Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an addiction as “a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble).” Watching a friend or loved one struggle with their need to take something you know is detrimental to their life is painful. You love them. And you want to do anything you can to help them.
Though our desire to help comes from a place of caring and concern, sometimes it can actually hinder the addict. There’s a fine line between helping and enabling. Knowing the difference between the two is a critical factor in when, or even whether, your loved one overcomes their addiction.
In this article you’ll learn how to help someone struggling with an addiction, the differences between helping and enabling, and how to help someone overcome their addiction.
The Difference between Helping and Enabling
How do you know whether you’re helping or enabling an addict? Let’s start by defining each one.
What Helping an Addict Means
According to Families Against Narcotics (FAN), helping means “assisting the addict with something they are truly unable of doing themselves.” Whether you’re a friend or family member, here are ways you can help:
- Tell the addict you care and are worried about them.
- Don’t believe promises to stop the behavior or “cut down.”
- Offer continual support through their recovery program.
If the addict gets defensive, don’t push it. Just let it go for the time being. Shaming or getting angry will not help the person, and may make the situation worse. Instead, talk with the addict’s friends and family about staging an intervention if things don’t change soon.
What it Means to Enable an Addict
FAN defines enabling as “assisting the addict with something they are truly capable of doing, and by all means should be doing, themselves.”
People who enable think they can change the addict. You may think if you just show them you love them by paying their rent or taking them to buy drugs, they’ll eventually come around and get the help they need. However, this typically never happens.
Here are a few examples of enabling an addict:
- Giving them money because you’re afraid they won’t have enough to feed themselves, even though you know deep down they’ll use it to buy drugs.
- Making excuses for reckless behavior—car accidents, suspicious characters coming to your house to sell/use drugs, etc.
- Making excuses for constant absence from family functions, doctors’ appointments, work, etc.
- Accepting substance abuse after the addict has promised to stop or cut down.
- Assuming responsibilities that the addict is failing to complete—for example, many grandparents become their grandchild’s surrogate “parent.”
- Bailing the addict out of jail—it’s not your job to rescue them from the consequences of their actions.
The key to preventing yourself from becoming an enabler is understanding that you did not cause the addiction, and you cannot “fix them.” The only thing we can change is ourselves. The way we treat the addict and how we react to their behaviors are the only two things entirely within our control.
How You Can Help Someone Dealing with Addiction
Allowing an addict’s destructive behavior to continue is not an option. Now that we know the difference between helping and enabling, we can take the steps needed to help them get the treatment they need to turn their life around.
Here’s how to help a friend or loved one suffering from addiction, and how to know when you’ve crossed the line into enabling:
Offer Help Instead of Money
Help in this case could include giving them resources on finding a job, showing them how to sell something on EBay, or offering to help them hold a garage sale. These things will show the addict the value of hard work and earning money, and take the focus away from their next high.
However, just giving them cash does the opposite. They’ll look to you for money and have no motivation to work. Continually covering their bills is enabling, and it will harm the addict in the long run.
Participate in a Sober Lifestyle with Them
Lead by example. Don’t have alcohol out where an alcoholic can see it. And never participate in doing drugs or drinking with an addict. This type of “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude not only enables the addict, but also puts you in danger of becoming an addict yourself.
Prepare to Be Patient
The road to recovery is long and full of challenges. It’s important to always be patient. Getting angry or frustrated with the recovering addict won’t help them heal. It could cause them to become more stressed, possibly leading them to relapse.
Don’t Shy Away from Constructive Conflict
Constructive conflict is conflict that helps the addict. For example, staging an intervention with a counselor may cause the addict to finally allow themselves to receive help. On the other hand, allowing them to continue to use drugs in your home without consequences is an enabling behavior.
Detach Yourself from the Situation When Necessary
Don’t get too emotionally attached to the outcome. It is still the addict’s decision whether or not they will seek help at this time. Though you love them and want them to make the right choice, sometimes you need to just let go. It may be one of the hardest things you have to do, but you can’t force them to get clean.
Avoid starting an argument, which will only make the addict defensive. Instead, set boundaries and even cut off contact, if possible, to protect your own mental and emotional wellbeing.
Stay Involved During the Recovery Process
When the addict is ready to seek treatment, it’s important to be part of their recovery process. Participate in family therapy sessions. Educate yourself on substance abuse issues and how to properly support your loved one. And visit them often if they opt for an inpatient program.
Don’t fall into the enabling behavior of micromanaging their life when they’re going through recovery. Work to maintain a balance between your involvement, and their accountability for their life. It takes time to rebuild trust, so be patient.
Enabling an addict can be downright dangerous. Paying their bills, bailing them out of jail, assuming their responsibilities, and other signs of enabling behavior can prolong the problem.
Instead of enabling an addict, focus on:
- Helping them find ways to earn money.
- Expressing your love and concern, but allowing them to experience consequences for their actions.
- Detaching yourself from the situation when necessary.
- Offering continual support throughout the recovery process.
These actions will truly help the addict take responsibility for their behavior, and hopefully seek treatment.
Looking for a substance abuse program for a loved one? San Antonio Behavioral Hospital’s Substance Abuse/Addiction program is a comprehensive inpatient treatment program provided in a safe, judgment-free environment. Contact us today for more information.
Helping or Enabling: https://www.createagreatlife.org/helping-or-enabling
Helping an Addict: http://www.healthline.com/health/addiction/helping-an-addict
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence: https://www.ncadd.org/family-friends/there-is-help/helping-a-family-member-or-friend
Enabling an Addict: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/candace-plattor/enabling-an-addict_b_5589340.html
FAN—Enabling Addiction: http://www.familiesagainstnarcotics.org/Enabling-Addiction
The Addicted Brain: http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/the_addicted_brain
Addiction Treatments Past and Present: http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/addiction/treatments/