You Want to Help
When someone you love is in pain, it’s a natural impulse to want to help in any way you can. If you feel you’ve contributed to this misery in some form, the urge to absolve yourself and take away feelings of guilt or shame—even if you’re really not part of the problem—make it even more challenging to do nothing.
However, when the person you want to help is abusing drugs or alcohol or dealing with complicated process addictions such as gambling, sex, or shopping, you have to make a choice. It’s critical for your health and theirs to evaluate your involvement and understand the difference between helping and enabling.
What Enabling Looks Like
In most situations, when you enable another person, you’re doing something they can’t do themselves. When your assistance involves someone with an addiction problem, enabling behavior is defined in the following ways:
“He only drinks this much because he’s under stress at work;” “She really doesn’t have a problem with prescription medication—she’s just been in a lot of pain since the accident;” “He’s just not feeling well today;” “She’s needs some ‘me time’ to blow off steam.” These and myriad other excuses are how people try to justify the behavior of someone they love—even to the point of lying. Enabling is also common behavior in dysfunctional relationships which involve emotional or physical abuse.
Avoiding negative consequences.
Denying there’s a problem doesn’t force someone to examine their habits and recognize the damage of their behavior. If more serious circumstances occur as a result of addiction—such as not properly caring for children, or financial, employment, or legal trouble—it’s critical for you and your loved one to understand the cause and effect of their behavior.
Allowing destructive behavior.
Trying to control the situation by not setting firm boundaries regarding substance use or other compulsive behaviors only makes it easier for a person to continue. For example, allowing drug use or drinking only at home is one way people enable substance abuse, believing it’s safer as long as the individual isn’t out on the streets or in a bar.
Solving problems or taking on responsibilities.
Temporarily covering a financial necessity or helping with offspring or housing needs are often helpful gestures. Usually there’s a clear understanding that such assistance is a bridge from point A to point B. But if you’re doing things like this repeatedly for someone, he or she isn’t moving on to the next point: now it’s reached a level of manipulation, denial, and coercion.
Not suggesting behavior changes.
When you notice a problem, it’s easy to encourage someone to consider their long-term health and speak with a doctor, counselor, or even attend a 12-Step meeting for additional resources. But too often, people don’t want to make these suggestions for fear they’ll anger or upset their loved one.
Not dealing with co-dependency in the relationship.
This is a hard truth to face and accept. Do you enable because of a desire to feel needed or important? Do you measure your self-esteem by how well you care for someone else? Mental Health America states: “Co-dependency often affects a spouse, a parent, sibling, friend, or co-worker of a person afflicted with alcohol or drug dependence…and chronically or mentally ill individuals. Today, the term has broadened to describe any co-dependent person from any dysfunctional family.” It might be time to consider individual or family therapy to learn how to foster healthier interpersonal relationships.
How to Really Help
To help someone is to lend support for things she or he is incapable of doing, or assist in ways that help the individual move forward and change their behavior. To truly help someone struggling with addiction, here are a few suggestions:
- Set healthy boundaries. Loving someone doesn’t give them permission to take advantage of you. Identify what you will and won’t accept, and stick to these resolutions. You may need counseling assistance to do this effectively, but it’s better for you and your loved one in the long run.
- Maintain clear communication. Be direct and concise with your requests and suggestions. Frequently changing your mind or tone sends confusing messages and weakens your position.
- Express positive statements toward and belief in the individual. This may be challenging at times, but your loved one is still a human being worthy of love and a good life. Statements such as “You deserve to be well, and I believe in you” or “It might be difficult now, but I and many other people are ready to help you” continue to reinforce your commitment to your loved one’s wellness.
- Join them for group sessions, volunteer events, exercise, spiritual pursuits, and other activities. Demonstrate your support by participating in various things that show how to engage in life meaningfully without substances and create positive community.
- Reinforce positive behaviors and actions. While you might have some resentment or hurt regarding your loved one’s addictive behavior, learn how to healthfully deal with these emotions and clear a path to authentically support the changes they’re trying to make now. As stated above, show up for key meetings and events, and willingly offer acknowledgement of their new actions and efforts. This doesn’t have to be overwhelming praise, but even a simple statement such as, “Your commitment to health and recovery is admirable. I support your new direction and believe in you,” is a soothing balm.
- Listen deeply. You’re not responsible for “fixing” anyone, mainly because they’re not “broken.” However, your ability to listen without judging or offering advice—unless a person asks for your input and guidance—allows your loved one to voice their thoughts and emotions in a safe space.