“Sometimes we need a helping hand, and sometimes we just take advantage of one. How can you know the right thing to do? PeopleImages/Getty Images
Most people desperately want a friend or relative dealing with addiction to recover, but the sheer complexity of these problems makes it tough to know what behaviors are supportive versus enabling, a lesson that Boca Raton, Florida-based wedding photographer Erica Hartwig learned with her first husband when he became addicted to pain pills.
"We had shared bank accounts, and I should have not let him have any money but, there were times I would give him money for food or gas and he would use it for drugs," she recalls. "He would promise me he wouldn’t use [it] for drugs but always did."
Although enabling behaviors are usually done out of love, they can actually backfire for everyone involved. "When you enable someone, you’re giving them permission to continue their negative behaviors," says Dr. Sal Raichbach, an addiction psychologist with Ambrosia Treatment Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, in an email. "It might feel like you’re helping them through a tough time, but you’re actually doing the opposite of helping. Even if your intentions are good, your efforts shouldn’t make it easier for them to continue their behavior."
The Difference Between Enabling and Supporting
It’s often tough for a person in the thick of it to realize which type of behavior they’re engaged in. "Support means being honest with your loved one even if they do not want to hear what you have to say, researching treatment centers for your loved one, not making excuses for your loved one’s behavior, and showing your loved one ‘tough love’ by not covering up the problem, but rather exposing it," emails Kristen Fuller, M.D., a clinical mental health writer with California-based Center for Discovery.
By contrast, she says, "Enabling usually consists of ignoring the problem, covering up your loved one’s mistakes, allowing your loved one to make excuses for their actions, purchasing alcohol or drugs for your loved one because you feel bad and allowing your loved one to spiral out of control because you are afraid of getting in trouble if you speak your mind."
So when many people try to be understanding and not "too hard" on a person in turmoil, it actually delegitimizes the problem because it’s not being recognized, addressed and treated.
"This disempowers the one struggling from owning and overcoming their addiction," says Shari Botwin, a licensed clinical social worker. "We’re not born with the need to rescue people. [Often enablers] were made in their own families to feel like if there’s a problem you have to fix it."
Another reason that enabling behaviors persist is because often it’s easier to go along with the problem than trying to fight it. Tony Tan, clinical manager at The Dawn Medical Rehab & Wellness Center in Thailand, notes that enablers are generally afraid to be assertive with the person in question, so they maintain the status quo even as their loved one deteriorates day by day.
"Supporting a person with depression or an addiction means doing what is right and in the best interests of him or her — even when they do not like it," he explains in an email. "This support could involve admission into hospital or rehab to force that person to get the proper help they need."
Some of the more common ways that people enable others is by helping them to avoid consequences, Raichbach explains. This can include lying for them, bailing them out of jail and generally cleaning up their major messes. Painful though it may be to see someone you love fall flat on their face, "When people don’t feel the consequences of their own actions, there is no motivation for change," he says.
Often, people get so accustomed to the behavior that they have little to no expectations from the person with the problem, therefore allowing them to stop participating in their own life. "We’re thinking, ‘OK, they’re really impaired so we’re not going to have any expectation of them getting up at a certain time or engaging in activities or going to school or work,’" says Matt Onorato, a licensed independent social worker and director of social work at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Harding Hospital.
But just because your expectations have been lowered doesn’t mean they should continue that way. Since depression and addiction are real medical problems, Onorato says that it helps to think of treatment and wellness goals as you would another disease, like diabetes, where the patient makes small changes as she’s able and bigger ones as she progresses.
You should support with words, rather taking action on behalf of the addict, says Botwin. "Instead of going over and getting rid of alcohol when the person calls and says I’m drinking again … say, ‘I’ll come over and be there while you throw out the alcohol.’ It doesn’t sound that much different, but it’s hugely different because the person is taking ownership of saying ‘I don’t want this alcohol in the house’ by putting it in the trash [himself]."
Although it might seem cruel, setting boundaries is crucial to the well-being of everyone involved. Boundaries can include limits on how much you see each other or how much the affected person is allowed to complain or talk about their problems to you. If the loved one has an expectation that you are their "fallback" for housing or finances, it’s perfectly fine to draw the line.
"People become dependent on parents or partners for money, but it keeps them from being self-sufficient," Botwin explains. "It’s really about understanding too that just because somebody says that they need money or a place to live that’s not the only option."
For instance, halfway houses or residential facilities can be good alternatives. "Places like that can teach people how to get upon their feet and how to function in the world we live in," Botwin says, noting such setups are helpful because "the family can support [the person] without rescuing them."
Of course, if it’s a dire situation (such as if the addict has been evicted and has no place else to go), it’s OK to temporarily allow the person to stay with you, says Botwin, but there should be boundaries around how long they stay. "Not just open-ended. People get comfortable and end up not wanting to leave."
Wedding photographer Erica Hartwig calls stopping the cycle of enabling "emotionally one of the hardest things you can do. You don’t know if your choices are the right ones. You need to step away, so they can hit rock bottom and pray they make it."
Unfortunately, her ex-husband ended up dying from an overdose. But still she says, "You have to cut someone off. If they don’t want to help themselves you aren’t going to force them to stop. It’s hard to cut someone off. You want to help but, they need to want it too … Stop enabling. [The addict] needs to figure it out for themselves."
Now That’s Important
Support groups for the relatives and friends of addicts (like Al-Anon) can be helpful to people who might be enablers. The website DrugAbuse.com has a lot of resources for people looking for treatment options for loved ones, as does the U.S.-government-run SAMHSA.gov.