Enabler: one that enables another to achieve an end; especially: one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behaviour (such as substance abuse) by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behaviour.
– Merriam Webster Dictionary
Enablers often perceive themselves as rescuers. Anyone can be an enabler, including an addict’s parents, siblings, children, partners, etc. With the best intentions, they try to assist the person in addiction but instead, they allow the person to continue in a pattern of self-destruction. Enabling can look like denial, justification or protection of a loved one’s addiction.
Aurora counsellor Jennifer Hearn’s personal experience with enabling:
When I was a teen, my mother enabled my marijuana use. She allowed me to use it and justified her decision to her friends by saying it was safer than most other drugs, that at least she knew where I was, that it made her more approachable as a mother and that I was not going to end up on the streets using it.
What she did not realize is that marijuana lowered my inhibitions and heightened my drug tolerance, so I had to use more and more all the time. Soon, I started to mix the drug with alcohol. I used marijuana to relax for bed, calm me when I was anxious or stressed from school and even to help me socialize. More importantly, I used it to cope with past trauma that was unresolved.
My mother did not intend for what was to come, but I almost lost everything from my addiction to marijuana. My mother continued to enable my behaviour by caring for my children for quite a long time, as I struggled to run away from my problems. I was determined that I did not need to work past my addiction or unresolved trauma.
On my birthday, I was on my way home to do an eight ball when I had a mild stroke. I was medically informed that if I did not stop using drugs, my children would not have a mother for much longer. I quit the drugs and moved in with my mother. It took many years for her to set boundaries and for me to accept them.
Learning how to set and follow boundaries was the best thing that ever happened in my relationship with my mother. I have since created healthy boundaries within all my relationships.
In my story, you can see that my mother denied the severity of my addiction, justified it to herself and her friends, and protected it by raising my children and coming up with excuses to explain why I was not with them.
If you can relate to my mother in any way, and you feel you are an enabler, the first thing to do is realize this is a toxic relationship for everyone involved.
Steps to stop enabling your loved one’s addiction:
- Set boundaries – What are you willing to allow, and what are your limits? (ex: if your loved one’s addiction continues, are they still welcome in your home?)
- Communicate your boundaries and expectations – Open and honest communication doesn’t leave room for reading between the lines, assumptions or manipulations.
- Avoid cleaning up their messes – This includes paying off a loved one’s debt/rent, buying their food, cleaning their house, making excuses for them or calling in for them at work.
- Determine whether the ways in which you are “helping” someone could hurt them in the long run – my mother was unable to make this distinction. If someone tells you they “need” a substance in order to cope, that person needs to seek professional help.
- Be independent – you have a life, so live it. This one is often a struggle, but you need to stick to your boundaries. You cannot make someone change, and you cannot solve their problems for them.
- Stick to your plans – if you had plans to do something, and your loved one cancels because of their substance abuse, keep your plans and do not cater to them.
At Aurora, we help families learn to regain their control by not allowing guilt to put the loved one’s needs ahead of their own and encourage people to seek other supports (Al-Anon).