Addiction: Are You Helping or Enabling?

A hand helping another hand

I’m going to be very honest with you today in this article because I care about saving lives. I’m going to risk hurting your feelings and defying the “rules” you’ve been taught about addiction. You don’t have to believe me. I was a drug addict for 12 years.

Are you affected by someone’s addiction? If you love someone who’s a drug addict or alcoholic, you’d be hard-pressed to say no to this question. Tough-love, enabling, co-dependence, and rock-bottom are some of the treatment buzz-words that get thrown around when it comes to this subject, yet most families make the same mistakes.

Why? Because you care. That’s right, your own fear and emotional involvement make you more likely to fail at helping the person. I don’t need to spell out examples of this; these incidents probably haunt you every day.

Most families I work with have chosen one of two routes: They’ve either unwittingly assisted the addict in their own destruction, or, to protect themselves they’ve tried to stop caring.

The first option is known as “enabling.” It consists of giving the person money or a place to stay, bailing them out, etc. none of which results in the cessation of addiction, but simply provides the addict with a means of continuing it. This is most common and is bred by the lies and manipulation of the addict. It is born out of fear the person won’t survive without “help,” and family members usually feel guilty for denying the addict’s pleas.

The second option is known as “tough love.” Loved-ones arrive at this point usually after their efforts to “help” have failed and now they’re hurt and angry. They have been too greatly affected by the addict, and feel they need to distance themselves for emotional protection. Decisions are made that “they can’t be helped until they are ready to help themselves” or “they have to hit rock- bottom,” etc. and a certain form of disowning takes place at this point. Again, this can lead to a lot of guilt and conflict among the family.

Neither of these routes is effective for solving the problem. That problem being someone you love is dying right in front of you. It’s a slow-motion nightmare.

But don’t they HAVE to be ready?

No, they don’t.

Are they willing to change? Are they making good decisions? Are they thinking clearly? I already know your answers…

Let me ask you these question: Are they willing to change? Are they making good decisions? Are they thinking clearly? I already know your answers.

The last mother I spoke with whose son died while she was waiting for him to be “ready” regretted this approach immensely. There is a common (but false) idea a person must be at rock-bottom and wanting help, or it will not work. Interventions are factually successful and save lives regularly, so this is simply untrue. At best it’s an idea that comforts those who are paralyzed by indecision or have given up.

Some of you are probably growing uncomfortable at this point and thinking it’s not your fault, it’s their choice. You’re right. I am not suggesting you blame yourself. But the mother I mentioned earlier does, and probably will for the rest of her life. Why? Because she regrets what she DIDN’T do.

This is a double-edged sword. If we CARE about something, we have an innate sense of responsibility towards it. You don’t let someone in front of you run out into traffic, while you stand by idly watching. And while everyone is responsible for their own life and well-being, the drug addict has long-since ceased to be responsible for themselves. If you care about their life and survival, you must be willing to be responsible for it.

So now let’s look at what this entails, objectively. Remember, ENABLING assists the continuation of the problem. HELP moves the person in the direction of change. They may not want your help. That’s okay, they’re on a suicide mission. The ship is sinking, and you have three options: A) Watch it sink and do nothing, then feel badly afterward. B) Throw more water IN it and feel guilty. C) Save the ship!

Saving the ship entails taking control. The addict is controlling the ship to the bottom of the ocean, and you into an early grave. Why allow this? You MUST do something effective to get them on the right path or they likely won’t.

HELP, by definition, aids the person towards survival. Giving them money is enabling. Paying for treatment is help. Letting them live in your basement and steal from you is enabling. Intervention is help. Tough-love is only HELP when it is used to motivate the person to change. Otherwise, it’s just apathy.

You must be willing to do whatever is necessary to save their life. This may very well look like removing all options and escape-routes the person has so that treatment is their only option. This is help! They may hate you at the moment but will ultimately know you care. And in the rare instance where your loved-one is reaching out for treatment, please… take their hand.


Joe Kertis

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Joe has worked at Narconon New Life Retreat for the past seven years, since his relocation to Louisiana. As the Intake Supervisor, he helps families and individuals through a very difficult time and take their first steps to a new, drug-free life. Get in touch with Joe on Twitter, Google+ or LinkedIn.