How to Not Be an Enabler of Addiction

Loving Someone to Death

Recovery is hard. It’s hard on the person recovering, it’s hard on their friends and family, and it’s hard on the relationship. For many, supporting a loved one through recovery can accidentally and unknowingly turn into enabling. How do you know if you’re enabling someone? What can you do to refocus your supportive efforts during a loved one’s recovery? 

What Does Enabling Someone Mean?

Enabling is making it easier for somebody who is suffering from substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD) to continue their addictive behaviors. In truth, enabling is often born out of love. We don’t want to lose someone we love. We don’t want to see them suffer from such a damaging disorder. 

Enabling can be as obvious as buying alcohol or drugs for them. Or it could be much more subtle and indirect, such as giving them money for gas or allowing them to come back to your house after you have told them their behaviors are not welcome in your home. 

If you are trying to determine if you are being supportive or enabling, consider the outcome of your actions. Enabling does not produce change.

How to be Supportive But Not Enabling?

To support a loved one with a substance or alcohol use disorder, and not enable them, focus on offering assistance only in the realm of recovery. 

Enabling behaviors make it easier for someone’s drug and alcohol use to continue whereas supporting behaviors aid their recovery. 

Ask yourself if the actions you take make it easier for someone to keep using drugs and alcohol than to try and quit?” If the answer is “yes,” then you are enabling. 

Supporting someone during their recovery involves 3 key components. It is up to you, as a support person, to determine how to use these components in your unique situation.. 

Support Component #1: Set Boundaries

Boundary setting is hard regardless of the situation. Substance use disorder and alcohol use disorder often manifest in changing how a person thinks and behaves. Suffers may resort to lying, manipulation, and other actions that take advantage of your support. This makes setting boundaries even more critical to not enabling poor behaviors. 

Setting boundaries include:

  • Be clear and consistent about what you will not tolerate. For example, if you do not allow certain substances in your home, stick to this. Do not falter or allow exceptions.
  • Be unyielding in adherence to the rules you set. If your loved one breaks the rule of not using your car to buy drugs, follow through with the consequences for breaking one of your rules. Do not relent on this, even in the face of anger, manipulation, and pleading, etc.
  • Use assertive techniques to firmly yet calmly navigate conflict. Setting boundaries can cause surprise, anger, and perhaps desperation for someone with a substance or alcohol use disorder. Counter volatile emotions with calm, controlled firmness.

Support Component #2: Treating Addiction as a Disorder

Addiction is a disease. Let me say that again, addiction is a disease. It must be treated as such to see progress in recovery. This can be difficult because substance and alcohol use disorders also impact those of the sufferer and lead to emotional, psychological, financial, and physical damage to friends and family.

One of the hardest things to do as a support person for someone with a substance or alcohol use disorder is to not let the pain they cause impact how we behave toward them. 

Here are a few ways to develop an understanding of substance use disorders:

  • Read books, articles, and stories about substance use disorders. Many written works are geared specifically toward families and loved ones of someone with a substance or alcohol use disorder. 
  • Join a support group for families. These programs can be emotionally supportive and educational.
  • Speak with an experienced SUD clinician. These professionals will have the training, experience, and expertise to help you learn about substance use disorders.

Support Component #3: Always Focus on Recovery

Supportive behaviors should always focus on recovery. If your loved one suffering from SUD or AUD asks for gas money, offer to give them a ride so they are not tempted to spend the money on drugs or alcohol. Spend time with them so they are tempted to spend time with those who don’t support their recovery and potentially encourage a relapse. 

Explain how their continued substance use impacts you. Share concerns in a clear, non-condemning way. Stay up to date on treatment options so you are ready to act quickly and decisively, should they decide to quit. Use proper terminology like “substance use disorder” and “recovery” instead of “drug addict” or “getting clean.” 

Loving Someone to Death vs. Loving Someone Back to Life

Enabling is, essentially, “loving someone to death.” These behaviors keep people in the same drug or alcohol use cycle. If a substance or alcohol use disorder is not treated, it can be fatal. Although motivated by love, enabling someone with a use disorder can be devastating.

Supporting, on the other hand, is “loving someone back to life.” Setting boundaries, understanding the nature of substance use disorders, and putting the focus always on recovery helps reveal, and stick to, a path to freedom from addiction. Supporting can be more difficult than enabling and it can be more demanding. But recovery means a better life for you and your loved one. 

At the Coleman Network for Addiction Medicine, we help those with AUD and SUD get into long-term recovery and stay there. Schedule a callback with one of our Care Advocates to learn more about how we can help your loved one find a path to freedom from addiction.

Hannah Clevenger, LCSW

Recovery Starts With Finding The Right Detox Option For You.

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