How to Help the Addict You Love to Become Healthy: The Family’s Role in Addiction Recovery
Addiction is so rampant now in our society. We all know that more and more people are dying from the ravages of this horrific situation, especially due to drugs like fentanyl that take the lives of drug users in a split second. We simply don’t have the luxury of treading lightly around addiction anymore. We each need to do all we can to shift this and get the results that all families of addicts are looking for.
It IS possible.
STOP ENABLING AND MAKE THE SHIFT
So how do we make that shift? Many of you are probably wondering how that can happen. I’d like to tell you what I think — and about what is working wonders for my clients.
In terms of recovery from addiction, it is critical for loved ones of addicts to understand the concept of enabling — because until the enabling stops, there is little hope that the addiction will stop.
There is a huge difference between enabling and helping, and the faster we all learn about that, the faster we can halt addiction in its tracks. And yes, it is that simple — even though it isn’t always easy to change one’s ways.
The ‘simple’ way is not always the ‘easy’ way. Most families who are involved with addiction know a lot about enabling, even if they have never heard that term — because they have unwittingly been doing just that with the addicts they love — and many have been doing it consistently for a long time, as they witnessed the addiction continuing.
Let me give you a very brief definition: An enabling behaviour is one that keeps the addiction going. A helping behaviour assists the addiction to stop.
When we enable addiction, we’re doing things like giving money to an addict, even though we know exactly where that money will go — or we allow an addict in active addiction to live in our homes even when they contribute nothing positive to the household and in fact do things like punch holes in walls, call us terrible names, push and shove us, bring illegal substances into our homes, sleep all day and party all night… The list of disrespectful ways an enabled addict behaves goes on and on.
And it doesn’t stop until the enabling stops.
LEARN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ENABLING AND HELPING
By the time a family comes to see me, they are usually at the end of their rope — in fact, the very first thing many of them say is “I know I’m enabling but…” They then go on to tell me why they are doing exactly that, citing plenty of reasons. What I know to be true today is that loved ones enable because no one has shown them any other way to deal with this horrific situation they’ve found themselves in. Once they learn the difference between an enabling behaviour and a helping behaviour, change begins to happen — often very quickly.
Helping behaviours consist of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries and developing our all-important self-respect. If you’re a loved one wanting to help instead of enable, you’ll need to take your own needs off the back burner and start taking care of yourself. In most cases, you’ll need to do this first so that you can role-model this for the addict in your life.
You see, addicts who are still using are not going to come up to you and say “Please set healthy boundaries for me!” No — those addicts are going to try whatever they can to manipulate you to give them whatever they want in that moment. Addicts want what they want when they want it, and they want it right now. Delayed gratification isn’t the name of the game for an addict — especially one still in active addiction — and they see their job as doing whatever they have to do in order to have their desire met — right now.
JANE’S FAMILY — CAN YOU RELATE?
I remember a family I worked with a while ago. Their adult daughter (we’ll call her Jane) was actively using cocaine, heroin, pot, alcohol — pretty much anything she could get her hands on. Jane had moved out a few years before, living in very scuzzy places, having left her 4-year-old daughter with her parents to raise. And because they loved their granddaughter dearly and didn’t want to see her go into the foster care system, raise her they did.
Meanwhile, Jane lived in one fleabag hotel after another, in the worst part of town. She would frequently be evicted because of her using as well as her failure to pay the very minimal rent, and she often prostituted herself in order to buy her drugs. One day, her parents heard that Jane wasn’t doing very well, so they decided they’d go find her and bring her home — and that’s exactly what they did.
It didn’t take long for Jane to rule the roost again, as she had when she was a teenager still living at home, using drugs and alcohol on a regular basis. She soon began to be belligerent toward her parents, both verbally and physically, which her parents allowed because they didn’t know there might be another way to respond — and because they were a little scared and intimidated by her. Jane was even stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down so that she could either pawn it or exchange it for drugs. She brought illegal substances and sketchy people into her parents’ home on a regular basis. And, worst of all, she barely had any contact with her own child — a little girl who remembered her mommy and was devastated by Jane’s lack of attention and ongoing verbal assaults.
It was a nightmare.
Jane’s parents desperately tried to talk with her, to explain to her what her behaviour was doing to all of them. They thought that if she could just understand how awful this had become for them — and for Jane’s daughter — she would immediately change and make more positive choices. They pleaded with her to seek counselling, and even set up some appointments for Jane that she never kept. Her mother cried frequently while her father just became more and more withdrawn and passively angry. This began to take quite a toll on their otherwise loving relationship. Neither of them slept much, which affected their lives in all kinds of ways. Because they didn’t understand the real nature of addiction, they felt totally responsible and ashamed — and worse, they saw themselves as completely powerless as this appalling situation spiralled right out of control.
Meanwhile, Jane was enjoying living in the lap of luxury — that’s how it felt for her after living the way she had been for several years. She had a cushy bed, enough food to eat, a hot shower to use — all the comforts of home, while she behaved abominably to her family day after day, week after week.
JANE’S FAMILY MAKES THE SHIFT
It wasn’t until Jane’s parents came to see me as clients that they began to understand that their enabling was contributing in a big way to what was happening in their home.
They learned that Jane was making the choice to keep using her addiction and that they were not responsible for that — no one could make those choices but Jane herself. But when they learned the truth about how enabling contributes to keeping an addiction going, they decided to change their ways.
Little by little, Jane’s parents began to set some healthy boundaries for themselves, for Jane — and by extension, for her daughter. They learned how to maintain those boundaries, even when things with Jane were particularly difficult. Although they feared what could happen to her if she went back to the streets, they simply were no longer willing to have her at home unless she abided by their guidelines — the most important of which was that Jane attend counselling regularly. At first Jane balked, as many addicts do when the rules of the game change. But eventually she made her choice — and that choice was to become healthy.
Jane and her parents all attended counselling with me for several months — and specialized children’s counselling was provided for Jane’s young daughter as well. A lot changed in that initial stage of their therapy. The parents began to recognize that by enabling, they were really meeting their own needs while their daughter floundered, coming close to death on more than one occasion. Their bond strengthened as they became united in their efforts to actually help Jane.
It didn’t take long for Jane to stop using drugs and alcohol, and in time become an actual parent to her child. She stopped her abusive behaviour toward her parents, gradually replacing her anger and resentment with gratitude and appreciation.
Eventually, Jane found a job and was able to move into her own apartment with her daughter — not too far away from her parents, who still help her out from time to time with babysitting, home-cooked meals, laundry and some grocery shopping. Jane is now three years clean and sober, employed full-time, attends recovery meetings and counselling every week, and is even studying to be a real estate agent — something she has always wanted to do. Her daughter is much happier, has close friendships, and is doing well in school.
This is the kind of transformation I see in families when the enabling stops. It is nothing short of remarkable.
THE CHOICE POINT IN ADDICTION
Although there is definitely brain involvement in addiction of any kind, I see addiction primarily as a choice. That being said, I don’t believe that we choose to become addicts — I know I didn’t.
But in every addict’s life, including my own, there comes a time when we know without a doubt that our lives are a mess.
We see other people our age living differently, we understand that we seem to be unable to have healthy relationships with family and friends, and most of the time we go on welfare because we’re unable to hold down a job for very long.
Once the realization hits that our addictive behaviours are at the root of all of this, we find ourselves at a vitally important choice point: Will we remain in active addiction, or will we shift into some kind of active recovery? It becomes very clear that when addicts are continually rescued and enabled, it takes far longer for them to choose recovery.
Let’s face it — if addiction was not a choice, then I would not have 31+ years clean and sober, and neither would the other hundreds of thousands of addicts just like me, all over the world, who choose long-term sobriety — one day at a time, one choice at a time.
Addicts need their families to be part of the solution — they need their loved ones to say to them:
“We love you so much. We understand now that we’ve been enabling you, and we’re sorry to have hurt you in this way. Because we love you, we are going to stop enabling you. If you choose to stay in active addiction, we will not support you — that’s how much we love you and want to see you beat this. When you’re really ready for some help, let us know and we’ll do what we can for you. In the meantime, we are asking you to leave our home if you are going to choose to continue to use. This is because we love you and because we respect ourselves.”
Remember — it’s only when we stop the enabling, that we can stop the addiction.
If you’re the loved one of a practicing addict, I hope you will reach out for assistance to learn more about enabling. You are NOT powerless, and you canchange this for yourself and your family — forever.