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It’s the central conflict that locks so many families in crisis for years on end.
“Being sober and loving someone in active addiction is one of the most painful relationships on the planet,” says Dee Meux, ICADC, Family Program Coordinator at Oxford Treatment Center. “You don’t know what that’s like until you’ve been there.”
When you love someone who’s addicted to drugs or alcohol, looking out for them in what feels like a natural way can actually enable their behaviors.
Here are four ways to know when you are enabling someone’s addiction — and four ways to break the cycle.
People in active addiction are typically in denial about it. To stay in denial, Meux says, they minimize, justify, rationalize and blame.
“Enablers believe the blame,” she says. “They believe that somehow or another, this really is their fault. But research has shown that when it comes to risk factors for addiction, 50 to 70 percent is someone’s biological predisposition. That’s why the first thing I tell families is: This is not your fault.”
You would never buy your loved one alcohol or drugs. But paying for cars, phones, lawyers and living expenses allows your loved one’s life of addiction to keep rolling along. It’s one of the most common ways that well-meaning family members enable addiction to continue.
Their ups are your ups, and their downs are your downs. You realize your own moods are tied to those of your loved one, in a way that keeps you completely focused on their situation. And the only solution you see for the helplessness you feel is rescuing your loved one from trouble, again and again.
People in addiction aren’t the only ones in denial. Family members often don’t want to see how bad the situation has become.
“For family members,” Meux says, “the feeling is: ‘I want to love them normally and naturally. Because if I can do that, it means there’s nothing that’s really wrong.’
“It feels hopeless and overwhelming to admit how bad things have gotten. But when people are in active addiction, loving them as if things are normal truly is loving them to death.”
“I tell families they need to be gentle with themselves, because they’re doing what people do naturally when they love someone,” Meux says. “Of course you want to help them. You want to bail them out. You want to forgive them for the millionth time. You want to believe one more promise. That’s what you do when you love someone — but it’s the worst way to respond to active addiction.”
At Oxford Treatment Center, families of those in residential treatment come to the center for two days of education designed to equip and encourage them. There is also a wealth of resources online and in practical self-help books about how to stop the cycle of enabling addiction.
When you take action to stop enabling your loved one’s addiction, they won’t be happy about it. Typical reactions include becoming emotionally punitive, such as disappearing for a few days and not answering any messages. It can be very difficult for family members to hold firm through the backlash.
“It’s like going through enablers’ withdrawal, as you detox yourself from this relationship,” Meux says. “A young woman in active addiction can be in the emergency room hooked up to tubes and wires — and be able to talk her mother into going into her purse and getting her a couple of Xanax. Stories like that are very common. It becomes an emotional hostage situation.”
Families need to know they are not alone in their experience. There’s great value in coming together with other families in Al-Anon or Nar-Anon, or in settings like Oxford Treatment Center’s free weekly Family Hope & Healing support groups.
“When you’ve been focused on a loved one whose life is in chaos, it’s incredibly freeing to hear the truth that your recovery matters, too,” Meux says.
“Hopeless as families may feel, they have more power than they know. The more they can surround themselves with peer support and learn from addiction professionals, the more their own hope can stand strong regardless of their loved one’s actions.”
Learn more about Addiction & Family Dynamics in the first of Oxford Treatment Center’s new Community Workshop Series.