Enabling: a dirty word, with a powerful, positive impact in the world of addiction
By Ambi Daniel
Addiction expert Dr. Robert Meyers is the creator of CRAFT, community reinforcement and family training.
Recently in a zoom meeting about CRAFT, I began a journey into understanding the concept of addiction enabling.
It serves such an important purpose and at the same time, it has become such a stigmatized dirty word. We hear loved ones being called “enablers” because they made a choice that others perceive as wrong, or because that choice may be making it easier for a person to continue their use.
When I bring up the option of exploring enabling, many family members hang their head and say, “Oh yeah, that’s me. I’m an enabler.”
And it breaks my heart every time.
What this response tells me is that they haven’t had the opportunity to understand where enabling comes from and the purpose behind it. Meyers shared his thoughts on CRAFT in our training. He defined enabling as, “The unintentional support of a negative behavior.”
And I love this. How many of us actually want to support a negative behavior? The answer is none. No parent, or loved one, who wants to help a person succeed in recovery, wants to support the negative behavior. That said, enabling is the product of something that is monumentally important; it’s only half the story.
The definition of “enable” is “to make possible,” or “to provide means,” or perhaps “to provide an opportunity.”
And this is a part of enabling. This is the part that many people focus on when they engage in stigmatizing shame language or feelings — the accusation that it’s your fault they continued addictive behavior.
The reality is, enabling has little to do with impacting our loved one’s recovery journey. It’s about our journey and the motivation behind it.
Ready for the key to why we do it?
When we unintentionally support the negative behavior of a loved one, we are receiving a benefit, an important one, at that.
Actions in general are about the benefit of the person doing the act. If I buy someone a gift, my benefit is feeling good and appreciated. If I give my begging dogs treats, my benefit is the joy I feel from their excitement.
If I clean for someone, I feel purpose. If I hug you, especially after this hug-free COVID-19 time, I’ll feel comfort and joy and get a boost of oxytocin.
It’s about feeling good, joy, purpose, comfort, power or a thrill, such as what I gain when I beat my husband at chess or tennis.
Most human beings can relate to wanting to feel these things.
Many times, people don’t always have healthy ways to achieve these benefits. Now let’s look at this with some substance use issues:
What is the benefit to the wife who buys the bottle of wine for the alcoholic? Why would a dad give his son struggling with heroin $25? Why would a mom drive her daughter to her dealer? Why would a sister give her brother keys to her car when she knows he’ll drink and use marijuana?
What’s the benefit to the wife, dad, mom, and sister? These are all real types of scenarios that I’ve encountered multiple times in my career.
The wives buy the wine so the husband won’t buy liquor. Wine keeps the peace and she doesn’t have to deal with even more significant drunkenness or arguments.
Containing the situation
Dad knows that if he gives his son $25, the son won’t steal and use more, or be arrested.
For the dads it is about peace of mind, feeling like they made an impact to how much they use and avoiding possible legal ramifications.
The moms drive their children to the dealers so they can sleep at night knowing their loved one is alive. The keys are given so another argument and blow up can be avoided. Often, this is a bad temper-driven disaster that loved ones want to avoid for their own safety and anxiety. Not to mention, they get a break.
The benefit is security, peace of mind, reduction of anxiety, a break — it’s about survival for the loved ones.
When we look at it this way, we are helping more than one person survive.
It’s not just about a person avoiding overdose and death; it’s about the security, safety, and mental health of everyone involved, including the family.
This also tells us that sometimes it’s important that loved ones continue enabling.
Take a minute with that statement.
They may be unintentionally supporting use or addiction, but very importantly, the reason that enabling happens is that they are actually taking steps for their own wellness, safety and health.
We cannot overlook the importance of this. Our survival is important. In order to take care of the people we love, we have to be OK.
On a plane, we put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we put it on the child.
Next time you feel yourself thinking or calling yourself or someone else an “enabler,” I encourage you to think about what it is you or they are really trying to do.
There is so much power in recognizing the motivation and benefit and also remembering, the last thing they want to do is make it easier for their loved one to use.
When we start to pay homage to the motivation, we can then start the process to decide if we want to change it, and how do we meet those very important needs that drive it.
Crafting a plan
CRAFT was created by Meyers to help family members with three key goals:
— Help someone reduce his or her use.
— Help get a loved one to treatment or other recovery programs.
— Increase wellness and decrease stress for the whole family.
As loved ones, we have a unique experience and with that a unique expertise. We know them, know their “why”; we can see behaviors, actions, and their use a mile away.
We can use this expertise to help move someone into his or her recovery journey. At the same time, when we’ve been fighting so hard, we also know that our wellness takes a hit and that this family journey is a delicate balance between our fight for them and our fight for our own wellness.
CRAFT gives us an amazing set of tools that tackles both.
If you’d like to join our CRAFT Zoom sessions at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, reach out to me at email@example.com and join our Facebook group at https.//www.facebook.com/WhenTheresHelpTheresHope.
Each week, we move through a different CRAFT tool with discussion, practice, healing, and most importantly community. We are not alone. This class is specifically for loved ones supporting someone in their recovery process. It is at no cost to the participant.
Family support navigation services help families work on this and many other challenges related to loving someone who struggles with a substance use disorder.
If you need help for your family, please call 315-733-1709 and ask for an appointment with our family support navigator.
— Ambi Daniel is a family support navigator at Center for Family Life & Recovery, Inc., 502 Court St., Suite 401, Utica, New York 13502. She can be reached at 315.768.2665 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.WhenTheresHelpTheresHope.