If you are the loved one or caregiver of someone with substance use disorder, it may be harming you in ways that you do not realize. Often, the focus is on the person using drugs or alcohol, but unfortunately, it is those around the addict who often suffer the most negative consequences of their actions. If you are caring for someone with substance use disorder, you need to take a hard look at your own actions and make sure that you are not an enabler.

What Is an Enabler?

An enabler is someone who removes the natural consequences of the addict from the addict’s behavior. Things to look out for in your enabling behavior include:

  • Making excuses for the person’s behavior while they were intoxicated
  • Helping them obtain drugs or alcohol
  • Taking on responsibilities that were once those of the substance user
  • Avoiding going out to social functions because you are afraid of how the substance user will behave
  • Giving up things you used to like to do because you have to take care of the substance user
  • Cleaning up little messes created by the substance user without a word of complaint
  • Feeling that your life is completely tied up in caring for substance use.

If any of these things sound like you, it is likely that you at least have some of the characteristics of an enabler. The substance user becomes very good at manipulating those around them to get their needs met. Unfortunately, it is their family and close friends who have to pick up the slack.

Well-Intentioned Enabling

Enabling is always well-intentioned, particularly in the beginning. After all, the substance user is a loved one, and their family members or friends want them to be happy and comfortable. Unfortunately, as time goes on, this becomes more difficult, and the enabler will find themselves caught in a trap where their life has essentially been displaced in favor of the needs and wants of the substance user. This happens slowly over time, and the person is not often aware that they have the signs of an enabler.

The first step to getting your own life back in order and helping the substance user is to realize that you may have fallen into this trap over time. Often, when a loved one is having a problem, we feel compelled to help them solve it. However, with substance use disorder, no one can resolve the issue other than the substance user themselves. Unfortunately, this sometimes will not happen until something occurs that makes them motivated to change. This is what some people call hitting rock bottom.

In the beginning, enabling is always well-intentioned, but it quickly develops into codependency. Often, the enabler will be cut off from their family and friends, not because of something they did but because most of their life is spent caring for the substance user. Eventually, the substance user can become the only person in the enabler’s life, and they become emotionally dependent on someone who needs help themselves.

Continuing in this pattern of enabling substance use does not do anything good for either party. Both lives continue to spiral downhill. The family dynamics become skewed, and the sober person ends up taking on more and more of the responsibilities over time.

The Way Out

If you have come to the realization that you have the signs of an enabler, it is important that you understand a few ground rules. First off, continuing to serve as the enabler and doing things for the substance user will not bring an end to the situation. It will continue to get worse until the substance user hits bottom, sometimes with devastating consequences for everyone involved. When the substance user hits rock bottom, it can mean the loss of a home or property, a significant financial loss, loss of a job, medical bills and divorce. It is best to take care of the situation before it gets to that point.

The enabler needs to stop doing things that the substance user is perfectly capable of doing themselves. The hardest thing to do is to say no to the person. Co-dependents often experience guilt if they feel that they have displeased the substance user. The guilt response becomes almost automatic. The thought of saying no does not even occur to them, particularly if this pattern of relationship has been going on for quite some time.

When you first start saying no, it is likely that you will experience some pushback from the substance user. They have become used to you stepping in and doing things for them, but saying no is the only way to break the pattern. Enabling can take the form of:

  • Giving money to the person
  • Fixing property that they have damaged
  • Lying to the person’s employer about absenteeism
  • Screening phone calls for them
  • Bailing them out of jail
  • Making excuses for their behavior

Stopping the cycle of enabling takes courage, but it is the only way that the cycle will end. Often, it is easier to continue the enabling than to face the potential consequences of what may happen if you do not. For instance, if the substance user will lose their job if you do not continue to cover up for them, it can have quite an impact on your own life. Therefore, you seek a short-term solution and continue the enabling. However, the loss of the job may be exactly what the person needs to make them realize that they need to change their behavior.

Sometimes, you may be afraid that the person will harm themselves if you do not continue to play the role. As human beings, we tend to focus on short-term rewards versus something that is likely to occur in the future. Codependency makes it easier to just do what the person wants one more time or bail them out one more time. Fixing your lives will be difficult for both of you, but someone has to take the first step, and it is more likely to be you than the substance user.

Making the Decision

If you recognize that you are in a relationship with a substance user and that you fall into the enabling category, you need to make a decision whether you are going to continue to live your life the way you have been or you are going to take the steps to make a change. If you do not decide to make a change, your life will likely continue to go in the same way it has been and probably get worse before it gets better. The sooner you decide to take the action, the sooner both of you can be on the road to recovery.

Deciding to make the change is scary for everyone. You are probably not certain of how your loved one will act. There are a lot of skeletons in the closet that will come out in the open, but the good news is that you do not have to do it alone. If you have decided to stop enabling the substance user, it may be best to do a little bit of research and planning before you tell the person. You telling them no could be the trigger that makes them realize they have hit rock bottom and how their behaviors are affecting the rest of their loved ones around them, so it is best to be prepared.

You will need to devise a plan for how you are going to begin breaking the cycle, and it is best if you do not try to do it alone. If you have a family member or close friend you can confide in, it is best to talk to them about what you are going to do. It is possible that you may need help yourself, depending on how things go. It is also a good idea to enlist the services of a professional who has been down this road and can help you devise a good plan for putting your own plan into action.

Engaging Your Support Network

Years of enabling and micromanaging the substance user’s life can make you feel like you are one tough cookie, and you are. However, this is no time to go it alone. Sometimes, you may feel as if your support network is no longer there for you and you have lost touch, but if you try to reconnect and explain the situation, you may find that they have been waiting for you all along and are ready to step in and help.

Many times, friends and family will drop out of the lives of a substance user because they don’t know how to help. It is not that they want to abandon the person or truly be disconnected for them; they just may not know how to help. Sometimes, all you have to do is open the channels of communication, and you will find that they have been waiting for you to do this for a long time.

Even though friends and family may be more than willing to step in and help, they often have their own ideas about how to get out of the situation and what should be done. Only you know your situation best; although they mean well, family and friends might not always have the best answers. That is why one of the first things you need to do is to find a professional who can guide everyone through this difficult process. The best approach to breaking free of a substance user and getting them the help that they need is a team approach that includes family, friends, and professionals.

The Road Ahead

Making sure that your own support network is in place is the first thing that you should do if you need to end the cycle of substance abuse. Having a support network and plan is the most important thing that you can do for yourself. By asking for help, you are giving those who want to assist you with something definitive that they can do. This will not only give you what you need, but it will also make them feel as if they are an important part of your life.

Breaking the cycle and doing what is best for you and the substance user by getting help is the best thing that you can do for them, even if they may not agree at first. Many substance users have stated that they are alive and sober because someone who loves them decided to take the first step.

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