The Leading Expert in Treatment for Alcohol and Substance Abuse
and Founder of The Hills Treatment Center

It is often difficult for a friend or family member to distinguish between helping and hurting the alcoholic in their life. Enabling is when someone in a relationship with the addict either consciously or unconsciously helps the addict continue addictive or harmful behaviors. Often in addictive households the family members have some kind of secondary gain from the addict being sick. If they keep the addict sick they get to maintain their sense of control. The addict can also become the identified patient. The family becomes invested in their addiction because the addict is the scapegoat for the families' problems or the focus of all their attention, deterring from underlying issues. In addictive households it is difficult to set boundaries. The addict doesn't want healthy boundaries because they benefit from their families enabling, and the family doesn't want healthy boundaries because of secondary gain from the addiction. In reality, enabling behaviors can deter the alcoholic's chance for recovery and healthy boundaries are the key to success.

Common Enabling Behaviors Include:

  • Lending money
  • Sheltering the addict
  • Paying the alcoholic's bills
  • Taking responsibility for the alcoholic's behavior
  • Making excuses for their substance use or behavior
  • Denying they have a problem
  • Lying on behalf of the addict
  • Refusing to talk about their chemical or alcohol dependency with others
  • Bailing them out of jail

There are many negative consequences that can come from enabling. The enablers may become dependent on the feeling of rescuing the identified patient. They may suffer financial problems from lending the addict money. They often suffer emotional consequences of denial, and frequently feel just as out of control as the addict. Alcoholism and drug addiction are a family disease so it is common that someone close to the addict will develop enabling behaviors in an attempt to save them. The enabler wants to save the addict so they don't have to deal with their own issues. If the addict gets better then the family dynamic changes drastically because they have upset the way the family functions and denied their family the secondary gain of their illness.

The only way the incestuous cycle of addiction is broken is with treatment, and family therapy. It is recommended that the wreckage created by the addict is left alone. It is up to the addict to face his or her own problems. Many families and friends have found it helpful to educate themselves on the disease of addiction in order to understand that they have no control over their loved one's substance abuse problem. It is important for the family to understand the three C's they didn't cause it, can't control it, and can't cure it. tweleve-step programs for families, such as Al-Anon, are popular methods of treatment for the suffering enabler. A support group provides insight on other people's struggles and helps to guide the enabler through their own personal recovery.

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