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A SOBERING STORY: Family, friends must guard against enabling

by on April 27, 2014 2:00 AM

When it comes to addiction, good intentions of friends and family are sometimes bad medicine.

And so actions that are meant to help the addict may turn out to have the opposite effect, instead allowing them to keep using, and, in the process, physically and emotionally draining the people around them.

Addiction specialists refer to this as enabling or co-dependency.

Frank Jans, director of psychiatry for West Penn Allegheny Health Network, said enabling is a problem that sometimes arises when well-meaning people try their hardest to help a friend or relative move from addiction to recovery, but wind up doing the wrong things for all the right reasons.

For instance, enablers might try to protect addicts from the consequences of their own behavior by bailing them out of jail. Or maybe by calling the addict’s boss and making an excuse as to why he or she can’t come to work.

Other times, he said, enablers will put their attention on the things that lead up to the use, the antecedents, and attempt to put a barrier between the addict and his or her substance of choice. So, for instance, maybe an enabler will schedule an activity to preoccupy an alcoholic at about the time drinking typically begins.

“Instead of looking at the drinking as a problem, (they) try to put a focal point on (circumventing) that person from picking up a drink,” Jans said.

“It may help for that moment, but it doesn’t help with the long-term problem. It’s like hiding a pack of cigarettes for somebody who is a three-pack-a-day smoker. They’re still going to find a way to feed that addiction,” he said.

Jans said enablers or co-dependents tend to become so engrossed in dealing with the antecedents and consequences of the addiction that they exhaust themselves, physically and emotionally.

He said those who are close to an addict need to accept that they do not have responsibility for the addict’s problems, nor can they control the addiction.

And, he said, they should understand that allowing the addict to suffer the consequences of their actions is a way to usher them into treatment.

He said it’s helpful to remember this bit of wisdom: “You didn’t cause it. You can’t cure it. And you can’t control it.”

There is only person who can — the person with the addiction.

And if the person isn’t willing to take steps to end the relationship with a substance, those around him or her need to figure out how they are going to remain stable and to recover in an unhealthy environment, Jans said.

Step one, according to Laurie Roehrich, a clinical psychologist who teaches at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and specializes in addictive behavior, would be for those close to an addict to accept that they are allowed to live well.

She said she has seen many families who have remained remarkably resilient, despite having an addicted family member.

In those cases, she said, the families try to establish or maintain healthy, normal routines, and tend to one another and to their communities.

“They include the addicted family member when the person is doing well, and gently, but firmly, exclude them when they are too impaired.

“They share their fears and their hopes the person will recover, but distance themselves enough to ensure their own personal and psychological needs are being met. They are open and candid about the problem without resorting to shaming and blaming,” Roehrich said.

Although enabling is something to remain wary of, Roehrich said it’s important to avoid the trap of worrying whether any single action is a form of enabling.

“There are scads of popular quizzes you can take online or elsewhere that purport to help you decide if you are an enabler.  The problem is that almost none of them have been subjected to scientific research, and they are written in a way that makes almost all of us see ourselves and answer yes,” she said.  

“So, if everyone is an enabler and any thought, behavior or feeling we have about our loved one constitutes enabling, the term loses any significance or meaning. Suppose you go to pick up your drunk family member at a bar or party.  Are you enabling them, or are you protecting the public good and the welfare of your own family by keeping this person off the road?  These are the kinds of questions that keep us up at night, overthinking and overanalyzing.”

She said there may be more important questions to ask, such as:

• Are you continually encouraging the addict to get help?

Even if they refuse, have you sought help for yourself or your children?  

• Have you set limits on what you are willing to do and expressed them directly to the addict?  Have you told them their relationship is in danger due to their drinking or drug use?

• Have you educated your family about the problem and discussed it openly?

• If it’s your spouse who is addicted, have you considered how you could become financially independent so as to prevent his or her problem from imperiling your money?

• Do you have a safety plan in place, should the addict become dangerous to themselves or others?

Roehrich said being close to someone with an addiction doesn’t mean you have to share that struggle with them, especially if violence becomes an issue.

She said those close to an addict should not tolerate violence whatsoever and should seek help.

That aside, she said it’s often helpful to put into practice the basic principles of Al-Anon, which emphasize healing one’s own self first.

“You are allowed to live well and to have a happy, strong family, even if one member refuses to get help,” she said.


Sam Kusic is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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