This is such a challenging conversation I have to have with families everyday. The topic of enabling is not a simple one, and there are several ways we enable without realizing it.
First, let’s clear up what enabling is. In a nutshell, this is anything we do that ‘enables’ our loved one to continue the addiction we so desperately want to end. If you pay his/her cell phone or car insurance or groceries or whatever, this enables the person to use their money for other things.
One behavior I believe families do not recognize at all as enabling is when they cover for the person. When he/she gets in legal trouble and you lie to the family about it or cover it up entirely. When he/she is too drunk or hungover or high to show up at a family function and you make excuses to cover, this is enabling. It is enabling the person to not experience the consequences of their actions.
If he/she is unable to pay their bills, or they don’t have bail money, or they crashed their car- if you help or rescue in any way it is still protecting them from their consequences and allowing them to more easily continue making poor decisions.
I can not express enough how important it is for us, as addicted people, to have consequences for our choices. Unfortunately, we only learn from consequences and feeling the discomfort of consequences. If someone is consistently ‘helping’, covering for us, rescuing us financially, or in any other way then it shields us from the pain and discomfort of the choices we make.
If I don’t pay my electric bill and someone steps in and pays it for me, the only lesson I learn is how to get someone to pay it for me. But if I don’t pay my electric bill, and my electricity gets turned off because I didn’t pay it, then I learn the importance of paying the bill if I want to have electricity.
One way I explain it is, if it is something your person can do for themselves, then let them. From making phone calls, scheduling appointments, job searching, filling out paperwork, or whatever it is. Let them do for themselves. Oftentimes, we want so badly for them to take action on something we want to jump in and do all the groundwork for them. If you want to help, then help. But don’t do it for them.
If they need to find a counselor, coach, or outpatient treatment then sit down in front of the computer with them and do a search. Talk about each option and what you both like and dislike about each, and have your person make the calls or send the emails to take the next steps.
You can easily keep them engaged by putting a limit on the task. Say, let’s do this for 15 minutes, or let’s find and contact 3 options. This way, they know what the specific goal is and about how long it may take. There is light at the end of the tunnel from the beginning and they know exactly what to achieve.
It is okay to help and it is natural to help and support the people we love. We just need to be mindful that we are actually helping, and not enabling.