Sometimes trying to help a family member who is addicted to alcohol or drugs ends up doing the opposite.
If someone who means the world to you – like your child, partner, relative or friend – is addicted to alcohol or other drugs, you may feel like you’ll do anything. for help. And that can come in handy if you’re doing things like researching a recovery program or caring for their kids or pets when they can’t.
But other behaviors that may seem helpful, like giving them money or making excuses for them when they miss work or school, can actually make it worse by preventing them from hitting rock bottom and to seek help, says Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC, an addiction counselor in Bolingbrook, IL.
“Empowerment is an act in which a person’s behavior, although usually well-intentioned, further contributes to their addiction to alcohol or drugs,” says Glowiak.
Often the family member or friend does not realize they are empowering. “They believe they are helping their loved one meet basic needs,” Glowiak says, “but rather, they are providing a means by which a loved one can continue to consume.”
Simply put, anything you do that allows the addicted person to continue using alcohol or other drugs without consequences is empowering.
While it’s important to recognize that some of your behaviors may be empowering, keep in mind that your empowerment is not the cause of your loved one’s addiction, says Aaron Sternlicht, LMCH, addiction counselor and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist in New York.
“Family, especially parents of addicted children, tend to blame themselves for their loved one’s addiction,” Sternlicht says. “No one is to blame, and the focus should be on creating an environment that encourages recovery.”
What does activation look like
Here are some typical ways to unintentionally activate a loved one’s addiction:
- Let them live in your home rent-free, without making meaningful contributions or doing housework
- Paying their expenses while they are unemployed or spending their money on frivolous items
- give them money to buy alcohol or drugs, lest they resort to illegal or dangerous means to obtain money if you do not; or in some cases even get the drugs or alcohol for them
- Get them out of jail on bail or pay their fines or legal fees
- Making excuses for their addiction or blaming others for their behavior, such as, “Her new boss was really hard on her” or “She’s had a really bad time coping with the stress of the pandemic.”
- Deny to others that there is a problem
- Putting your own life on hold or neglecting your own self-care to focus your time and attention on the addict
Why it’s so easy to slip into empowerment
Love for a child, partner, sibling or close friend is a powerful emotion, which is why allowing behavior is an easy trap to fall in, says Deena Manion, PsyD, LCSW, clinical director at Westwind Recovery in Los Angeles.
“Our loved ones are our loved ones, so it’s very personal,” she says.
When a person becomes addicted to alcohol or drugs, they begin to behave in a completely different way from how you knew them before. It’s the addiction that takes over, says Manion.
“Your reaction may be to try to regain control, to bring them back to ‘normal,'” she says. “But when you try to control someone who has a substance abuse problem, it becomes a power struggle, and the enabler tends to lose that battle.”
Family members often allow it because it reassures them, but it backfires. “A parent can allow their drug-addicted child to live with them because they will at least know where they are and that they are safe,” Sternlicht says. “But this comes at the expense of supporting their dependent child financially, where they might otherwise hit rock bottom if they have no place to live.” They may have to reach that low level before they agree to ask for help.
How to Tell if You’re Turning Someone’s Addiction On
The first and most important question you need to ask yourself, says Manion, is: “Am I allowing my loved one to continue using drugs and alcohol, or am I provide help and support?”
Other signs that you may be unwittingly activating your family member or friend include:
- Your primary target is the person struggling with addiction.
- You spend too much money on the dependent person, even maxing out your credit cards or mortgaging your home.
- You feel helpless in the situation.
- You become isolated from other friends and family members.
- You put your own goals on hold while you help the addict.
- You are not following your own health needs.
Detach yourself, for love
Once you recognize that some of your attempts to help your loved one are enabling them to continue using, consider taking these steps:
Learn more about addiction: Have you read about the science and behavior of addiction? “It’s so important to educate yourself about addiction and how behaviors change in a person when they’re using,” Manion says. “It’s very common for the user to become very manipulative, lie and make you feel guilty,” she says. “They present themselves as the victim, and if they don’t get what they want, they start blaming and tugging at the heartstrings.” Resources include the national institute for the fight against drug addiction, Partnership to End Addiction, and SAMHSA (Addiction and Mental Health Services Administration).
Contact an advisor: Look for someone who is trained to work with family members struggling with substance abuse. “They can help you come up with a game plan so that when you’re put in a position where your loved one is trying to get something from you, you know what to say,” says Manion. “For example, you can say, ‘Of course, I would never want you to be hungry and I want you to be safe. But as long as you use substances, you put yourself in dangerous situations. If you’re willing to let us help you stop using substances, I’ll support you.'”
Set clear boundaries and stick to them: Make it clear to the addict that you’re eager to help them find treatment and get sober or clean, but you have firm boundaries that you won’t cross. For example, you won’t give them money, lie for them, or let them bring risky friends into the house. “These boundaries must be unshakable,” says Glowiak. “If they aren’t unwavering, your loved one will learn that there is a breaking point where you will eventually give in to what they want.” He suggests that you work with other family members and friends to stay attached to those boundaries.
Join a support group: Consider joining a local or online support group through Al Anon Where Nar anon, (both groups identify as not religious, but spiritual). “Members can share stories and resources while holding each other accountable and supporting each other,” says Glowiak.
Difficult, but necessary
Letting go of your loved one can be one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do, but it’s a necessary step.
“By acknowledging and letting go of the empowering behavior, you help the family member struggling with addiction to have fewer ways to acquire the substance. Without shelter, food, stable income, or otherwise, the individual must choose between responding to its survival needs or continue this cycle of behavior. Here the bottom can be reached more quickly,” says Glowiak. “While that sounds scary, and it really is, it’s often the wake-up call needed to begin the recovery process.”