Enabler or a Helper: Which One Are You?

supporting your partner in recovery

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When the person you care about is addicted to drugs or alcohol, the devastation and worry can be overwhelming. While we do not condone our loved ones’ actions, we want them to be as safe as possible, even when using their substance of choice. This is where the lines begin to blur. What may seem like a helping hand or an act of love may well be an enabling behavior.

But what is the difference?

Enabling vs. Helping

Few don’t understand what it means to help someone. The act of lending a helping hand is recognizable in acts of compassion or kindness for someone else. Ideally, there is nothing embedded in the act of kindness. In other words, there should be nothing in it for us. Our outstretched hand seeking nothing in return, we may get a friend out of a tight spot, take a family member to the airport, flowers to a sick neighbor, and so on.

Ultimately, our friend or family member is assisted in some way, is thankful for the assistance, and we feel grateful or privileged to have been able to help.

Enabling, however, takes things a bit further. On the surface, our actions might appear to be helpful to the recipient, who may utter great swathes of gratitude in return. However, lurking beneath lies something altogether different when compared to the flowers we sent our sick neighbor the other day.

Enabling is the act of doing something or taking responsibility for something our loved ones should be doing themselves.

We might continually lend money to someone who refuses to look for work. We might allow an adult child back into our home, rent-free, and stay up all night on a gaming channel. We might loan money for drugs because we are afraid of what might happen if the drug dealer isn’t paid.

Who’s Needing Who?

And therein lies the rub—your value. Your sense of worth and even your identity becomes intrinsically linked to how successfully you manage your caretaker role and your loved one’s dependence on you.

This co-dependent relationship whereby both parties become reliant on one another. Your partner for the continuation of their substance misuse, and you because given a choice between illegal drugs on the street and illegal drugs in the home, it’s a no brainer. At least at home, you know what’s going on.

Your entire day, orbiting a sphere of worry and safety becomes an addiction in its own right. You may be toggling between the safety of your loved one’s drug use, the acquisition of their next fix, and whether you should pay your utilities this month because the money might be needed for drugs.

At some point, you may feel guilty because you can’t do more to help. During the heat of an argument, you might even have been named and shamed because you are doing all you can to help, but it isn’t enough.

The fear is real. Your family member might die if you don’t find another way to help. If your loved one is violent toward you, at least it is you and not some stranger who would call the police. An arrest record is the last thing your loved one needs right now.

Let’s Get Real. Consequences

When we enable, we remove all consequences for addictive behavior and any motivation to change. Think about it, if the effects are being swept up before they have had a chance to create an impact, why behave differently? The need for change and adjustment is removed by enabling behavior.

When dealing with addictions, it can be hard to open up and admit to the problem. Underplaying the frequency of use, your loved one may claim occasional or recreational usage rather than admit to their addiction’s full scope. Enabling this mindset is the removal of natural consequences from their harmful behavior.

Pros and Cons

Ultimately, the cons of their behavior must weigh heavier than the pros. In other words, they must see or feel the downside to their actions over the obvious upside to their addiction. Only then can the balance shift. Once they begin experiencing real impact from their substance misuse, motivation to change will outweigh remaining on their present track.

Switching Back to Helper

Start by asking if what you are doing is making your loved one’s addiction easier. If the honest answer is yes, you may want to consider ways to encourage positive change. It won’t be easy. At first, you may feel tremendous guilt as you begin refusing demands or shouldering the blame for their behavior, but understand that you are both moving toward a healthier place. You will still help and support them but in a different way.

Explain ahead of time what your new boundaries and expectations are. What you are willing to do and what you can no longer do? And stick to it. Explain there are consequences for behavior and that your home will no longer be a home for substance misuse.

Tell them you are not giving up or abandoning them, but that you are no longer willing to take part in their addictive behavior. Inform your loved one that when they decide the time is right to get help, you will be there to offer support and encouragement and that you are looking forward to when that day arrives.

Seek supportive counseling for yourself. You need not wait for your loved one to deal with addiction. Your mental health is important too. Remember, your identity and self-worth may be tied up in caring for your loved one; being prepared for feelings of guilt beforehand may help strengthen your resolve to offer help when they are ready to accept it.

Don’t expect them to be happy with the new arrangement. When you have the conversation, have a trusted other person present if it makes you feel secure.

Query your local chapter of Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meetings designed to help family members learn from and find support among other family members of addicted loved ones. These programs offer ways to learn coping skills through others’ experiences going through similar situations.  Knowing you are not alone and your experiences are not unique can be very refreshing.

When the person we care about is addicted to drugs or alcohol, the devastation and worry can be overwhelming. What we do for them may seem like a helping hand or an act of love, but it may enable their behavior. Becoming a helper supporting a life free of substance misuse is essential if your loved one moves beyond destructive behaviors. With intervention programs and safe transport arrangements, Hired Power can help begin that journey. A leader in the field of transitional recovery services, Hired Power’s discretion and confidentiality assures anonymity through all stages of returning to wellness. Whether moving to your detox program safely to recovery, sober living partners, and the intervention that may have started it all, Hired Power is there for you or your loved one, standing as that bridge between you and traditional recovery plans. You don’t have to struggle alone; our personal recovery assistants are here to help you walk through this process, step by step. Call Hired Power right now at (714) 559-3919. We look forward to hearing from you.