Stop Enabling and Give Tough Love

The worst thing about enabling is that it almost always feels like the right thing to do. We see someone we love suffering and are drawn to relieve their pain. In the context of addiction, protecting a person from the natural consequences of their actions is without question, hurting them.

In my past I was a world class enabler. I covered for people I cared about at work when they showed up late or used extra sick days for hangovers. I’ve watched people I loved spiral down in addiction and I helped them to do so by alleviating their pain. I have made amends to each of them.

Here’s the cold hard truth – addicts and alcoholics only change when they have suffered sufficiently. Only when the cost is too great and the wreckage can no longer be denied will they earnestly seek solutions. I’ve been saying for years now that I want to find a third motivator for major life changes but there remain only two – God and Suffering.

There are countless ways to enable. Emotionally I enabled by not telling loved ones that who they became when they drank and drugged was a different person. They were someone I didn’t know and didn’t want to know. I made excuses for them which was like saying, “It’s ok to hurt me. I don’t mind.” I have learned that I alone am responsible for what people expect of me and that I teach them how to treat me. In my past those things occurred without words. Today I communicate my needs and feelings directly and thus I am able to have healthy boundaries with pothers.

Addicts and alcoholics alternately seek enmeshment and estrangement from those who enable them. They will suck the soul out of you when they need you and leave you wondering and worrying when they don’t. You try not to notice that they only come around when they need something.

Perhaps the most common form of enabling is financial. Giving an addict or alcoholic money – regardless of what it’s for, simply provides greater opportunity for destruction. Experience is a cruel but effective teacher. Natural consequences are just that – natural. You get drunk, you get a hangover. No surprise there. You don’t pay rent you get evicted. It’s counter intuitive but the best thing is to allow the losses to stack up because this is how we hit bottom. To quote Fight Club, “It’s only when you lose everything; that you’re free to do anything. ”

Enabling is often subtle. Even minor favors to the addict can fuel their destruction. Pretending is the most common form of enabling. We’re going to pretend that dad is taking a nap and not passed out in the middle of the day. We’re going to ignore the elephant in the room of why Bob can’t stop scratching (maybe he should see a dermatologist?). Most importantly, we’re going to maintain appearances so that the neighbors and the folks at church don’t know. We’re going to leave other family members out of the loop because We don’t want them to worry…

Addicts and alcoholics are master manipulators. They will use coercion and guilt you. They will threaten and strike fear into your heart. They will con you and create opportunities for you to be the hero of their lives. They will lie convincingly and promise a blood oath that this is the last time. I promise! It’s important to understand that in the downward spiral of addiction, the person you love is no longer present. Their true self is buried somewhere deep within them. They serve a master that is tyrannical and unrelenting and there is no reprieve other than Recovery.

Once addiction has fully taken hold of a person there are very few guiding principles in their lives. The most prominent are: How do I get a fix/drinks today? How do I cover up/ get out of this? When we enable we support these goals. As wrong as it feels to not protect the people we love; we must find resolve to offer tough love. The Rule of Threes dictates that there are only three possible outcomes for those who continue to use: Jail, Institution, and Death.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.