An enabler, or codependent is an individual that has become enmeshed in the life of a loved one who has an addiction. It may be a member of the family, or a close friend, who has developed an addiction of some type, such as substance abuse, or a compulsive disorder, such as gaming, for instance.
This enabler can then quite unexpectedly find themselves in the unenviable position of inadvertently assisting their loved one by making excuses for them, for example, or giving them money to help them out of yet another scrape. This behavior is called enabling, and it can make it possible for the alcoholic or drug addict to continue engaging in their addiction, or compulsive behavior, long after they should have stopped.
At first, the enabler only wishes to give support. However, because addictions tend to be progressive, meaning they increase in intensity, enabling the addict tends to also progress to match the addict’s needs. Often times, the enabling individual can realize they are in too deep to turn back.
By protecting the loved one from any and all negative consequences of their substance abuse or compulsive behavior, the addict is then allowed to continue making excuses to, and for, themselves. In this way, they are enabled to continue and can hide their addiction to substance abuse or compulsive behavior from themselves and others. All of this will, in turn, allow the addict to continue to avoid taking responsibility for their own life.
Why would someone enable a loved one or family member to destroy not only themselves, but potentially everyone around them, including the enabler? Well, that is what this article is about.
Family Members of the Enabled Person
At first the family members of the enabled person or the loved one, who is active in an addiction, may simply wish to protect the addict from the harm caused by their own actions.
Addicts, as defined here, are people that have become addicted to, and abuse substances, such as alcohol, illegal street drugs, and even prescribed drugs, or they may engage in compulsive behaviors that have negative consequences, such as gambling, gaming or sexual addiction.
To be sure, people who become addicted to drugs, alcohol, or are compulsive gamblers, do not set out to become dependent on another person or persons for protection or money.
In the same way, they probably did not plan to benefit from any of the myriad actions the enabling person will employ to assist the active addict. Actions, which in turn shield the addict from suffering the natural consequences of their irresponsible behavior. This protection can in turn prevent the addict from seeing the havoc they are creating in their own and other’s lives.
Basically, enabling behaviors are the methods that the codependent uses to minimize the negative impact addiction has on the addict. And, as you can see by the following list, enabling addiction can also harm the codependent’s physical and mental well being.
Here is a partial list of behaviors the enabler uses to shield the addict from consequences:
- Providing some sort of financial assistance to the addict, which allows them to avoid taking responsibility
- Covers for the addict, or makes excuses for their behavior or lack of responsibility
- Accepts unacceptable behavior from the addict, such as verbal or emotional abuse, stealing money or valuables, or at minimum, refusal to help with household chores, etc.
- Avoids addressing the issues just mentioned. Instead of confronting the person, the enabler allows the behaviors to continue with no serious consequences to the addiction
- Denies there is a problem at all
- Sacrificing your own needs. This can take the from of missing out on activities you want or need to participate in, in order to see to the addict’s needs first
- Unable to set boundaries by stating specifically which behaviors are unacceptable; or not maintaining previously established boundaries
Of course, the enabling person, who tends to be a confidant of the addict, finds that their first instinct is to help a loved one that is in trouble. They find themselves giving money or taking other actions in order to solve problems and smooth the waters that have been churned by the loved one.
Sometimes, the alcoholic/addict can not or will not do for themselves; therefore, the enabling individual is frequently called upon to come to the rescue!
The codependent finds themselves continually waiting for the next shoe to drop, and is therefore victimized again and again by the addict’s actions or inaction. For instance, due to the addict’s ever increasing demands for assistance, the codependent can eventually begin to feel depleted, depressed and anxious.
Eventually, the addicted person’s behavior begins to contribute to a feeling of continuous worry, anxiety and fear in the codependent. It is not overreaching to say that this has obvious long term health consequences for the enabling person, and by extension consequences to public health, due to unexpected visits for some, to already over populated emergency rooms.
Peer Reviewed Studies
Results of several peer reviewed studies also have concluded that without some form of treatment, constant or chronic stress, as experienced by the enabler and which has been endured over a long period, can not only cause harm to one’s mental health, such as anxiety and depression, chronic stress can also impair physical health in several ways.
The release of stress hormones such as cortisol, combined with high blood pressure, put the enabler at risk for several potentially serious health issues. Damage to arteries caused by high blood pressure, can lead to heart attack, or stroke.
This is due to the ever present increase in heart rate suffered by the codependent, combined with raised levels of stress hormones. To avoid long term health consequences to the enabling individual, some form of intervention or professional help combined with treatment is required.
Another reason the enabler is driven by the addict to participate in these irrational behaviors is that the codependent wishes to avoid retaliation from the addict, retaliation that is certain to come if protection is withheld.
Retribution perpetrated on the codependent by the addict can take many forms: aggression, such as verbal and physical abuse, or passive aggression, such as blaming the enabling person for the addict’s plight, or the addict may threaten to harm themselves, if help is withheld.
Certainly, almost no one actually chooses to be put in the position of aiding and abetting an alcoholic or drug addict. Enabling a loved one is the type of situation that happens slowly, over time. At first, the co dependent may just try to offer support to the addict. The enabler may believe they are helping the addict just this one time, and then find that because they did, the addict now begins to demand help every time they are in a scrape.
Offering money or making excuses for the addict by calling in sick to their job for them, for example, are just some of the ways codependents can keep the addict from experiencing the natural consequences of their addiction, and prevent the inevitable.
Addicts employ many methods to get what they want for the enabling person. The addict can also be extremely manipulative in their demands, by threatening self harm or disappearing for long periods of time, to get what they want
Evidence gathered from various addiction studies conducted over the years concludes that enabling or assisting an addict is harmful in many other ways, as well. Many of them conclude that enabling the addict to continue their harmful behavior, or give aid that would shield the addict from consequences, is misguided, at best.
It is the conclusion of most professionals involved in the treatment of addiction that it is better in the long run to allow the addict to get to the point where they are unwilling or unable to continue their harmful behaviors. Which is to say, it prevents the addict/alcoholic from hitting their bottom.
In severe cases of alcohol misuse or substance abuse the codependent can see how much the addiction is destroying the addict physically and mentally. As a result, the enabler may believe that softening the blow of the latest debacle will somehow force the addict to wake up and see just how they are destroying their lives.
Unfortunately, the opposite usually occurs. The alcoholic/addict sees the enabling behaviors as a way to continue their addiction, and may even feel the help is deserved. Usually, the enabler must discover this hard truth for themselves. To truly help the addicted one, and give your support to the addict means stepping back.
Enabling a Loved One
Without treatment, an addicted person’s behavior is most always self destructive. Because selfishness and self centeredness are at the root of the addicted person’s behavior, they do not see the actual harm they are doing to their friends, a loved one, or other family.
It is therefore imperative for the codependent person to understand that, although the addict will express much gratitude for the help given, the addiction itself takes note of who can be called on to assist next time.
For the past several decades there has been a sharp increase in substance use and abuse which has led in turn to drug or alcohol use disorders. The opioid epidemic that was in the news for the past several years is one example and has shown that you don’t have do live under a bridge or on skid row to be an addict. Many people have become addicts with a prescription from their doctor; treatment centers are full of them.
Addictions are Progressive
Addictions are progressive by nature; they start slow and increase in intensity, causing the addicted person to require more of the substance they are abusing, more frequently. Consequently, the demands for help naturally increase with the addict’s consumption.
Addicts need not only to hide their addictions from others, they also must hide it from themselves. This requires the addict to be in some from of denial about their consumption as well as any and all consequences suffered by the addict, as well as the enabler.
The enabler as well, can also be in denial about the amount of help being given. This is the main obstacle that prevents any real possibility of recovery and therefore requires some form of treatment for both of them.
The addiction can almost be thought of as a separate entity from the addicted individual. The addiction itself causes individuals to do and say things they would never do or say, were they not desperate for that next hit, the next high. An addiction can even cause people to violate their moral beliefs in order to keep their addiction going.
The addiction can be thought of as a separate individual from the addict themselves. It may appear at times as though the addict is another person entirely. The addiction wants to protect itself; it does not want to die. Therefore the addict can appear irrational when their addiction is threatened. But remember, that when an individual is possessed by an addiction, the person suffers, too. Developing healthy boundaries is a vital step in the process of recovery from the addiction of enabling.
Al-Anon Family Groups was founded in 1951 by the wives of the alcoholics that had found sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step recovery. Because Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was seen as very successful in helping alcoholics recover from their addiction, the Al-Anon program was patterned after the AA program.
It should be noted that the loved one/addict does not need to have received treatment for their addiction for the codependent to find recovery and relief. It is not a requirement that the addict/alcoholic even be clean or sober or have abstained from compulsive behavior for the enabling person to find relief and understanding in Al-Anon meetings.
Other Forms of Support
Certainly, Al-Anon is not the only answer. It is however, the single most successful 12 step recovery program for people that find themselves enabling a loved one. One of the first things you will discover by attending Al-Anon meetings is that you are not alone. At the meetings, you will meet others who have been enabling their loved one, with whom you can connect, others who have had the same experiences that you have had, and can teach one of the most valuable lessons in life – how to detach and let go, with love.
A Loved One’s Addiction
Certainly, a loved ones addictive behavior is not only destructive to the addict themselves, but the addiction itself can and will attempt to destroy anyone or anything that gets in it’s way. Protecting yourself from this problematic behavior, especially a loved one’s behavior, can seem impossible and overwhelming, at first. However, there is a solution!
The idea of detaching with love is at the heart of returning to a normal state of mental well being for the enabler. Detaching with love means that you care enough about your loved one to allow them to actually learn and to grow from their mistakes, however painful that may be for you, and them.
Treatment, Treatment, Treatment
Detaching means letting go of control – remember, you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and you certainly can’t cure it. Recovery from this state means there must be a complete upheaval and rearrangement of the co-dependent person’s ideas and belief systems about the enabled person.
With treatment, you can learn to stop blaming yourself and the loved one, stop taking it personally, and to stop trying to control the addict. However these are actions and ideas that practically no one is willing to take, unless they are very desperate for a solution.
Recovery, Recovery, Recovery
Recovery is a word you will hear repeated many times in the various support groups you attend. Recovery means that you come to understand that “No” is a complete sentence. Addicted individuals with issues involving substance use or people addicted to gambling, gaming or sex tend to keep making excuses to enable themselves to continue in their addiction, despite the obvious negative outcomes they suffer, such as jails or hospitals and detoxes, or bankruptcy.
In order to stop enabling your loved one’s addiction you will discover that the word “no” must be utilized, sometimes extensively.
Because addiction causes people to become self destructive in spite of the many consequences they face, many addicts are unable to break free from the vicious cycle of addiction until they reach their “bottom”, or the point at which the addict can no longer tolerate the pain their addiction is causing them. This point is different for each individual.
By permitting the addictive disorder to progress without resistance from family members, enabling behavior not only prolongs the addiction but also prevents the addict from reaching this point, and learning from their mistakes. Enabling behavior can actually strengthen the denial the addict employs to hide their behavior from themselves and others.
Continuing to act as an enabler allows your loved one to keep doing what they are doing and makes it more difficult for them to recognize that it’s the substance use that is causing a problem and that it’s NOT YOU.
Mental Illness and Addiction
Some fairly common mental health issues such as Bipolar disorder, which can be coupled with depression and anxiety also contribute to the development of substance abuse disorders.
Symptoms of someone experiencing a bipolar episode include irritability, disruption to sleep, or significant changes in appetite. More serious symptoms that need immediate intervention are psychotic behavior and/or suicidal thoughts. The addict may even feel sad and hopeless while still feeling energized.
Emotional distress and stress not dealt with, problems becoming overwhelming in their difficulty to solve, a serious health issue – any of these can cause people to seek relief in drugs and alcohol.
Someone Else, Something Else
While enabling a loved one’s addiction, family members especially, tend toward blaming someone else for the loved one’s behavior. Or they tend to view the addiction and related behaviors as a result of “something else,” such as a vitamin deficiency perhaps, or just a personality flaw.
Enablers believe they are protecting the addicted person from consequences of their actions by trying to control things outside of their control. By enabling the person who is addicted, whether by giving the person money, a place to live or other forms of help, and being misguided by love or co-dependency, they cannot see the harm they are doing.
Stop Enabling, Set Boundaries
Having, maintaining or even setting boundaries can be the most difficult to manage of all the new behaviors needed to be successful in your recovery. Attending Al-Anon is one of the most effective ways to become adept at this.
The following list may help you to discover just what some of the underlying issues typical to co-dependency are. Here are some ways of taking back your power and stop enabling the addict:
- It is time to stop blaming yourself, and not taking the addict’s abusive behavior personally. Their behavior is about them, not you.
- Stop trying to control the situation. Let the next crisis happen! Although it may go against everything you believe, allow the addict to figure out their next move when they lose a job, get a DUI or can’t pay their rent.
- Remember that you did not cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it. Your family member is probably going to need professional treatment. Getting it is their responsibility, not yours.
- Again, the addict does not want anyone to know the actual level of their consumption. You see, if someone discovered the extent of the problem, they might try to help. For instance, individuals with eating disorders don’t really want anyone to know what issuing on with their food behaviors. Therefore, if family members try covering it up and making excuses for their loved one, they are playing right into the addict’s denial. Openness and honesty are essential to begin to deal with the problem and is, in the end, the best approach.
- Please understand that you, as the codependent, do not have to accept unacceptable behavior from the addict. Physical or emotional abuse is never ok. Realize you have choices.
- What may seem like a reasonable expectation to you, may seem to be very unreasonable to someone with an addiction. When suffering from the current hangover or extreme shame or guilt, an alcoholic may swear that they will never touch another drop and be sincere when they do. However, is it reasonable to expect someone to be honest with you when they are incapable of being honest with themselves?
Mental Health Professional
To find your way out of the forest of confusion you find yourself in after years of enabling the addict takes a professional guide. In order to heal the family afterward, it is equally important to develop habits that improve your own mental health. This will also require professional assistance.
CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be the single most effective type of individual therapy to accomplish this. CBT is used by accredited therapists to engage the family member or loved one in the process of recovery from the damage of years of addiction. This form of talk therapy helps codependents become aware of their underlying issues and to separate those from the addict’s .
Family and/or group therapy is another example of treatment that can help the family achieve some insight into previously destructive patterns, and also can help to establish the process of setting boundaries, for the co-dependent, and the addict as well.
Turning Point of Tampa Treatment Center
Turning Point of Tampa treatment center can provide support, and also offer a path to recovery for the addict/alcoholic as well as the family members and loved ones. Addiction effects the entire family and it is for this reason that participation by the family in the treatment environment of the addict/alcoholic is essential.
As an accredited facility by The Joint Commission, we are also licensed by the Department of Children and Families. We are an in network insurance provider meaning your insurance has pre-negotiated the fees with our program on your behalf.
Other Support Groups
12-Step recovery groups provide emotional support with the idea of setting boundaries and maintaining them. The basic premise of the 12-Step model is that through giving support people can help one another achieve and maintain abstinence from the substances or behaviors to which they are addicted.
Programs like Al-Anon and Alateen are designed specifically for the family members of alcoholics. Nar-Anon is for those who have been affected by chemical addiction, and “S” programs like S-Anon, COSLAA, COSAA, etc. are there to support and inform those effected negatively by another’s sexually addictive behaviors.
There are a multitude of informational websites on the internet that deal with addiction medicine, which is an area of study that deals with diagnosis, evaluation, treatment, and the recovery of individuals suffering from addiction, and those with addictive and substance-related disorders.
SAMHSA – or the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration’s mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse. The website is a great resource for information on many topics related to addiction, mental health and offers a 24 hour confidential ‘988’ suicide and crisis lifeline.
Additionally they have a treatment locator page which can assist in finding appropriate treatment providers for the enabler and the addict/alcoholic.
The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers is another resource for addiction treatment. Here you can learn about determining levels of care, understanding addiction and get information about evidence based practices.