Anyone who loves an addict knows supporting them can be a tricky thing at times. There’s a fine line between helping and hindering when it comes to addiction, and it can be difficult to know which side of that line you’re falling on. While the answers to how much or how little help you should lend an addict in differ according to your particular situation, there are some common pitfalls everyone can avoid.
Sympathy vs. Empathy
Trying to understand how your loved one is feeling as he or she battles addiction is natural, and will make it easier for you to help them. Understanding and recognizing the feelings of others is called empathy, and it’s a great tool when working with an addict. However, when empathy turns to sympathy, problems can arise very quickly.
Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone else’s situation and feelings. Sympathy in addiction can quickly take the responsibility for recovery away from the addict and can actually feed the addiction. You can empathize with your loved one by showing unconditional love and support, but refusing to make excuses for his or her behavior.
Enabling and Codependency
If you are close to an addict, you can quickly find yourself in some sticky situations. As you try to help your loved one, beware of codependency. Codependency is common in addiction. In a codependent relationship, the addict comes to rely heavily on one person to meet all of his or her needs and put in a great deal of effort to maintain the relationship. In the meantime, the addict may put all his or her energy into feeding the addiction. You may be tempted to put your own needs aside as you focus on the addict, fueling your sense of self by keeping the addict afloat. Don’t let that happen.
Codependent relationships only fuel addiction. Even if a relationship isn’t fully codependent, it’s still easy to enable addictive behavior by offering too much help, making excuses for an addict, or providing resources (like money) that are used to fuel the addiction. You can avoid codependency and enabling by setting clear boundaries with an addict, and then not crossing them, no matter what. A simple example would be to refuse to lend him or her cash for any reason.
Focusing on the Solution
It’s important when you’re supporting an addict not to let the problem become a consuming issue. This leads to enabling and codependency. It’s much more productive to focus on the solution instead. There’s nothing you can do to help an addict who is still using. All you can do is love him or her and wait for him or her to be ready for a change. In the meantime, make solutions available, and let your loved one know that you’re ready to help when he or she is ready to accept it.
Discuss rehab options with your loved one and let him or her know you’re willing to do anything you can to help him or her through that process. Then, leave the situation alone. Offering help with finances or in other ways while your loved one is still using will only fuel the addiction. Be sure to take good care of yourself during this time so you will be strong enough to help when your loved one is ready. Keep your physical health, your mental state, and your finances in good shape so you can be there when your loved one is ready to make a change.
How to Know If You’re Enabling an Addict
Addiction is a disease that needs fuel to keep burning through a person’s life. This fuel can come in the form of co-occurring disorders, stress, pain, and in many cases, well-meaning enablers. Enabling is a complicated issue, but the simple definition is allowing an addict to continue on with their destructive lifestyle by sheltering them from the consequences of their behavior.
The Difference Between Helping and Enabling
A lot of times those who love an addict end up enabling their behavior because they’re trying to help. The line between helping and enabling can seem a little blurry, but there’s one easy way to tell the difference. Helping is doing something for someone that they are not capable of doing themselves. Enabling is doing something for someone that they are capable of doing themselves, or should be capable of doing. Often times addiction will render an addict incapable of properly caring for themselves, but if you do it for them, you’re enabling them to continue in their addiction.
If you’ve ever done one or more of the following, chances are you’re enabling an addict:
- Paid their bills, or loaned them money.
- Called in sick to work for them when they were too hungover to go in.
- Lied to others or made excuses to cover for the addict.
- Bailed them out of jail or paid their legal fees.
- Avoided conversations about their using to avoid conflict.
- Blamed yourself, or allowed the addict to blame you for their using or drinking.
- Drank or used with the addict to try and get closer to them or strengthen the relationship.
- Given them multiple “one last” chances.
- Given ultimatums for if they don’t stop, but then not followed through with them.
It’s absolutely important to pay attention to the needs of someone recovering from addiction, but many go too far overboard here. You can’t neglect your own life just to pay attention to another, even if you’re working to help someone close to you who is struggling. If you find yourself paying bills that aren’t yours, missing work or family time or otherwise stretching far too thin while trying to help someone with their addiction, it could be a sign that you’re enabling them.
Addiction is a serious issue, but many enablers give in to their urge to downplay the situation and pretend nothing (or less) is wrong. In the worst cases, this may lead to enablers talking a friend or family out of professional assistance, which can often be the difference between life and death for some addicts.
It’s common for someone suffering from addiction to abuse friends and family members, whether physically, mentally or emotionally. Enablers often accept this abuse, figuring that the alternative is worse and they should just deal with it. In reality, this just helps support a negative lifestyle and does little to help the affected person shake their demons.
It’s a completely natural feeling to want to make a tough situation easier for someone close to you, but enablers do this to a dangerous degree. They make excuses for behavior or take blame when it isn’t theirs, and will often take on huge levels of responsibility that really just make it easier for the person struggling with addiction to backslide. Helping out in a time of need is one thing, but constantly acting as a crutch is another entirely.
How to Stop
Once these patterns of enabling have been instilled in a family or other relationship, it can be very hard to stop. Remember that your loved ones can’t heal from their addiction until you allow them to feel the consequences of their actions. If they’ve spent all their money on drugs or alcohol and can’t pay their rent, you can’t pay it for them, or they’re sure to have the same problem next month. Step 2 of your plan will be to get help for the addict. They will be more willing to accept this help if they’ve felt the full weight of their addiction through a series of natural consequences. Getting help for yourself is often a key factor as well, as you learn how to support your loved one in a healthy way.