Particularly with addictions, the concept of enabling gets some serious negative press. While most people are aware that “enabling is bad” per se; why does it still continue? In working with families of those that have addictions issues, one of the explanations that continued to show up, was denial—fueled by a misunderstanding of the disease of addiction.
So let’s remember what the psychological and physiological components of addiction look like. A person who has a neurotransmitter deficiency, finds the drug(s) that match the type of neurotransmitters that the person is deficient in (Miller & Miller, 2008). They drink or use those drugs, and then their deficiency is magnified, as the brain becomes more dependent on receiving those (pseudo) neurotransmitters from the drug(s) they are using (Miller & Miller, 2008). Ultimately the psychological component, as a result of the aforementioned physiological piece, looks like a person whose only preoccupation is their next drink/other drug—how to obtain, and how to drink/use it (Miller & Miller, 2008). Any interactions with other people at that time, are used as a means to manipulate (either nicely or not nicely), to help with the goal of obtaining and using (Miller & Miller, 2008). This also is the case with weekend warriors (the functional alcoholics/other drug addicts) that limit their consumption to the weekend (Miller & Miller, 2008). By Wednesday, they are typically counting down the minutes until they can use that weekend or Friday night.
Denial can work very differently for everyone—but ultimately results in people not facing the truth of their situation. A fed up wife of a husband who is an active alcoholic that I have worked with in the past, quietly lived her own life in their house—spending more time with friends or pursuing hobbies—but not saying a thing to her husband. Her silence was a form of enabling—as she didn’t do anything to contribute to her husband’s consequences of use. Why did she do it? Her brain went straight to “if I say something to him about it, and it turns out that he is an alcoholic—I have choices I have to make that I am not ready to make.” Her thoughts went straight to divorce, and she decided she wasn’t ready for divorce. They were in their late 60’s, and had been together since their 20’s. She identified thinking that divorce would “turn my world upside down.” She ultimately resigned herself to believing “this is how this is going to be,” and she created a whole life without him, while still cohabitating with him.
For many parents I have worked with, whose children and adult children have alcohol or other drug addictions, there’s a lot of “what did I do to contribute to this?” at play. Because some parents think they are the cause of the problem, they also erroneously believe they can fix it. These are the parents that also bail their kids out of jail, because they don’t want others in the family/neighbors/fellow church people/friends, to comment on how “bad” their kids are—and, in turn, how “bad” their parenting is. This type of denial and enabling is all about allowing the parents to handle things in order to continue to keep family secrets.
I have also seen other parents, whom, not understanding addiction, believe that “if I do this or that for him/her, they will see everything I’m doing for them, feel sorry for me, and be motivated to stop.” Almost as though there is some martyrdom in there. If we remember that when someone in active addiction is solely looking to the next time they get to drink/use—if someone enables, it is a green light to continue with the drinking/using. There are no consequences of use, therefore there is no reason to stop using.
The last form of enabling as a result of denial that I will speak of, is the thought process of “they can’t be an alcoholic/addict because…..” This is where the parent/loved one, injects their own views of addiction and come to the conclusion that their loved one can’t possibly be an addict, because they: have a good job, have their degree, come from a good home, only drinks/uses on weekends or after work, doesn’t use/drink all day, they don’t drink/use as much as so and so; and fill in the blank with whatever else you want. These, interestingly, are the same thought patterns that show up in the person that has the active addiction—“I can’t be an addict/alcoholic because….” When families reinforce this thought pattern, it only helps keep the person in active addiction.
The bottom line is that when someone is in active addiction, the person’s loved ones can go through different versions of denial—which can lead to enabling. Some questions that pop up for them are: What does it mean about me if my son/daughter/husband/wife is an alcoholic/other drug addict? What will I have to do if they are? What would I tell the rest of the family? What would I tell our friends? What will they think of us? What if he/she never wants to get help? What would I need to do then? As well as many other questions. The answers to these questions can be too painful for someone to face—and as a result it is easier to live in denial and continue to enable.
Miller, M. & Miller, D. (2008). Staying clean and sober: Complimentary and natural strategies for healing the addicted brain (2nd ed.). Salt Lake City, UT: Woodland Publishing, Inc.
Summer Jeirles is a counselor with a background in residential addictions treatment. She currently practices in Virginia, with adults 55 and over.