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support an addicted loved one

How to Support an Addicted Loved One Without Enabling Them?

Watching her spouse battle his substance abuse disorder, including both drug and alcohol addiction, was extremely painful for Margaret, especially when he suffered through his failed treatment programs. Every time he entered a rehab centre, Margaret and her family members believed this would be the time that it stuck. The family members all thought they had effective ways of helping him, that if they loved him enough, helped him as much as they could, and made his sobriety their responsibility, then he would give up illicit drugs and alcohol. They are still waiting for that day to come while struggling with how to support him, but not enable his substance abuse. This is a dilemma that many family members face with an addict in their life.

What Is Enabling?

As human beings, we intuitively support and care for each other; we love our family members through all of the ups and downs in life. This care and support can shift and be distorted when there is an addict in the family.

Enabling occurs when the family of a substance abuser unintentionally supports their loved one’s addiction through thoughts and actions. Enabling a loved one is often masked as love, but in reality, it is a vicious cycle that will allow the drug addict to continue their substance abuse problem. The reality is that in the long run, enabling discourages the addict from seeking professional help.

There are many ways of enabling an addict, such as:

  • Giving money to a drug addict to cover their living expenses, putting gas in their car, or buying them groceries because they spent all of their own money on drugs or alcohol
  • Allowing someone to use illegal drugs in your home because you think it would be safer than if they used drugs on the street or in their car
  • Taking over the responsibilities for the loved one such as paying bills, taking care of their children, and doing their housekeeping.
  • Covering your loved one’s substance abuse, for example, by calling in for them with an excuse when they can’t make it to work.
  • Setting boundaries with the person who is addicted, but failing to enforce them
  • Allowing someone in active addiction to stay at your house so they can continue to support their habit
  • Lying for a drug addict or alcoholic so they can be shielded from the consequences of their own behaviour
  • Tolerating mental, verbal, or physical abuse from someone who is high or drunk because “they didn’t mean it”
  • Spending a considerable amount of money to bail someone out of jail because they were charged with possession of illegal drugs, driving under the influence, or any other crime associated with drug or alcohol abuse

Drug and alcohol addictions train even the kindest people to be manipulation masters. It can change their entire personality to be one that is hurtful and destructive. As a family member, you may think that helping them is just the same as helping anyone down on their luck. This belief is fueled by the fear that if you turn your back on your loved one, then you will be responsible for anything bad that might happen related to the addiction.

However, the worries and “what if” scenarios, despite being well-intentioned, only allow the addiction to continue. Families can allow this thought process to get them stuck in a never-ending cycle of enabling. The sadness that they feel when they think of practicing tough love controls their behaviour. They will repeatedly catch their loved one every time they fall, which assures the addict that they will always have someone to catch them.

A family member can become very codependent on the addict and might try to control the addiction. They think if they just can just keep the addict from hitting rock bottom, then their loved one will be ok. Yet if the addict is allowed to approach rock bottom, and to be accountable for their own life and their own actions, they are more likely to be motivated to seek rehab.

How to Support Your Addicted Loved One?

Now that you know what enabling an addict looks like, it’s important to refocus on support, including for the affected family members. The family must make the brave decision to start making different choices for themselves. It can be a very painful and uncomfortable process to engage in healthy behaviour while still supporting an addicted loved one. It may not seem like it at first, but supporting and not enabling an addict is a gift that may push an addict toward recovery.

the addicted loved one

Educate the family on addiction

It is easy to fall into the mindset that the addict could just stop drinking or using drugs if they really wanted to change. After dealing with an addicted loved one, some family members may grow resentful or angry that the addict won’t stop using, even with threats, ultimatums, or repeated failed recovery attempts. Every member of the family should educate themselves on the realities of addiction being a brain disorder and how continued drug use or alcoholism changes the ways in which our brains are wired. There are many great resources on the internet, including the website for NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Find support from peers

Peer support groups, like Al-Anon, Alateen, and Nar-Anon, can put family members in touch with others who know a great deal about addiction. All of these types of peer support groups have in-person and online meetings. People who attend the meetings may come away understanding the seriousness of the addiction for the first time. They come to understand that other families are also dealing with this problem, and they learn how these families are focusing on success. Some families go to meetings just to listen and that is perfectly fine. The key is to get started and to continue to attend and get needed support.

Seek a counsellor

Family members might still believe that they can somehow fix the behaviour and make the person’s drug addiction go away. They might remember the way things used to be before the addiction took hold, and they might be convinced that those good times are right around the corner, just as soon as they say or do the right thing.

These are tough thought patterns to shift, and a meeting with a counsellor might help. Individual counselling sessions and family counselling sessions can help people to work through their personal thoughts and feelings about the addiction, and counsellors may provide coaching that can assist people when the going gets tough.

Talk Honestly About Boundaries

After seeking support through meetings and counselling, families may have an understanding of the habits and behaviours they’d like to change. The best way to make those adjustments is to discuss the plan with the addicted person in an open and honest manner. This conversation can be brief, but the family should be sure to point out the specific behaviours that they’re planning to change, along with the reasons they’re changing those behaviours. Family members should stay positive, emphasize that these changes are based on love, and be prepared to stick to the limits and boundaries that have been set.

talk honestly about boundaries

Stop Making Excuses

Some of the most appalling things that happen during the course of an addiction take place when the person is actively intoxicated by alcohol or using drugs. The family’s goal is to make sure that their loved one sees the consequences of the addiction, so that means the family can’t be the cleanup crew. If someone stumbles home and falls asleep in the yard, they stay in the yard. If the person becomes loud at a party, the family doesn’t smooth over the social interaction. The person is forced to deal with all of those consequences alone.

Families should also resist the urge to keep a person’s workplace reputation pristine. Families may try to smooth this by calling off work for an addicted person, or they might push an addicted person to stop working altogether, so there’s a smaller chance of embarrassment. All of those actions must stop, too.

Don’t Offer or Buy Alcohol/ Drugs for the Addicted Loved One

This tip seems obvious, but it’s important to remember that drugs and alcohol are a common part of everyday life for many North American adults. Living with a family that drinks can be hard for an addicted person, as temptations are everywhere, but enabling families can take those challenges to the next level. People with addictions often discuss drug use in terms of celebrations. They “deserve” a drink, or they’ve been “good all week” and can cut loose on the weekends. Falling into that trap could prompt families to buy drugs or alcohol, or families might consider celebrating right alongside someone with an addiction, hoping to model restrained drug use.

Addictions are brain disorders, and in most cases, people with drug and alcohol addictions are simply incapable of regulating their use. When they have access to drugs, they take them and take all of them. Stopping the enabling cycle means respecting that addiction is a sickness and refusing to participate in it.

Allow Criminal Activity to Be Prosecuted

A great deal of the behaviour associated with an addiction is illegal. People with addictions might steal money or drugs, purchase or sell illegal drugs, or drive while intoxicated or impaired. These are crimes, and families might have the money, the legal connections, or both to help their loved ones escape the legal consequences of these addictions. But in the end, that’s not smart.

No one wants to go to jail, and no one wants to have a criminal record, and it can be extremely hard to watch a loved one go to jail or prison. The consequences are swift, and they tend to be severe. Families that intervene too early could remove a very real addiction consequence that could prompt their loved ones to get help. Families that don’t interfere with that process could help the person they love.

Stop Financing The Addiction

Drug addiction and alcoholism can be incredibly expensive and can rob a person’s ability to be able to cover those costs. They might miss work altogether, or they might do the sort of sloppy work that ends up costing them their job. They might not be able to look for better jobs, and, in some cases, the addiction keeps them from being employed altogether.
Families might ease that money burden by financially helping their loved ones. Setting limits means that families stop paying for the addict to stay addicted. It might mean looking for separate living arrangements, or it might involve nothing more than a verbal promise that no more money is forthcoming. Whatever the step, it’s an important one to take. When addictions become too expensive to maintain and funding sources are hard to come by, people might finally get the help they need.

stop financing the addiction

Support the idea of treatment for the addiction

As families set limits and boundaries, and make the consequences of addiction more tangible for the substance abuser, they could cause the person to really think about healing and gaining sobriety. However, that person isn’t likely to get better without the help of a treatment centre and skilled professionals. Again, addictions are brain diseases that can’t simply be pushed to the side with one conversation. They’re caused by changes in brain chemicals, and they need in-depth treatment to rewire the brain’s circuitry.

That’s why families should continue to bring up the idea of treatment as they move from their prior enabling behaviours. They should remind the addicted person that treatment works and that treatment could make the whole family feel better.

Also, family members should remember that some addicted people won’t accept the possibility of treatment right away. It’s a frightening idea, and sometimes, people need to think about it before they agree to take action. Families that respect that process of change, and who refuse to give up hope, while continuing to support and not enable, may see sobriety come with time.

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