When someone develops a substance addiction, well-meaning family members often become “enablers”—out of denial, pride or fear, they begin “helping” in ways that make it easier for the addiction to continue:
- They make up excuses for why their family member is too sick to go to work, the car has a fresh dent or the house is becoming infused with strange odors.
- They clean up the evidence while their family member is sleeping off a binge.
- They pay bills their family member has neglected or run up.
- They run interference when their family member has problems with neighbors, bosses or the law.
- They give their family member money on request, even when they know it will be misused.
By protecting their addicted family member from the worst consequences, they also “protect” him or her from possible motivations to get treatment.
Much advice is available for the non-addicted family member who wants to stop enabling an addict. But what if you’re the one who was addicted, and now, finally in recovery, you wonder if your family’s enabling habits will increase your risk of relapse?
SOBER BUT STILL ENABLED
Just making the commitment to abstinence should help your family as well as you: they won’t feel the need to clean up alcoholic vomits that never happen. However, there is a risk they’ll transfer the enabling habit to related situations:
- If they lied for you when you stayed home to nurse a hangover, they may do the same when you “just don’t feel like going to work.”
- If they covered up for you in other ways, they may “sympathetically” encourage your excuses for not making amends to others.
- If they became the sole breadwinner—and did all the household chores besides—they may hardly notice if you’re still not helping around the house or looking for work.
And yes, by making it easier for you to neglect the hard work involved in long-term sobriety, they might be “helping” you into an increased risk of relapse.
GET THE WHOLE FAMILY INTO THERAPY
The best way to head this off is to have outside accountability for everyone in the household. Look for a detox center with a family program, and do everything you can to get everyone actively involved (any center worth using will be ready to help you there). After initial detox, continue to attend therapy as a family, making long-term plans for ways the others can “enable” your sobriety instead of your addiction. Also, get everyone involved in peer support groups.
That’s the ideal situation. If you’re less fortunate, your enabling family member(s) may resist attending therapy, insisting on seeing the whole thing as your problem. They may even be addicted themselves—to the enabling—and not really want you to recover, which might cost them their role as the heroic one in the household. Perhaps they even fear you’ll leave them if you don’t need them any more.
LEAD THEM NOT INTO TEMPTATION
Besides discussing any such situation with your own therapist and support group, here are some things you can do to reinforce your sobriety while helping loved ones adjust to the “new you”:
- Get accountability elsewhere. Besides having a support partner to call in case of emergency, ask a friend to help with everyday difficulties: for example, have someone you call each weekday morning to verify you’re up and at your job search.
- Look for opportunities to be responsible and helpful. Don’t wait for someone to ask you to hang up your jacket or put your dishes in the dishwasher or even scrub the toilet—just do it when you see it needs doing, and don’t worry about being “recognized” for it. (This is also a way to get around a perfectionistic partner’s micromanaging your housework efforts—it’s harder to criticize help they don’t witness.)
- Pay little attentions and perform little acts of love daily. Remember, one reason people become enablers is that they fear being rejected. If they’re convinced you genuinely care about them and want to change for their sake too, they’ll be more willing to support you in effective ways.
- Be an empathetic listener! Don’t focus nonstop on all you’ve been through and how hard you’ve worked. Everyone has had a tough time and still has adjustments to make. If you want to help your family kick the enabling habit, be as patient and understanding with them as your support partners are with you.