5 Ways We Enable Addiction in Our Loved Ones

Friends and family members often struggle to understand and help loved ones with untreated substance abuse disorders. 

People react differently in this kind of situation. Some react in anger, turning their backs, placing blame, and unwittingly adding to the problem. Others are in denial: because their loved ones don’t necessarily fit into the mental image of an addict we’ve been fed by the media, that must mean it’s “not that bad.” Both of these reactions are less than productive in reaching the ultimate goal: alleviating the substance abuse disorder, and helping to facilitate healing in the people we love.

Because in the end, though it may be hard to see, both of these reactions are from a place of love.

However, there is one reaction which may be more harmful than both of those mentioned above. When we internalized the blame for our loved ones’ disorders, guilt can be all-encompassing. We assume that if we had simply modified our own behavior – intervened earlier, been more available, been a better parent/child/sibling/friend – drug or alcohol abuse and dependence could have been avoided. That kind of mentality can be dangerous; in an attempt to remedy our perceived shortcomings, we may find ourselves becoming unwitting enablers.

Here are 5 ways we enable our loved ones:

Ignoring Obvious Signs of Substance Abuse

This may seem like a no-brainer, but when we elect to ignore the signs that our loved ones are abusing drugs or alcohol, we only end up empowering the development of an addiction. This includes not addressing frequent hangovers, blatant public drunkenness, fresh track marks, or recurring nosebleeds. Often these apparent slip-ups are signs in themselves; outcries for someone to intervene and show their genuine concern. While it is entirely possible addressing these signs may be met by resistance, denial, or anger, not doing so will leave you always wondering what would have happened if you had spoken up.

What’s most important in addressing these signs of substance abuse is to ensure your approach is non-judgmental and non- aggressive. While an intervention filled with family and friends may seem the way to go, this is typically reserved for situations in which all other options have been exhausted. Speak to your loved one in private, be direct, but non-accusatory. It’s also important to make your feelings known, but do not allow emotion to rule the conversation – you may become quickly derailed from your intended purpose. Gathering educational materials beforehand can help you get your point across without seeming like you are chastising or speaking down to them.

Above all else, make sure your loved one knows they are loved and supported.

Making Excuses for Behavior

Do you find yourself excusing or deflecting attention from negative behaviors that have cropped up in association with substance abuse? Things like missing appointments, brushing off responsibility, or sudden disappearances are giant red flags, and by covering for your loved ones, you are yet again continuing to enable their behavior. Not only are you teaching them that they can rely on your to hid their problem for them, but you are standing in the way of others who can help end the suffering. You may think by protecting them from the ramifications of their actions, you are helping, but in reality you are becoming part of the problem.

Your loved one does not need you to defend their disorder. When one is active in their substance use, their minds are under the influence of a desperate need to satisfy the mental and physical cravings for the illicit substance(s). Deflecting attention from the unusual behavior concurring with these driving urges will only serve to help further that all-encompassing need.

Providing Money

When one is in the throes of addiction, money has one purpose: being traded for drugs or alcohol. While so-called “functional addicts” may be able to keep up with work and bills for a while, eventually things come to a head. Money issues sprout up as the addicted mind changes priorities to ensure it can get the thing it so desperately desires. As debts increase, eviction looms, and bill collectors begin their hounding calls and letters, it may seem instinctual to offer a few dollars to help. Unfortunately, sometimes that help backfires, and instead of bailing your loved one one, you may find yourself also facing money issues.

There’s also the other side: sometimes the guilt is so much, we find ourselves helping our loved ones maintain their supplies of illicit substances. We do so out of the belief that it is better this way; because it’s better that they get the money from you than through sex work or crime, right? As noble as that may seem, your monetary support is once again enabling their disorders to advance and worsen. By providing bailouts, you set yourself up to be nothing more than a resource to be taken advantage of. The moment your contributions turn into drug money is the moment it’s time to cut of the flow.

Bailing Them Out of Rehab

This one can be especially tough for the family members and friends of people in recovery. Sometimes they reach the decision to give up their vices and seek sobriety through a rehabilitation service – only to change their minds when rehab proves to be difficult. They beg and plead to be released from the program, or sign themselves out prematurely, only to return to the everyday world without any of the tools and coping mechanisms one would learn through completing the treatment program. Eventually, because there has been no progress made, relapse generally happens within a few months of returning home.

What is important to understand is that the purpose of rehabilitation is to facilitate the exploration of the underlying causes of addiction and enact changes in thinking and behavior to achieve long-term sobriety. This is understandably a difficult task to achieve; some people simply aren’t ready to face the things they have spent so long burying deep within themselves with substance abuse and avoidance. However, the best thing you can do when your loved one wants to give up on their journey to sobriety is remind them of all the reasons they began it in the first place. Your loved ones need encouragement, not rescuing.

There are, of course, situations in which a rehabilitation center is not right for the person in recovery. This is not reason enough to allow the journey to end; doing proper research before enrolling can help avoid these situations, but if it happens anyway, that doesn’t mean recovery is impossible. Help your loved ones find a proper facility which works best for them, find a substance abuse support group, or a therapist specializing in addiction, but don’t let them give up on themselves. They may be angry and resentful in the moment, but in the end, they will thank you.

Letting Them Put off Recovery

Letting them put off recovery goes hand in hand with bailing them out of rehab. The harsh but honest truth is “eventually” doesn’t always come for everyone. The risk of overdose and death is constantly around the corner; beyond that, the earlier one obtains sobriety and begins to lead a sober lifestyle, the less damage caused by substance abuse. Additionally, the where damage has already set it, beginning down the path to sobriety can help reverse some of those negative health effects.

Deciding that sobriety has to wait until after ______ is just another deflection method. While taking your time to find a fitting recovery center is commendable, when there’s always an excuse for why one cannot take the dive just yet, second-guessing and justifications set in. The longer someone is in limbo between substance abuse and sobriety, the easier it is to slip back into familiar habits and thought processes and convince one’s self rehab isn’t necessary. While you cannot push your loved ones into rehab, keeping them on track and encouraging recovery now rather than later could be the push they need in the right direction.

Harbor Village therapist Alexandra Weisz explains enabling behaviors and the unintended consequences.


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