When someone suffering from a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) or Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) undergoes treatment, support from the people in their lives is critical. Unfortunately, behaviors done out of love are not always the supportive actions we hope they are. Sometimes these behaviors are actually “enabling.” But what is enabling and how can we recognize when we are doing it? How do we know when we’re loving someone to death?
What Does Enabling Someone Mean?
To “enable” someone is any behavior you do that helps them continue to use alcohol or drugs. There is a spectrum of enabling behaviors, from more obvious ones like buying a person’s substances or driving them to get them to more, to subtle forms of enabling, such as taking care of their kids while they’re high or giving someone money for gas.
It can be difficult to change your enabling behavior because these actions are often motivated by fear. Fear of your loved one relapsing or even overdosing. It is important to remember that enabling does not produce change.
In order to be the best source of support and accountability for our loved ones with SUD or AUD, we must work to ensure our behaviors are not enabling, set firm boundaries, and make sure that whatever help we offer only helps for recovery.
How to be Supportive But Not Enabling?
As a source of support and accountability for our loved ones with SUD or AUD, we are tasked with determining how we can best support them without enabling them. While enabling behaviors facilitate drug and alcohol use, truly supportive behaviors facilitate their recovery.
If you are trying to figure out if your actions are enabling or supporting, ask yourself, “Am I making it easier for them to keep using drugs and alcohol than to try and quit?” If “yes,” then you are enabling.
Successful support involves several components and as a source of support, it is up to you to apply these components to your own unique situations.
Support Component #1: Boundary Setting
Setting boundaries is particularly difficult when it comes to dealing with a loved one’s substance use. Addiction, a disease, can be characterized by manipulation, lying, and taking advantage of others, plus a general disregard for healthy relationship boundaries. It can become tough to stand strong in the face of these behaviors but is an absolutely essential part of support.
Setting boundaries include:
- Being clear, concise, and consistent about what you will and will not tolerate, as well as the consequences for violating this boundary. For example, you may have rules about not allowing your loved one to use your car.
- Standing firm on the consequences. If your loved one uses your car knowing it is not allowed, you must follow through with the consequences of violating this boundary.
When setting new boundaries can often lead to surprise, anger, and desperation. It is important to stay calm and assertive in the event of conflict.
Support Component #2: Treating Addiction as a Disorder
Another important component of supporting a loved one suffering from SUD or AUD is treating addiction as a disorder. Because addiction can cause significant physical, emotional, and financial damage, this component can be difficult to internalize.
Separating the pain of past hurts from our behaviors towards the substance abuser is a daunting task. If you want to better understand substance use disorders and alcohol use disorders, we recommend:
- Read books on the topic of substance use disorders, plus there are many written specifically for families and loved ones of a sufferer.
- Ask an expert, such as your family doctor, counselor, or substance use treatment clinic for advice, recommendations, and resources.
- Join a support group for families. Programs like Al-Anon (the companion program to Alcoholics Anonymous designed for spouses and family members) and SMART Recovery are a treasure trove of both emotional support and factual resources.
- Speak with an experienced therapist who specializes in substance use disorders.
Support Component #3: Always Focus on Recovery
Last but not least, another important component of being supportive and not enabling is to always focus on recovery. If your loved one needs to go somewhere, offer to drive rather than giving them gas money.
Be ready to offer help if and when your loved one decides it’s time to try to seek professional treatment for their SUD. Always use proper terminology like “substance use disorder” and “recovery” when discussing a loved one’s drinking and drug use. Make recovery a part of your boundaries.
Loving Someone to Death vs. Loving Someone Back to Life
Think about enabling as “loving someone to death.” Enabling behaviors keep people stuck in their dangerous, substance-related patterns. Even though it is motivated by love, enabling allows the disorder to continue.
Supporting is “loving someone back to life.” This support can manifest as setting boundaries, understanding that addiction is a disorder, and keeping the focus on recovery. Supporting can be demanding and difficult, but it is always worth the work.
At Coleman Addiction Medicine, our mission is to help people find the path to freedom from addiction. If you or someone you love is suffering from SUD or AUD, we can help. We have helped over 8,000 people using our unique Coleman Method for outpatient detox. Schedule a callback with one of our Care Advocates to learn more about the Coleman Method today.
Hannah Clevenger, LCSW