Enabling

What is enabling?

You are enabling when you do something for your alcoholic addict that they could and should do for them selves. When you help someone to avoid the consequences of their actions, you are denying them the opportunity to learn that their behavior is inappropriate.



If you do something for someone who is unable to do it for themselves, you are helping. If they could and should do it for themselves, you are making them dependent on you.

I created the following Venn diagram that gives a pictorial representation of when doing things for others is helping and when doing things for others is contributing to their problems.

Is there an enabling test?

If you are not sure if you enable your alcoholic or addict, try this Enabling Test.

I was really good at making it easy for my alcoholic addict. She used to joke that it was her job to bring excitement into my life and it was my job to keep her out of jail. Here are some of the things that I did that made it easier for her to drink and do drugs:

  • I would buy and keep single serving bottles of her favorite whiskey hidden in the house to give to her so that she wouldn’t go out to a bar.
  • I would go out drinking with her and then drive her home in hopes of keeping her drinking under control.
  • I would lie about the fact that she was out partying with her friends when someone was trying to call her.
  • I used to blame myself for her drinking and drugging.
  • When she was out drinking and she would call me to pick her up, I would do it, even if it meant getting out of bed on a cold night.
  • I would pay bills that she ran up on my credit card while buying drinks, meals and motel rooms for her friends.
  • I found her passed out on the floor, I would gather her up and put her to bed.

Enabling makes things worse.

It is insidious because we think we are helping. Most of the time we operate in patterns of behavior without thinking about each individual action. For example, when we get into the car, most of us have an automatic pattern of putting on our seat belt. I didn’t start out doing all these things for my alcoholic addict, but over time, I found myself doing more and more things to save her from the negative consequences of her choices. What I didn’t realize was that I was just making it easier for her to do exactly what she pleased with no negative repercussions.

After I went looking for help, I eventually learned that I had to change this behavior. When I realized what I was doing I decided I had to stop. The next time I found her passed out on the floor I just stepped around her and left her there for the night. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I didn’t sleep at all that night.

Interesting things started to happen once I stopped changed my behavior. My alcoholic addict started experiencing the consequences of her actions. She found that I would not come to her rescue any more. She found that drinking and drugging was not as easy as it used to be. She cut back somewhat in her substance abuse. Eventually, she got involved in a recovery program.

She had to do the hard work of working out her own recovery. However, I believe that one of the turning points was when I stopped making it easy for her. I believe that if I had kept up what I was doing, she would have continued to abuse alcohol and drugs much longer.

What if I stop enabling my alcoholic or addict?

Quitting enabling is difficult for you as well as for the alcoholic or addict in your life. Let’s look at some possible scenarios.

If you have been calling in sick for your alcoholic / addict, what happens if you stop?

  • Your alcoholic / addict could get angry with you.
  • Your alcoholic / addict could lose their job.
  • Your alcoholic / addict could go out on a binge.
  • Your alcoholic / addict might leave you.
  • Your alcoholic / addict could seek help for their problem.

If you have been paying bills for your alcoholic / addict, what happens if you stop?

  • Your alcoholic / addict could get angry with you.
  • Your alcoholic / addict could lose their credit rating.
  • You could lose your credit rating if you share responsibility for the bills.
  • Your alcoholic / addict could go out on a binge.
  • Your alcoholic / addict might leave you.
  • Your alcoholic / addict could seek help for their problem.

If you have been reluctant to tell your alcoholic / addict about your feelings regarding their behavior, what happens if you start to tell them?

  • Your alcoholic / addict could get angry with you.
  • Your alcoholic / addict could go out on a binge.
  • Your alcoholic / addict might leave you.
  • Your alcoholic / addict could seek help for their problem.

If you have loaned money to your alcoholic / addict, what happens if you stop?

  • Your alcoholic / addict could get angry with you.
  • Your alcoholic / addict could lose their job.
  • Your alcoholic / addict could lose their credit rating.
  • Your alcoholic / addict could go out on a binge.
  • Your alcoholic / addict might leave you.
  • Your alcoholic / addict could seek help for their problem.

Note that there are common themes to the types of responses that you may encounter if you quit your enabling behavior. We would all wish our alcoholic or addict to seek help. However, we often fear that it is more likely that they will become angry with us and become even more self-abusive.

In many cases, the worst is likely to happen. However, without the pain of dealing with the consequences of their behavior, what is going to motivate them to change? Certainly not continued enabling. If that were going to help them, they would have made changes before now.

It seems that until people feel the pain associated with their behavior, they do not change that behavior. Even then they may not, but the odds of change improve.

The choices they make in response to you discontinuing your enabling behavior could be even more painful for you in the short term than their continued drinking or drugging. That is only a decision you can make. Is it worth the risk?

On the other hand, alcoholism and drug addiction are progressive diseases. Most alcoholics and addicts continue to increase their substance abuse. Eventually, the things you fear may happen anyway, even if you don’t make changes in your enabling behavior.

Depending on your circumstances, you may need to make plans for dealing with the worst if it happens. If you are dependent on your alcoholic addict’s pay check, you may need to take steps to become financially independent of their income before implementing certain changes. On the other hand, as time goes on, the alcoholic addict’s behavior is likely to cause them to loose their jobs anyway. Becoming financially independent of your alcoholic or addict is probably a wise plan anyway.

Ultimately, the choice is yours. Changing your enabling behavior can have a profound impact on the lives of everyone involved.

Do I stop enabling my alcoholic addict?

You will have to weigh the risks against the potential rewards. Sometimes professional psychological or financial advice can help you to determine the best choice for you.

This is scary stuff. If you do choose to change your enabling behavior, it is important to be consistent if you are going to have any success. So take time to plan in advance how you might deal with different reactions on the part of your alcoholic or addict.

Good luck.

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