Woman comforting male loved one by holding his hand

Drug addiction or substance use disorder, as well as alcohol use disorder, are incredibly common in the US. If you or someone you love has had trouble with substance or alcohol use and is now seeking to begin recovery with the help of addiction treatment, you may be wondering what it may mean to offer them support without making their addiction easier. 

This is a common concern, and each day, millions of people enter recovery without the support of those around them. Recovery without adequate support carries with it an increased risk for potential relapse, but having someone who is aware of the signs of enabling can help keep them from deepening the addiction present in their loved one.

Understanding Addiction Recovery

Something that many people fail to understand about recovery is that it is an ongoing, lifelong process. There is no finish line, and the changes that are undertaken with the goal of preventing any further use are likely going to have their own cycles of ups and downs. 

This also means that even if someone has been clean for years, relapse is still possible, and it doesn’t mean that the individual has failed in any respect, just that their treatment needs to be adjusted or changed to better meet their needs.

What is an Enabler?

The simplest way to define an enabler is that it is someone who exhibits behavior patterns that have the potential to facilitate further use by the individual. They will often have a pattern of behavior that helps the other person to continue to use drugs or alcohol. In some cases, it can be as simple as buying drugs or alcohol either from the individual attempting recovery. Other times it may simply be looking the other way when the individual attempting recovery spends money on drugs.

In most cases, however, the enabling behavior can be much harder to spot and positively identify. Sometimes it can be giving an addict “money for gas” or “a couple of packs of cigarettes” when they are known to often spend those funds on things that they can either fence or otherwise sell. 

If they are in jail or prison, enabling them can also be just putting money on their commissary account. In one of the simplest examples, enabling is just giving them a place to sleep while they “get on their feet” and allowing them to come and go while using.

The biggest thing to remember is that enabling doesn’t help the individual create positive, lasting change. The best way to be a real source of personal support for someone struggling with a use disorder is to hold them accountable, set boundaries, and ensure that all help that is provided is provided in the context of recovery. 

Enabling Behaviors

If you think that you or someone you know may be an enabler, there are some behaviors to watch out for. These enabling behaviors can serve as a powerful self-diagnosis tool for determining if you are serving as an enabler to someone struggling with addiction.

  1. Protecting an addict from the consequences of their addictions is being an enabler.
  2. Protecting someone close to you by helping them to hide their addiction or otherwise keep it a secret is enabling behavior.
  3. Making excuses for the behavior of a loved one struggling with an addiction enables them to continue that negative behavior.
  4. Refusing to set boundaries, or setting boundaries and refusing to enforce them, is enabling your loved one to continue harm against themselves and you.
  5. Refusing to discuss your loved one’s addiction in an open and honest manner is enabling them to continue their harmful behavior in whatever manner suits them. 
  6. Denying that money you give your loved one will actually be used to fund their addiction is enabling them to continue taking your money to feed their harmful behavior.

Psychology Behind Enabling

Much of the psychology behind enabling lies in fear. There is the fear that the enabler may lose the addict if they don’t help them to satisfy their addiction needs; that they’ll find someone else to help them. They also have a fear of potential loss through death or harm, that if they aren’t there to keep an eye on them, they may get into more trouble or get into an overdose situation. 

Other psychological causes are sometimes rooted in a codependent relationship, where they provide enabling behavior for the addict, who in turn provides something they need, like validation or love.

Empowerment Vs. Enabling

One of the most difficult questions to answer is if someone is helping to empower an addict in their life or helping to enable them. In some cases, being an enabler can empower the addict to do things they would not be able to do themselves. Unfortunately, this often means using substances. This is being an enabler. 

Some may even try to solve the addict’s problems themselves, without getting input or motivational validation from the addict. This isn’t empowerment either since it negates the need for any responsibility on the addict’s part. Empowering them would involve helping them to use their own motivation to solve their problems, or at least to take a step in the right direction. The most important thing to do is determine if you are enabling, and if you are, speak to a professional to help the addict help themselves.

How to Support Someone’s Recovery Without Enabling

If someone important to you is struggling with substance use, and you want to support them in addiction treatment without being an enabler, one of the most powerful ways to do so is to make sure that they know you love them and want them to heal. 

This can mean helping them to take the first step toward a functional and lasting recovery by working with them to contact addiction professionals. Reach out today to speak to someone who can help create a treatment plan that promotes recovery in a way that works for both of you.