Helping vs. Enabling in Addiction Recovery

enabling versus helping in recovery

A common argument among parents when they’re trying to help their drug or alcohol-addicted youth is the approach. One parent might be fearful of throwing their son or daughter out on the street because they fear the repercussions. 

On the other hand, the other parent feels that tough love is the best course of action to help their child address their addiction. “Let them go out on the street and get arrested, it’ll help them!” Maybe you’re in a similar situation, and you’re wondering if you’re helping or enabling their addiction. We’re here to say it’s OK if you don’t know the right option. This is all-new, and it takes time to adjust, but we’re here to help you understand this invisible thin line. 

One such thing you need to learn is that addiction is more than a matter of willpower. Many people fall into this false belief that by exercising your willpower, you can overcome addiction. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Addiction is a severe illness that will overtake and destroy all aspects of your life. First, it will affect the individual. Then it’ll branch out and adversely affect the lives of those around the person. Even worse, those going through addiction may not realize it until it’s too late. 

Addiction is powerful enough to change how you feel, think, and even behave. You might look at your son or daughter and think that’s not the person you raised. You’re right—it’s their addiction. These changes can often be seen through behavioral patterns, such as poor hygiene, stealing, depression and mood swings, financial difficulties, and disconnecting from people around them. When you start noticing this, it’s understandable to have conflicting opinions on how to help the person. 

While you may want to approach this softly and with love, the addict might see this as a weakness and look to expose your vulnerabilities. Remember, they’re not themselves. If you’re willing to give them money for “food” and turn the other cheek, they’re going to take full advantage of your kindness. At this stage, you must learn the difference between helping them and enabling their illness. It’s easy to get caught up in their chaos, especially if you’re enabling them. You’ve seen their decline. You’ve done what you thought was right to help. You’ve sat them down and asked them to change, or maybe you’ve begged and pleaded. When you got fed up, you even threatened, yelled, or cried, but nothing changed. 

What you need to keep in mind is that they hear you. They aren’t happy about what’s going on, but their addiction affects the area of the brain responsible for reasoning and impulse control. At this point, you’re walking the invisible thin line of addiction. You’re starting to realize they can’t stop, no matter how hard they try or how much you beg. At this point, they might be using more, driving while intoxicated to pick up more alcohol or drugs. Maybe they’ve even stopped going to work, and you’re starting to see money go missing from your wallet or bank account. 

At this stage, you likely don’t know how to feel. You love who that person was, but you hate who they’ve become. They’re happy with you when receiving help, like money, shelter, or food. However, you’re not happy at all. You’re tired of bailing them out and fixing their problems. It’s starting to take its toll on your mental and even physical health. You don’t remember when you were happy, and you’re trying to survive. Your objective was to help, but you’re starting to realize things are worse now than ever. You might even be thinking that kicking them out and giving them a dose of tough love might be your best option. 

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

helping versus enabling in addiction recovery

In short, enabling is doing something for a person who is fully capable of doing it themselves while helping support healthy choices that lead to recovery and wellness. When a person progresses far into their addiction, they can’t conduct many things without help. It’s gotten so bad that they can’t even hold down a job. Now, with no money and a wealth of time on their hands, they start asking for yours. If they own a car or a house, they’ll begin to miss payments. Any cash they do get goes to drugs, so now they’re malnourished or don’t have any gas to pick up their drugs or alcohol. It’s an endless cycle of misery and poor me. 

The individual might be relying on you for support, but remember, they might be exposing your weakness to help. Substance abusers are intelligent and know what buttons to push to get what they want. They’re master manipulators and will tell you everything you want to hear. They might show you they’re needy and weak, but it’s a mirage. Here’s something to ask yourself – are you starting to make excuses for them? Who do they call first when they need help?

When a person is addicted to drugs or alcohol, their substance of choice makes them feel better. If you’re an enabler, giving in to their demands makes you feel better. In essence, both parties are doing something. The addict is addicted to drugs, while you’re addicted to the temporary relief you get by giving in. This is leading to even worse and longer-term problems. 

At this point, you realize that enabling is harmful. You’re doing the addict a disservice by giving in to their outrageous demands. You’ve given up your life for their addiction. People enable out of fear or as an act of misguided love. Well, maybe you’re tired of this. You’re done worrying if they’re going to crash when they drive drunk or overdose because you’ve heard the news about fentanyl-laced drugs. You’re done. How do you stop enabling addiction?

How Do You Stop Enabling Addiction?

In theory, it sounds simple. However, the reality is, you’ve likely developed issues as well, meaning you’ll probably need psychological help to overcome your codependency on the addict. Enabling has an exceptional impact on your life and the lives of the people around you. You might fear that the person you’ve been helping this whole time feels you abandoned them, manipulating you into staying around even longer. However, it’s time to move on. These are all valid concerns, but the alternative is far worse. Imagine if that person died – you’d blame yourself forever.

In this case, you need to start asking tough questions. Are the consequences of stopping enabling that lead to short-term pain better or worse for the addict in the long term? Prolonged drug and alcohol abuse destroys lives, evident by the tens of thousands who die each year from overdoses. Maybe they survive, but there are other issues they can experience, such as STDs, organ failure, and more. So, what do you do?

Enabling isn’t an easy habit to break. The first step is to redefine what supporting the addict means. It means you’ll need to do things that make them upset. They’re going to be angry with you now, meaning you can’t give in to them or their manipulation. Keep in mind, once they do get sober, they’ll eventually thank you for caring about them enough to cut them loose. 

Here are a few tips to stop enabling your loved ones by getting them the help they need:

  • Stop making excuses for them.
  • Don’t take over their personal responsibilities.
  • Don’t come to the rescue when they’re experiencing legal or financial consequences from their addiction.
  • Stop giving them money.
  • Let them experience the consequences of their actions.
  • Support their recovery efforts by researching facilities and reading addiction and recovery blogs.
  • Start setting boundaries.

Setting boundaries allows you to take back the control they’ve stolen from you. It lets the person know what you will and won’t accept. However, it’s easy to set expectations. The hard part is following them and sticking to your guns. When you don’t give in, the addict becomes responsible for their actions and consequences. They have to face reality, which means they’ll have a reason to seek help. Remember, these boundaries are ultimately for you. You must say no and put your foot down. Let them know who has the problem. 

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