The Pathology and Effects of Enabling Behavior

Addiction affects not only the addicted

If you have not already heard, addiction is a family disease. For some of you, this statement is patently obvious and implies a specific path of action. For others, you may understand it conceptually but believe that the work in recovery is solely the responsibility of the alcoholic or addict. Finally, a third group may agree with the statement but be unsure of how best to move forward. Regardless of which group you fall into, let us assure you that your response is normal. Your response may also be rational and even justified. In these situations, however, it is also important to ask whether your response, having passed the respective tests of rationality and justification, is helpful. And this criterion, if viewed objectively, is not so easily satisfied.

Despite more sensational portrayals in the media, it is our belief that most people of the Earth have a natural tendency to protect one another, and nowhere is this tendency more apparent than when it involves our loved ones or members of our families. We put our young children in car seats; we insist they wear helmets and sunscreen. In relationships with adults, we help them to focus on the positive aspects of their character; we reassure them of their resiliency when they are faced with adversity. These are intuitive actions and reactions, borne of love and concern. Most of the time these actions, designed to shield others from the potentially painful consequences of their actions, are helpful if not entirely necessary. But what if it is the consequences, themselves, that are necessary?

Enabling behavior can prolong active addiction

In treatment centers, 12-Step meetings, and sessions with counselors and therapists, many discussions around the transition from active addiction to sustainable recovery mention the addict or alcoholic’s “hitting bottom.” Although many examples are similar, no two are exactly alike. What is important is that for the time being, the addict or alcoholic’s bottom—the individual or combined consequences incurred—is enough. For the moment, they are convinced that their disease is—and will continue to be—a negative force in their lives. Whether these consequences arrive in the form of a police officer, a judge, a principal, or a family member is immaterial so long as they are felt; the threat is never enough.

Let’s say you live in a town with a very peculiar approach to pedestrian activity along its roadways. We’ll call the town Obliviaville. In Obliviaville, whenever there is a pedestrian within 10 feet of any intersection, avenue, boulevard, or lane, a censor is tripped that transmits a signal to all automobiles in the general area. When this signal is received, all cars, with no input from their respective drivers, begin slowing to a safe stop. It works flawlessly, and there are never any accidents involving cars and pedestrians. Now, when this system was first put into place, many of your town’s citizens were skeptical. Will it work? Will there be glitches? Can I always cross in safety? Initially, they approached the edges of roads cautiously, looking to be sure traffic behaved as they’d been told to expect. Over time, however, they became more and more sure that the system would perform as promised. Eventually, the town’s citizens stopped pausing before walking into the street; then they stopped looking both ways. They read newspapers as they crossed the town’s streets. They stopped in the middle of intersections to admire aspects of the town’s architecture they’d never before noticed. And, needless to say, smartphone usage while walking skyrocketed.

For a time, all was well. Gradually, however, the town’s officials began to receive reports from neighboring towns detailing alarming increases in the incidence of traffic accidents involving pedestrians visiting from Obliviaville. According to these reports, the pedestrians involved appeared to have strode directly into the path of oncoming traffic, heedless of the seemingly obvious threat. Why on Earth would these people behave in such a manner? Didn’t they know better?

The message we intend is not always the message we send

The short answer is, no, they didn’t know better. The longer answer, as you may suspect, is a bit more complex: they may once have known better, but they were conditioned to behave in a careless and dangerous way because there were no adverse consequences for doing so in their home town. By preventing addicts and alcoholics from experiencing the consequences of their actions, we play an active role in perpetuating their disease.

We know we engage in enabling behavior out of love and concern, but how do we do it? And how might we act differently? Often times, we react with rationality and logic. For the loved one who watches a child, spouse, parent, sibling, or friend suffer under the disease of addiction, the solution is clear: stop. But the disease is irrational, and whosoever it may afflict will not respond to logic. Were that the case, he or she would already have changed behavior. You or someone you know may have said, “Surely this will be the last time. He must see the damage his drinking is creating,” expecting reason to intervene and begin the process of healing. If you have thought this, you have likely also been disappointed. You may have put your foot down and told him that this was the last time you were going to stand for his intoxicated behavior, then said the same thing the next time it happened. You may have gone to an event on your own and, when asked why your wife wasn’t with you, said she wasn’t feeling well when, in fact, she was intoxicated. Having been unsuccessful at getting your son to stop drinking, you told him it would be OK to continue as long as he only drank at home.

We must ask ourselves if we are doing for someone else what they could or should do for themselves. If the answer to either question is yes, then there is a good chance we are moving into the territory of enabling behavior. We must also look for what is real, not what we wish to see. It would be much easier for everyone involved if the addict or alcoholic simply—miraculously—just got better. Unfortunately, this is about as common as hitting a hole-in-one on a par five at night. We—the loved ones—must be willing to step back from the situation; to detach with love. To be sure, this is much easier said than done, but it is easier to do when we know we must. The emotional pain that often accompanies one’s decision to enter treatment is just that: painful. But remember: regardless of what it takes to get to that first day of treatment, we know our loved ones are one day closer to the lives they deserve.

Philip Hodson

Phil is a Substance-Abuse Counselor, working with groups, individual clients, and their respective families in Northern California. At present, Phil facilitates groups on the neurobiology of addiction at New Dawn Treatment Centers residential facility and manages a caseload as a counselor at one of New Dawn’s IOP facilities. Finally, he accepts clients for outpatient counseling at New Directions Program, where he works as a Substance-Abuse Counselor in private practice.

Prior to pursuing a career as a substance-abuse counselor, Phil work for 13 years in the securities industry. Most recently he held the position of Regional Sales Director (Institutional Sales in the Western US) for the asset management firms Columbia Management (Bank of America) and MainStay Investments (New York Life).

Phil grew up in Columbia, SC, and he holds bachelors degrees in Economics and French from Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.
Philip Hodson

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