Many times people have questions about Enabling. It is important to understand that enabling doesn’t actually come from the person who is doing the enabling. In actuality it is a learned behavior that is being taught or trained by a substance abuser using specific emotions to manipulate.
It is not necessarily specific behaviors, but emotions that are used by a substance abuser to “train” family members not to confront them in an uncomfortable way or even to intervene. In some cases, these emotions already existed within the relationship but were intensified through repeat conditioning by the substance abuser. In other cases, these emotions were “planted” there through words, actions and other manipulations.Generally, these are long-lasting feelings that have been reinforced over time through repetitive manipulations.
Over time, these emotions can cause many families become stuck, non-confrontational, and even to wait for their loved ones to change…sometimes forever. It is also important to note that the stronger the emotional connection between the substance abuser and another, the more effectively these will work. Someone who doesn’t have any emotional connection with the substance abuser will be relatively unaffected when attempted to be manipulated by using hope, fear, guilt, or sympathy.
In general, the purpose of using emotions to train other people is primarily to do one of four things:
- Cause people to enable and give a substance abuser some form of comfort.
- Cause people to enable and absorb negative consequences for a substance abuser.
- Cause people to enable and assume a substance abuser’s responsibilities for them.
- Cause people to enable and assume the actual responsibility of the addiction.
The Four Emotions used by a Substance Abuser to Train Someone to Enable Them
four primary emotions used by a substance abuser to train people to enable are:
HOPE: Everyone connected to a substance abuser has the hope that the problem will go away. A substance abuser will use your hope against you to stop you from intervening. Hope is one of the strongest emotions that a substance abuser becomes adept at using to “train” you not to intervene. A majority of alcoholics or addicts have gone past the adamant denial stage. After years of use or just so much evidence it is often pointless to deny that the use exists. So instead of adamant denial he may use what is referred to as an offering of hope. This is the most subtle, most commonly used and most deadly of all the emotions used to manipulate. You as a family member so desperately want to believe in the hope that the problem can and will be fixed
FEAR: those that have the strongest emotional connection have often had themselves trained unknowingly by a substance abuser through the use of fear. Convinced of the idea that if they intervene it will “make things worse” often stops family members from doing an intervention. Hints or threats of suicide, overdoses, “leaving forever”, living on the streets, moving in with druggie friends, saying that he’ll never speak to you again; these are all designed to have an effect on you, that effect being fear. It is said that the reason that our loved ones can push our buttons so well is because they installed most of them in the first place. If he can effectively push your fear button enough, you will eventually be in a position may be tempted to halt entirely. In addition to using your fear against you, it is not uncommon for an addict to alternate between pushing your fear buttons while also “offering you hope” in the form of minimal to no treatment (i.e. promises, resolutions, etc). If he does this effectively, you will recoil from the fear and grab onto the minimal hope as a last ditch effort.
SYMPATHY: In an effort to minimize, diminish the strength of a confrontation, or eliminate it entirely the alcoholic or addict may attempt to evoke sympathy from you so that you feel bad for him and back off. Sometimes the occasional tear may even be shed. The Sympathy Manipulation is one of the most subtle manipulations that a substance abuser will use on someone who cares for him. Most substance abusers that we intervene on aren’t really bad people, they are just sick people. We want them to do well. We hope that the only thing stopping them from getting better is other people, places and things…we don’t want the problem to be them.
“Fine. I’m a loser, is that what you want to hear? I fail at everything. Do you think I don’t know that? I’m the worst father and husband in the world. Do you think I like being this way? I try so hard, and am just a screw
up. I’d understand if you left me and found someone better.”
Probably the common theme with the Sympathy Manipulation is the idea that the circumstances aren’t necessarily the fault of the substance abuser. Getting fired because the boss didn’t like him, or getting a divorce from an uncaring wife, or losing his wallet or being “robbed” are some common examples. Even those who have tried recovery before have used the Sympathy Manipulation.
“My sponsor never called me back. Friends came by and put drugs out on the table. I can’t relate to those meetings, all they do is talk about using drugs…makes me want to use. No one understands me. They’re trying to convert me. Everyone there drinks anyways. Rehab won’t work for me.”
Many times families fail in the intervention process because they are stuck in the middle of fear and hope. Fear that if they continue standing their ground the alcoholic or addict may be gone forever; and the hope that tomorrow things might change. This is one of the associative factors as to why most alcoholics and addicts do not find sobriety; because the people around them are unwilling to make a move. In all reality, if you don’t make the necessary changes and instead wait for the alcoholic or addict to make them…inevitably you will lose them to their addiction.
GUILT: For parents, this is the strongest emotion that prevents an intervention. The sinking feeling that maybe we didn’t do a good enough job when raising our child and if we had done a better job, than our loved one wouldn’t be having his problems with addictions. As the addiction progresses and worsens, many mothers are haunted with this idea. As a result of guilt, parents are unwilling to “punish” their loved ones for their behaviors. Unable to kick them out of the house, parents often times also assume the negative consequences of the substance abusers addiction because it “isn’t really his fault”.
Whether your child is a teenager or a grown adult with children of their own, being a parent of someone who has been abusing drugs or alcohol can be very emotionally devastating.
A Mother’s Guilt
Few can understand the bond that exists between a mother and her child. Perhaps it is that extra nine months, or that physical and spiritual connection that begin early on. They are born perfect and we dream of their future. Perhaps they will be smart and become an attorney, or maybe strong and we have the next Michael Jordan. But deep inside, we just want them to be happy, healthy and safe.
“Maybe I didn’t hug him enough, or maybe I smothered him with love. I just don’t know where it all went wrong. I should have stayed with his father longer than I did, or maybe we should have divorced earlier. I remember that there were signs earlier. His grades were slipping. I could have hired a tutor to help him. People tell me that I should throw him out, but I could never do that. He’s my baby boy and he always will be. I’ll never throw him away. He needs me. No one seems to understand. I’ll never give up on him. One day he’ll turn it around.”
A mother of an alcoholic or an addict often assumes the responsibility of the addiction themselves. The deep secret sometimes felt is “if I had been a better parent then my child wouldn’t be in this mess at all.” That guilt becomes so powerful that a parent begins to not only assume the responsibility, but also the punishment. A parent won’t throw their child out for something that they believe was never really the child’s fault at all…it was theirs. So we pay their debts, and tolerate the negative consequences ourselves. We begin to absorb the pain of the addiction instead of allowing the addict to feel it. It destroys us in the end. This is what happens to a parent consumed by guilt over their child’s addiction.
Many times a mother will not allow a professional intervention to occur because of the fear that we are going to “order her to throw her child out” (which is untrue), or that we will discover that she was a bad parent and partially responsible for the problems (which is also untrue). Part of our job is to help a mother to understand the addiction as it is, so that she, and her child, can begin to heal.
It is important that professionals understand the complex family dynamics that occur when an addiction springs up within a family. It is important that we take an sympathetic approach to the difficulty faced when a mother decides to intervene on her child.
A Father’s Pride
“There he is, that’s my boy.” To see a father as he watches his son hit a baseball, ride a bike or swim for the first time it is easy to see the pride swelling in his heart. We are teaching our children to face the world, and nothing is so satisfactory as seeing them overcome their obstacles, to become responsible…to slowly become men, or women.
But what happens when problems arise? What happens when that child, instead of facing problems, begins to avoid them? What happens when everything we do is having an opposite effect? Everything we hoped they would do and become is dissolving before our very eyes.
“What the heck is wrong with that kid? It seems like he just doesn’t care anymore. He’s so behind on his bills. Doesn’t even bother opening them anymore. I’ve tried to explain to him that unemployment is going to run out and then where will he be? Needs to start looking now instead of spending all his time out with his loser friends. His mother keeps saying he’s using drugs, but what does she know? My son would never do drugs. Or if he is, I’m sure it’s just a phase. Everyone goes through it. He’ll grow out of this.”
Unlike a mother’s guilt, a father rarely assumes the guilt of “raising an addict or alcoholic.” Rather, a father operates in two stages:
- Refuses to accept that their son or daughter is using drugs or could be a drug addict or alcoholic. Looks at the situation in complete denial or minimizes it as a phase.
- If a father accepts that their son or daughter is abusing drugs in a chronic or abusive form then he will usually attempt to fix it himself in order to redeem himself as a father.
Many times a father will refuse to allow outside professionals to come in and fix a situation, because he desperately needs to fix it himself. Or, he will simply refuse to accept that their child is “bad enough” to warrant an intervention.
It is important that professionals help guide a father and provide him with the proper tools so that he can be empowered and be more effective in helping his child, without stepping on his toes as a parent. Working with, rather than instead of, we can help a parent to face the truth of the addiction…which is often the most difficult thing for a father to do.
Where does guilt come from?
Of course, every parent has a degree of fear or guilt about how they raised their loved one, whether an addition is present or not. Guilt comes from doubt and fear. Fear that we missed something somehow, or indirectly or directly caused some of these problems. However, what is important to understand is that a substance abuser understands intuitively that you have guilt and is quit skilled at hijacking your emotions and magnifying that seed of doubt…that guilt that already exists. The most important thing is that the current feelings of guilt that you may have are being planted and reinforced over and over by the substance abuser.
Enabling, put quite simply, is the actions someone takes or doesn’t take that allow or help an alcoholic or addict to continue drinking or using. Often times, with the best intentions through love and caring, we inadvertently strengthen the addiction of a loved one when what we really intended to do was “help them to stop”. This process usually begins slowly over time and almost always with the intention to help.
As untreated alcoholism and drug addiction progresses, so too can our enabling behaviors progress. We find ourselves putting up with more and more outrageous behavior that we never would’ve tolerated years or even months ago. We begin to compromise our own sense of morals and dignity. Our focus becomes more and more on the addicted one and we begin to lose ourselves in the process. Emotionally, spiritually, mentally and financially we end up drained. At later stages, the addict’s behavior can even begin to affect us physically after the anxiety and stress of a hundred sleepless nights begin to add up. In the end it is usually only anger, frustration and hopelessness that are left. Sometimes we become so frustrated we leave, but some of us hang on to the bitter end, always asking him and ourselves, “Just why won’t he get help?”
The answer is pretty simple. Because right now his drug and alcohol use is emotionally more comfortable than seeking treatment. With all the negative consequences that we see, it may not appear so comfortable to us, but it’s the truth. Part of the reason that it is more comfortable for him is that he has trained us through emotional manipulation to behave in a certain way so that we make his addiction more emotionally comfortable. He has no job because the family has been manipulated to loan him money, he has no apartment because the family lets him stay with them “just until he gets on his feet”, his bills are paid because we lend him the money, he is not in jail because the family has bailed him out, he drives drunk because no one confronts him, and his grandparents do not know because the family keeps it a secret. Of course these are extreme examples but enabling even occurs towards those who haven’t quite bottomed out and are still highly functional in society. For us to more greatly understand our role in the lives of an addicted one, it is best if we break down the basic types of enabling behaviors and look back into our past and see if we have exhibited any of these behaviors at any time. Do not worry if you have done or currently possess any of these enabling characteristics. As we like to say, the more enabling factors that are currently present, the better. Because we are going to change them. As long as all the factors around an addict remain the same he will continue to behave as he always has. If we change our behaviors then so must he in response. We need the addict to feel the negative consequences of their lifestyle choice, perhaps for the first time in his life.
Remember that there is a fundamental truth about addiction and recovery: Sooner or later everyone quits using alcohol or drugs.
Some alcoholics or addicts quit after seeking treatment, directly because their family member has participated in a professional intervention and now refuses to enable any longer. Others quit when they are arrested and go to prison. Some quit after a fatal overdose and their family buries them in the ground. Sooner of later, everybody quits. Just how someone quits is more up to you, the ones who care for the substance abuser, than you think.