What’s the Difference Between Supporting and Enabling?

March 11, 2020

If you have a loved one with a substance use disorder, you probably find yourself having to make a lot of difficult decisions. What do you do when they come home drunk or high? Do you stay in the same house? Do you let them stay at your house? When should you help them out? Is tough love better? When do you give up? These are questions with no easy answers and they often depend on the specific situation. When making these decisions, your aim should be to help your loved one but not enable their addictive behavior. Here are some ways to tell the difference between the two.

Enabling Minimizes the Consequences of Substance Use

To decide if you’re helping or enabling, first ask if what you’re doing is protecting someone from the consequences of their substance use. So, for example, you and your spouse are supposed to go out for a friend’s birthday but by the time you’re ready to leave, your spouse is fall-down drunk. It’s clear your spouse can’t make it to your friend’s birthday but what reason do you give? If you say your spouse wanted to come but he was sick, then you’re making excuses for his behavior and insulating him from the consequences of drinking too much when he had made plans. 

There are many ways this could play out, but the central question is always whether your actions, however well-meaning, would prevent your loved one from suffering the consequences of their substance use. We all depend on feedback to learn and grow. Every time we suffer for a mistake, we are less inclined to repeat the mistake. If you are always shielding your loved one from the consequences of their substance use, they will get a very distorted idea of how bad their problem actually is and they will be less inclined to do anything about it. 

Enabling Allows Someone to Keep Using

Similar to minimizing consequences, other enabling behavior involves doing things for your loved one that enables them to keep using. The classic example is giving money to someone with a substance use issue. Whatever they tell you they need the money for, it’s probably going to drugs and alcohol and it would be harder for them to get those things without your help. 

However, even if you are helping in other ways, such as paying part or all of their rent, buying their groceries, or paying their bills, you are essentially freeing up money for them to buy drugs and alcohol. Even doing favors like picking up their kids, cleaning their house or taking care of their other responsibilities insulates them from the consequences of their substance use, as mentioned above, and frees up time for them to drink or use. This can be a difficult call to make, especially if children are involved. It’s not always easy to know how to help them without enabling their parents. And the person with the substance use issue may use this ambiguity to their advantage. 

Supporting Helps Keep Someone Safe

One way to actually help rather than enable is to create a safe environment for your loved one. For example, you may open up your home to them but this also means that you have to enforce rules about not drinking or using in the house, not letting their friends drink or use, and perhaps not even letting their friends come over. Keeping drugs and alcohol out of the house, even for your own use, is part of the deal. You can also make sure the person has enough to eat but it’s better to insist on eating together. This gives you a chance to listen and helps your loved one feel less isolated, even if they aren’t thrilled about having dinner with the family. 

If your loved one has an opioid use disorder, it’s also a good idea to keep naloxone handy. Naloxone is a drug that reverses opioid overdoses. It is now available in most states without a prescription. When someone overdoses, the ambulance may not arrive in time to revive them. Having naloxone on hand can save your loved one’s life in an emergency.

Supporting Helps Get Someone Into Treatment

By far, the best way to support your loved one is to encourage them to enter treatment and help them follow through. Many people believe the rock-bottom myth, that someone will only recover from addiction when they believe their life can’t get any worse. In reality, people enter treatment even when they’re not yet sure they want to get sober. They often seek help at the request of their families, sometimes in the form of intervention; following a crisis like losing a job because of substance use or getting a DUI; or because they ended up in drug court and they want to avoid prison time. People will often respond to your encouragement if you approach them with compassion rather than judgment or condemnation. 

It’s equally important that you also help your loved one follow through. There are thousands of treatment options, and if you’re struggling with substance use issues, you’re not always in the best position to sort through them and make a good decision. Help your loved one find a good treatment program, help them figure out how to pay for it, and help them with practical details like travel arrangements. Anything you do to help them get into a quality treatment program is 100 percent helping and not enabling. 

Beware of Rationalizations

It’s often difficult to tell whether any given action is helping or enabling, and that difficulty may be compounded by your own rationalizations. Just as your loved one’s reasoning is distorted by their addiction, your reasoning may be distorted by your desire for your loved one to be safe and happy. This is especially true if it’s easier or more convenient to go along with their desires. Always be aware that you may be deceiving yourself. Joining a support group like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon or talking to a therapist may help you figure out when you’re really helping versus when you’ve only convinced yourself that you’re helping. 

Life can get messy and that’s doubly true when there’s someone in your life with a substance use disorder. We all want our loved ones to be happy but addiction distorts your priorities so that what you want and what you need become two different things. Your aim should always be to encourage your loved one to get help and to refrain from doing anything to encourage their substance use. At Steps Recovery Centers, we can help you with the practical aspects of getting help for your loved one, including helping with the intervention, helping with transportation, and finding ways to help you pay for treatment. To learn more about our programs, explore our website or call us today at 385-236-0931.

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