What does “enable” mean? The definition I think applies here, according to Merriam-Webster, is “to make possible, practical, or easy” (emphasis mine).
Enabling looks a lot like love, probably because it’s done through love. We do what we can to make the way “easier” for our loved ones, especially those who we believe need a little extra help. The word “enabling” also implies an imbalance, making something possible that wouldn’t happen without your help.
The relationship parents have with their offspring throughout their childhood is inherently out of balance. Parents have to do a lot for their kids, starting in babyhood and continuing on as they grow. But we teach our kids to walk so that they can learn to walk themselves. We encourage them to get out of the stroller so their legs get strong—rather than pushing them around everywhere.
When we’re enabling an addict, that’s what it starts to look like: like we’re pushing a fully grown adult around in a stroller, when they should have the capacity to walk themselves.
When someone we love needs help, of course we want to do something. But will that help or hurt them? Are we pushing them in a stroller when they need to learn to walk on their own two feet?
That, I realized, is what I was doing—hurting, not helping. I had to ask myself, “Am I an enabler?” I had to look at my behaviors very carefully to pinpoint the ones where I was enabling a drug addict—making the way for his addiction “possible, practical, or easy.” Now that I have some distance from those chaotic days of early addiction, these are the behaviors I would change.
Giving the Addict Money
However sick the addict seems, however bad the withdrawal looks, giving money to an addict for drugs only prolongs the active addiction. But what if the addict says the money isn’t for drugs?
Perhaps they owe someone money and want to get them off their back. Or maybe they need to pay a bill or buy food. At least, that’s what the addict is telling you. But why are they out of money in the first place? Is it because every last cent is going to their drug of choice?
Also remember, the disease of addiction is cunning, and it makes those who suffer from it equally so. Maybe that money really is for bills or food—but addicts lie, so we know what the money is probably really meant for.
Making Excuses for the Addiction and the Addict’s Behavior
Even though we know why our loved one is too tired to engage with the family after dinner, we find more benign reasons for their state. We say they were sick yesterday, or that it’s been a rough workweek. Whether it’s the addict themselves that comes up with these excuses, or we do, either way, we make ourselves complicit in the lie, and thus allow the addiction to continue unfettered.
When it’s the addict inventing ways to justify their behavior, it’s bad enough. They’ll even come up with ways to justify the drug or alcohol use. I need to unwind; it’s been such a tough day. Or I wanted to have some time to bond with my coworkers—and it was happy hour! Or even rope us into it: You don’t understand what I’m going through. And we go along with them.
When the source of the excuse is not the addict, but us, it often involves us covering their butts, for lack of a better term. When they can’t make it into work, we call their boss with an invented excuse. When they miss a family birthday party, we tell everyone they’re sick or working late.
We can even make up these excuses for ourselves: He’s only acting this way because he’s cranky; he’s not using. When we do that, we’re doing just what the addict does—rationalize the behavior so we don’t have to look at the real problem.
Acting As If the Addict’s Behavior Is Not Affecting You
During his active addiction, I rarely told my husband how his behavior made me feel, because I was afraid his shame or anger would keep him using I also didn’t tell him when I suspected he was using—because I was afraid he’d get angry, walk out, and go and use more.
Many of us loved ones keep our feelings under wraps, ultimately because we don’t know if the addict can tolerate them. We see how volatile they can get when things don’t go their way, and we want to avoid that. The addict is already struggling so much, we don’t want to add to their burden—we don’t want to do anything that will make them not want to stop.
What happened with us was that our relationship was no longer a two-way street. Whenever he was unhappy, whether it was with me or with life, I was his outlet, I heard it all. But when I was struggling, I kept it all inside, for fear of upsetting him—and more so for fear of appearing as if I couldn’t handle it.
Taking On the Addict’s Responsibilities
Who pays the consequences when the addict makes a mess? When they ruin another event with their drunken or high behavior, who’s the one apologizing and making excuses for them? Who bails them out of jail if they’ve been arrested? Who gives them rent money when they’re short because they’ve spent it all on drugs?
This is also known as caretaking, and it can be a difficult one to avoid. People in loving relationships often help each other out when needed—when the other is too sick or hurt or busy to take care of their usual responsibilities.
When we’re doing this to take the pressure off them, usually it’s in hopes that with less stress, they’ll use less. But often, all we do is give the addict more opportunity to use. We’re protecting them from facing the consequences of their addiction.
Trying to Control the Addict
Because our lives are so out of control, we loved ones often try to grasp for it wherever we can. This manifests itself in a few ways. For me, the one that has been the hardest for me to let go of is keeping tabs on my husband. I needed to know where he was at all times—and if he didn’t respond to a text or call in a timely manner, my anxiety would spike. If he was out of the house, I worried, knowing he could get hurt or arrested. I felt better when he was home, so then I could get home as early as possible and keep an eye on him.
Loved ones also keep control over the addict by making the addict feel inferior. This might mean making sure the addict eats meals, goes to bed at the proper time, has everything they need for the day—just as you would a child. This also includes criticizing and lecturing the addict on their behavior and how harmful it is—as if they don’t already know that.
This could even include financial control. For a long time during his addiction, I took over our finances. He didn’t even have a debit card—he had to only spend whatever cash I gave him for the day.
None of it of course got him to seek help.
Keeping Secrets for the Addict
One hallmark of the disease of addiction that all involved share is the shame. The shame is what keeps the entire family unit from getting help—and from recognizing how much they might need it. So we keep the addiction a secret.
How do we do that? We tell lies. We make sure that nobody sees how bad it really is by curating the way people see us. We guard with high attention the image of ourselves and our addicted loved one, so that no one could suspect that we are struggling. This could mean amplifying certain accomplishments, making sure we always look “put together,” and shrugging off suspicious behavior.
Ignoring the Seriousness of the Addict’s Behavior
I wasn’t in denial that my husband had a problem; what I wasn’t willing to consider was how much help he actually needed. I thought that the addiction was something he could beat on his own—or maybe just with my help. I was in denial that what he needed was some kind of long term treatment that would require him to go somewhere to get help.
He never once got arrested for his drug use—and that one detail allowed me to believe that he wasn’t “that bad.” And I had other ways of not really examining his behavior or how bad it was. When times got bad, I found reasons not to come home—I’d stay at work late or go out with friends or spend hours shopping.
Sometimes we avoid looking at the effects of the addiction by hyperfocusing on what we can control. We make sure our home is sparkling. We throw ourselves into our hobbies. We work out excessively. We might even start using ourselves, just to rationalize their drug use.
Refusing to Seek Help for Yourself
Living in an unbalanced relationship, whether it’s with an addict or with someone who has an equally serious illness, is exhausting for the loved one—both physically and emotionally. But as loved ones know, they have little time to rest and reflect. However, this is crucial for us to make it through.
And that’s the rub. Often, I told myself, I just have to wait, things will get better soon. But I needed more than just to wait for time to pass. I needed a way to preserve my physical and emotional strength, because my reserves were being depleted, quickly.
Just because my husband didn’t want help, didn’t mean I didn’t need help. As loved ones we do so much to care for the addict, which often means our own needs don’t get met. I didn’t even know what my needs were.
I think the most valuable advice I could give to anyone that is struggling with a loved one’s addiction is to go get help. Talk to a therapist, find a group—even if it’s by phone or online. I know it seems unlikely that someone else would understand what you’re going through—and even if they did, it can seem doubtful that sharing your story with them would help. But addiction breeds isolation, and that’s the isolation talking.
I promise you that someone out there will get it—more than one person, in fact.