, which is not a healthy outcome for anyone.

If you want this to change, ask yourself these questions:

  • If I enable in any of these ways, what message am I actually giving to the addict I love?
  • Why should they have any sense of their own abilities or resiliency, if I keep doing everything for them?
  • If I don't believe in them, how will they start believing in themselves?
  • If I'm going to work harder than they are, do I really think they are going to ask me to stop doing that?
  • How can I foster in them more of a sense of independence and resiliency, so that they can live healthier, more productive lives?

As a loved one, you're really meeting your OWN needs.

As hard as this might be to admit, the fact is that if you are enabling an addict, you are really meeting your own needs. You are definitely not meeting the addict's needs. You are very likely meeting their "wants" -- but in this case, what they want and what they need are often very different things. Yes, addicts in active addiction generally do need assistance to stop, but no addict needs to be enabled.

Think about it. How will YOU feel if you start saying "no" to your addict? How will YOU feel if you tell them they need to be in active recovery in order to live in your home? How will YOU feel if you set a boundary stipulating that they either have to be at work or in school -- no more using all night and then sleeping all day? What will it be like for you to set and maintain these kinds of very important boundaries?

If you're honest with yourself, it will probably be pretty scary for you, just as it will be for the addict you love. So, in order to not have to feel that fear and anxiety, you'll probably just continue to do what you've always done--hoping and praying for different results that are not going to come.

Enabling and self-respect cannot co-exist.

I believe we know, deep inside, which of our behaviours constitute enabling -- just as we know that we shouldn't be doing them. People often say to me, "I just don't know what to do!" I hear this all the time from the loved ones of addicts.

And my answer usually is, "Yes, you do, you just don't want to have to do it -- which is understandable." It's scary to make changes, but unless we're willing to do just that, our vitally important self-respect will take a hit.

When we do things that we know we shouldn't be doing, especially when they could hurt ourselves or those we love, we can't truly be respecting ourselves. Just as our trust in another person is earned, self-trust and self-respect are also earned by doing the next right thing and the next right thing after that, one step at a time. When we stray from doing what we intuitively know is the correct and healthy next step, we stop trusting ourselves and lose some of our self-respect.

When we've earned our self-respect, we can then role model that to the addict we love by behaving in much healthier ways. It's quite possible that they will want a piece of that for themselves as well.

Addicts do not respect enablers.

Make no mistake -- addicts know when their loved ones are enabling them and on some level, deep inside, they wish you would stop doing that and instead hold them more accountable for their actions. They may never tell you that, because having you change your behaviour could be just as scary for the addicted person as it is for the enabler.

But please understand that when you enable an addict, they are aware that you actually need to be behaving differently toward them, and they want you to do just that.

We now understand that children feel more loved and secure when there is healthy, loving structure in the home. When parents allow their children to run wild and get away with inappropriate behaviour on a consistent basis, the kids often feel confused and unsafe -- and sometimes this contributes to them acting out even more.

The same holds true for addicts in active addiction, whether they are your children, siblings, partners or friends. When you don't take the time to hold them accountable and present solid, healthy boundaries and consequences, they feel like you don't care enough about them to do that.

They feel like you've given up on them, and that's often when they start to give up on themselves. Sometimes they even give up on you, as their loved ones -- and that is often when even more abusive behaviours begin to happen.

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