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Loving Your Addict

Jeff Jay

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Two Phases of Enabling

When family members become concerned about a loved one's alcohol use, they will almost always do all the wrong things. Operating out of a sense of loyalty and love, they will unwittingly enable the disease to progress. Inevitably, the alcohol or other drug use becomes worse.

There are countless examples of how this may occur. Here are three stories that showcase enabling behavior.

1) A young woman in college is known to be drinking somewhat heavily. Her grades aren't what they should be. Finally, she drives her car into a parked vehicle while intoxicated. Legal problems arise.

Her parents run to the rescue, thinking: "She's just going through a phase. She can't be an alcoholic. She is our beloved daughter." Instead of getting professional help, her parents call a lawyer to deal with the legal trouble. Unwittingly, they diminish the negative consequences of their daughter's drinking. That is, they make the problem less of a problem for their daughter. In this way, they have enabled the problem to continue.

2) A young man with a wife and children is staying out too late. He is drinking with his buddies at a sports bar and occasionally using cocaine. The problem escalates over time and his behavior becomes erratic. He stays out all night. He begins to miss work. He spends the mortgage money.

His wife becomes frantic, and somehow blames herself for the problem. When he misses work, she calls in sick for him. When she is asked by his parents how things are going, she lies and says all is well. She is too ashamed and confused to reach out for help, yet she is unwittingly making things worse. Without knowing it, she has become his accomplice by averting negative consequences at work and smoothing over problems with his parents. She may even borrow money to cover the mortgage payment. Even though she begs and threatens, cries and pleads, his wife is now enabling the problem to continue.

3) A 74 year old woman has prescriptions from three different doctors, none of whom know what the other is prescribing. She is taking Xanax, Percodan, and Tylenol 3, along with a host of other medications. She also drinks at night, now that her husband has passed away. Despite the love of her children and grand children, she is an alcoholic and drug addict.
When she falls and breaks her hip, the accident is attributed to old age. But at 74, she is quite fit and completely independent. She has lost her balance and fallen in her own home because of her narcotic and benzodiazepine habit, along with her drinking.

The family will not acknowledge the problem. Although Grandma has been hard to deal with on certain family occasions, it is simply too much to deal with. And besides, they think, she deserves to have a drink or two after Grandpa's death. By turning away from the problem this family is enabling the problem.

There are two phases of enabling: innocent and desperate. The stories above are all examples of innocent enabling. The family members really don't know any better, and their rationalizations are holding up fairly well. In truth, they are in as much denial of the problem as the alcoholic.

At some point this changes. Perhaps the young woman from the first story continues drinking, and drinks even more. Finally, she has a second and more serious car accident, injuring herself and someone else. Now her family is terrified. "My God," they think, "she just can't stop drinking. She must be an alcoholic!"

Strangely enough, most family members still will not reach out for help. Instead, they will descend into the desperate stage of enabling. Recognizing that their daughter has a serious problem, her parents take drastic measures to cover it up. They cannot imagine their beloved daughter labeled as an alcoholic. She will never be accepted, much less get ahead. Now the family goes into high gear. They hire another lawyer, they transfer her to a new college, and they keep the incident quiet. They are afraid that they may be making things worse, but they are determined not to damage her reputation.

Of course, this only makes things worse. Their daughter has not received any treatment yet, and so the disease progresses. Although her parents know there is a serious alcohol problem, they see it as a moral issue and not a medical one. They are still enabling the disease to continue. Desperately enabling.

Most people suffering from chemical dependency have an enabling system. This system is comprised of well-meaning friends and family members who unwittingly help the disease to progress. The enablers may be the source of money or the things that money can buy, like food and shelter. They may be the source of alibis or services such as legal help. Or, they may simply ignore the problem.

Just as families can do a lot to make things worse, they can also help things get better. When the enabling system turns into an intervening system, the disease becomes much harder to maintain. Friends and family cannot cure chemical dependency, but they can have a very positive impact on the problem. Families can break the cycle of enabling in three ways:

1. Talk openly and honestly with the alcoholic about the problem. Stick to the facts and don't be judgmental. Talk about your own feelings, but don't try to inflict guilt. Only talk when the person is sober. Do not nag or scold. Talk about what you will do to help, and also talk about what you will no longer do to enable the problem. Also, talk openly and honestly with other family members about the problem, so everyone is on the same page.

2. Do not give or lend money for the addiction, or to cover debts caused by the addiction. For example, if the rent money has been spent at the bar, don't block the natural consequences of that action. Otherwise, one is only buying the next drink. However, if young children are involved, this strategy may not be appropriate. Be vigilant in protecting these silent victims of addiction.

3. Become involved in a program of recovery. Al-anon, Nar-anon, and Families Anonymous are invaluable resources. It is often too difficult to stop the enabling process without help and support from those who have been down this road. Join a group, and draw on their experience, strength, and hope.

© 2001 by Jeff Jay


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