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In Able-ing the Recovering

Let’s face it: enabling has gotten a bad rap within the addictive process. So much so that I tend to dance lightly around the subject when working with family members of addicts; careful to validate the inherent nature of the word, but separate its connotative counterpoint.

There is a multitude of information surrounding enabling within addiction, which means that the concept of enabling is inherent within the addictive process.

The Concept of Enabling

The best concept of enabling that I have come across over the years is that enabling is when loved ones over-function for the addict in an attempt to protect them from their addiction.

…at some point in the addictive process – whether we realize it or not – everybody enables; we do this simply because we want to protect those from their afflictions.-Lindsay KramerAs a quick recap, enabling can look like making up reasons for your loved one’s absence at important functions due to their intoxication or withdrawal, throwing away or hiding substances from your loved one, despite them replacing the substance in its absence, giving the addict money out of fear that they will resort to risky ways of acquiring financial resources in order to get high, etc.

Again, there’s plenty of information available on this, so I won’t reinvent the wheel here. The point is that at some point in the addictive process – whether we realize it or not – everybody enables; we do this simply because we want to protect those from their afflictions. It’s just a matter of how enabling impacts you and your loved one in the process, and whether it actually helps them out of their addiction and toward their sobriety.

But, what happens in the recovery process? Does enabling simply disappear once one stops using? If one’s not actively using, there’s no need to over-function, because there’s nothing to protect them from, right? That’s where support systems may not be out of the woods yet…

The Challenge of Avoiding Enabling Behaviors

Recovery is a challenge for anyone to navigate. The recovering addict has a unique and ongoing process of trials, tribulations, and uncertainty; the same is true for those supporting the addict. Recovery can feel like “the blind leading the blind.” Furthermore, those that know enough about enabling are cautious not to repeat enabling behaviors in the recovery process as they did in the addictive cycle. But there’s still ambiguity, and with ambiguity comes a multitude of questions.

In my work, I’ve had parents and spouses ask me questions such as:

  • My daughter lost her license when she got a DUI. Is it okay for me to drive her to and from meetings?
  • Is it bad that I’m setting up all the legal/medical appointments for my loved one because they’re not getting around to it?
  • Even though my loved one already owes me thousands of dollars, should I pay for them to stay in a sober living home in order to help them get back on their feet?  

After acknowledging the uncertainty, I respond with a couple questions of my own. The first question is: “How capable is your loved one at this time?”

The reality is that recovery and sobriety are not one in the same, and that recovery can be much more complex because of the maintenance factor. More specifically, once a person has made the choice to get and stay sober, as most still actively struggle to rebuild their lives and stay sober. Giving up the substance doesn’t magically transform the person and the trajectory of their lives in an instant; people still need ongoing help to stay sober. They need resources; they need various forms of support. But what they don’t need is people doing for them what they concretely can do for themselves.

The other reality is that people don’t automatically mature when they get sober. Those of you with loved ones that started using as teens and stopped after many years of consistent, heavy use know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s basically like you’re working with a teenager and not a forty-something year-old adult, correct? Their basic abilities of doing what most adults are expected to do are likely going to be thwarted and the recovering may need habilitative care in conjunction with rehabilitation from their addiction.

The reality is that recovery and sobriety are not one in the same, and that recovery can be much more complex because of the maintenance factor.-Lindsay Kramer

Helping vs. Hindering

When you understand what your loved one is capable of, that leads the way to my second question: “Is this helping them or hindering them?” In other words, it’s important to ask yourself, “By doing _______, am I helping to move my loved one forward, or am I serving to keep them stuck?” Are your actions empowering them or actually disabling them their recovery?

My experience is that most support systems know pretty quickly if their behaviors are helping or hindering their recovering loved ones.-Lindsay KramerFor example, let’s say that you’re trying to decide about whether it’s appropriate to drive your loved one around to work, meetings, appointments, etc. because they lost their license from a DUI. This could be helping them if it’s allowing them to make sober connections with others, get to work to save up enough money to replace the car they crashed, and ensure that they attend their necessary appointments. On the other hand, it could be hindering them if they’re sitting comfy in the front seat while being chauffeured around from destination to destination and aren’t striving for autonomy and improved functioning as a result of having everything done for them.

When you start by understanding what your loved one is actually capable of, and then you recognize that your attempts to assist them are preventing them from learning the skills and experiences to propel them forward, I’d deem that this is what enabling looks like in recovery. My experience is that most support systems know pretty quickly if their behaviors are helping or hindering their recovering loved ones.

At some point, it’s key to remember that if your loved one isn’t experiencing the consequences of their addiction because you’re literally and figuratively cleaning up after them, they truly may not be able to progress successfully in this recovery process.

Here are some ideas to apply this information:

  • Manage your expectations of your loved one’s capabilities: It’s important to have realistic expectations about what your loved one is actually capable of. If they haven’t learned basic life skills like paying bills, managing money, and/or navigating public transit, your support will look different than it would if your loved one has maintained a full-time job at a successful law practice while serving as the primary bill-payer for the family. Wishing your loved one was more capable isn’t the same as them actually being this capable. Be realistic and patient about their baseline while continuing to champion them to progress and grow.
  • Talk to your loved one about your understanding of their capabilities versus their understanding of their capabilities: See if your awareness of their capabilities matches theirs. They could believe that they lack basic skills for daily activities due to their shame and guilt from the addiction, despite you knowing of their capabilities from past experiences. This could be a good opportunity to reinforce skills and hope in your loved one, as well as an opportunity for you to have a reality check about where their functional baseline really is.
  • Set a timeline for growth and for your support: In the recovery process, everyone needs boundaries and bottom lines. These keep people accountable and deter the enabling process. Setting a boundary can sound like this: “I’m happy to pay for your bills and sober living for three months, and in that time, I think it’s realistic for you to save up enough money to start supporting yourself. However, I’m not willing to support you if you aren’t working and going to meetings, as I don’t want to reinforce you not progressing in your recovery.” This is a great balance of helping your loved one to get back on their feet, while having limits to prevent them from getting too comfortable and not staying motivated.
  • Be honest with yourself about whether you’re serving to help or hinder your loved one by your support: This really is the most important element for those helping the recovering. A good litmus test is if your loved one continues to remain stagnant, in spite of all the help that you’re providing to them. It’s necessary to tap into your fears about letting go and ascertain how you can get out of the way to allow the actual “recovery” process to occur. If this is something that speaks to you, my best input is to get yourself to an Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meeting. These meetings are life-changing and can make all the difference in giving you the tools you need to gain awareness of this process and learn how to adaptively manage your role in your loved one’s addiction and recovery.

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