Enabling the Addict:

Understanding the Role of Codependency

When there is a call to Bridging the Gaps, for help for an addicted person, who do you think does the reaching out?  Sometimes it is the person themselves, the addict or alcoholic.  More often, it is a family member or close friend of the person in trouble.  This person, who has been intimately involved with the addict, is desperately seeking help for their loved one.  They know, perhaps even more than the addict/alcoholic, that their family member is close to a crisis or death.

When we receive that call, an information gathering time evolves, in which we will want enough information to assess the level of severity of the situation, but also the more mundane information that helps us determine if we can serve the person’s needs.

Another kind of information more naturally evolves along with the process. That is the family history and dynamics that helps us to understand how to be helpful to everyone in the family system.  It is often a long road to recovery, most of it happening before we ever meet the person.  Family and friends are integrally involved, whether the addict can see that or not.

We call the relationship between family and the addict “codependency”.  This signifies that there is an undeniable bond between them that is mutually affected by their interactions with each other.  It is sometimes hard to get the addicted person to admit this bond, as they may have, at the point of engaging treatment, disengaged from their family and loved ones.  But the family will be the first to admit the hurt, the worry, the money, the long hours of concern, anger, energy and finagling the system that they have spent to keep their addict safe, all the time hoping for a miracle.  They want our treatment center to be that miracle.

In our mind, the family needs help as much as the addicted person.  They have contracted a familial addiction called Codependency.  The prime symptom of that addiction is enabling, giving help to the point that it hurts! Often the call for help to Bridging the Gaps is not just that the addict/alcoholic has reached their bottom – the family feels they have too!

Twenty years ago, codependency was looked at as a dirty word in the world of recovery.  Enabling meant you had crossed that line into doing too much and you needed the “Tough Love” approach.  People in recovery often made bad jokes about Alanon, and most people wanted to stay away at all costs.  It meant that you couldn’t hold yourself together.  You were weak and couldn’t stand up for yourself.  What was wrong with you??

Not so today! As we grow in understanding of addiction, so we grow in understanding of the way that neuroscience and behavior interact.  Stress and the impact on our physical bodies is inseparable, and when we are living under a constant stress, it is bound to have an impact, physical and mental as well as spiritual, in our lives.  Codependence arises from that place. We now grasp that codependency arises from our desire to help, but becomes a cycle in which we become obsessed with controlling the outcome even when it is obvious we can’t change the person.

Enabling then, is one of the primary symptoms, and it perpetuates symptoms rather than solving them.  We start out with the best intentions in mind, but somehow, the problem goes on and on.  Our own denial keeps us from seeing that we have become part of the problem.

Luckily, as treatment approaches have evolved, we have become better at looking at the whole family in treating addiction.  We now know that if we don’t treat the system from which the addict came, we are dooming them to relapse.  If there is an illness, and you only treat one person and send them home to the illness, what would you expect to happen?

What happens to the addict in an enabling world?  Remember that this whole system has grown to be the way it is over a long period with the best interests in mind.  If you are a parent with an addicted child, you only want the best for your kid.  Maybe they got a DUI at a young age and you hired the best lawyer to save them from losing their license, having a blight on their record, and avoiding being turned down from the best colleges.  Of course!

Then your young adult felt they had escaped, didn’t take responsible action, kept drinking and drugging into college, flunked out, came home and plays video games in your basement day and night.  What now? You plead, yell, cajole, to no avail.  Another DUI?  Let him face the consequences, but wait, he just got a job…see where I am going?  Enabling grows innocently out of wanting the best for your loved one.  Not one of us thinks of the long-term consequences because we want to trust our family member.  And the situation keeps getting worse.

So here you are at a crossroads.  Communication has grown stagnant or worse.  You still want to help but you are afraid of taking the next move, for fear it will backfire again.  Who gets the help when you try to reach out?  It just doesn’t seem to be working anymore! You are exhausted, angry and confused.

Enabling can take many forms:  It can be giving money to get out of a jam, endorsing a decision (behind the scenes or in front of the rest of the family), blaming others, threatening but not following through, keeping secrets, avoiding to keep the peace, rescuing, doing for the addict what they are capable of doing for themselves, protecting them from the consequences of their behavior, rationalizing or explaining away a problem.  How many of these do you see in yourself?

Learning to see your own enabling behavior is the key. Learning to communicate with honesty, open-mindedness and willingness is the first big step forward.  Learning to listen to your own gut instincts again is another.  You can find your own inner compass again by talking with other family members, learning more about codependency and enabling and trusting that you can heal too.  Family members, like addicts and alcoholics, suffer from shame and guilt over the behavior and events that have gone on in their lives and homes.

Bridging the Gaps understands the family and the addiction.  We understand that to treat addiction means to inform, educate and treat the whole family. Treating the family, while treating the addict is a necessary part of holistic treatment. Who needs the help?  Everyone!

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