It can be difficult to distinguish between helping or enabling when dealing with someone who has alcohol or substance abuse issues. Where is the line between the two when someone we care about has an illness that can spin a web of chaos and delusion? that enables a drinker to continue despite the problems that are occurring. Denial is different than lying. When someone lies, they know they are not telling the truth, denial is the inability to see things as they actually are.
With most of us, it is in our human nature to care for the sick, help the person who is in trouble, and to provide assistance to those who are without. When a person we care about begins to have negative consequences from drinking or using it can trigger us into taking some type of action or to offer help. We may feel compelled or even responsible for taking care of the situation. Our hope would be that if we help them out they would learn what caused the problem and not repeat it.
Many times some unforeseen event takes place that involves the drinker (or user) which lands them in a difficult spot. They may have had an accident, been a victim of some type of abuse, or their money may have been lost, stolen or spent. It is important to remember at this juncture that the negative outcome was not the intention of the drinker/user, and that is why it is easy for them to solicit our help. In the same turn, it can be easy to miss the line between helping or enabling and offer our support because they didn’t mean for these things to happen. Or we may just feel sorry for them and their misfortune.
In these situations what looks like help, can actually be quite harmful. Here is the line between helping or enabling: When we prevent the natural consequences of the addict’s or alcoholic’s behavior from occurring we are enabling the situation. What I mean by that is we are softening the blow of the negative impact that would naturally occur if we had not stepped in. Enabling can also come in the form of criticizing, blaming or belittling the alcoholic and may inflame the situation. The alcoholic may become angry or guilt-ridden as a result and then use that to justify their next binge or spree.
When I was in my active alcoholism I learned very quickly that when I got in trouble I could persuade certain people into helping or enabling me out of my predicament. It didn’t feel like I was trying to manipulate people or circumstances, it just seemed as if I were trying to find a solution to my situation and then move on. There was always some valid reason or excuse for what happened or it was someone else’s fault. This type of thinking and behavior comes natural to the alcoholic and can cause a whirlwind of chaos and conflict, with the drinker usually winning the upper hand.
Here are some examples of enabling behaviors of someone involved with an alcoholic/addict:
I have a simple, basic guideline that I go by when I am involved with someone I care about who is in active addiction. Helping is doing something for someone that they cannot do for themselves and enabling is doing something for someone that they should be doing for themselves. An example of helping an addict would be to provide a list of resources that can aid the person in getting help, offering a ride to a meeting if needed, taking care of the kids so they can attend a counseling session, etc.
We can maintain a relationship with a person who is in active addiction/alcoholism without enabling them. We do not have to severe the relationship. This is especially true when it comes to our children who may be struggling with dependency. Healthy, strong boundaries and a good support system can assist in setting healthy boundaries so we don't have to ask if we are "helping or enabling." In other cases the situation may be unsafe and unacceptable and we would need to make choices to ensure our well being.
Angie Carter, CRADC, SAP is a certified alcohol and drug counselor in the State of Missouri and DOT certified Substance Abuse Professional. She is in private practice with her husband at Carter Counseling & Consulting Services in Central Missouri. Angie primarily sees clients in office, but is also available for telephone coaching and/or consultation. Click here to contact Angie with your questions or feedback.