Last week, I went to see my doctor about something minor. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the same GP for the past 30 years. We first started together in the very early days of my recovery from addiction, so he has seen me grow from being emotionally despondent and very physically ill (Crohn’s Disease)—as I tried to stay away from the various prescription medications and pot I’d been using for years—into the very different person I am today. As I sometimes tell my clients, you wouldn’t have wanted to know me back then, and I remember it as if it were yesterday. I believe that is my Step One, and keeping that time in my memory definitely helps keep me clean and sober today.
My wonderful, compassionate, encouraging doctor now refers clients to me, which I see as a great honour. He knows the work I do with families that are struggling with addiction, and supports me to be the best I can be holistically. As we were talking about addiction and recovery last week, he used the word “ennobling.” I wasn’t even sure at the time if that was a real word—but what I did instantly know was that, real word or not, I was going to steal it and incorporate it into my work.
Because, for me, the very idea of ennobling would be the antithesis of enabling—and until we choose to stop enabling addiction, it will just continue.
So what exactly is ennobling, and how can we use it to obliterate addiction?
In its simplest definition, ennobling means to elevate something or someone, to make something better. Enabling, of course, simply makes things worse—especially an addiction of any kind.
COMMON FORMS OF ENABLING
Let’s look at some of the most common modes of enabling behaviours, and see how we could translate them into ennobling actions instead:
- Giving an addict money. When we give a practicing addict money, we can be fairly certain about how that money will be spent. Even when the addict we love tells us it’s going toward rent or food or the utility bill—or perhaps even diapers for the baby—the chances are very likely that it’s actually going to be spent on the addiction. There can be a different excuse each time, with the addict coming up with clever reasons for why they need money again—but almost all of the time, if the addict is in active addiction, any money you give them will not go where they say it will go and the addiction continues.
- Allowing an addict to stay in your home without contributing anything, financially or otherwise. They are permitted to have a roof over their heads, a comfy bed and a hot shower, plenty of food to eat—and often you are cooking for them. They may have access to your laundry facilities—with you usually doing their laundry for them. There is invariably a TV for them to watch and a computer to use—sometimes for hours on end—and many other comforts of home. They are allowed to party all night and sleep all day, bring drugs (perhaps illegal ones) and alcohol into your home, and even use these substances under your roof. You watch helplessly as the addiction continues.
- Letting the addict become as outwardly angry as they like, with you trying to calm them down and appease the whole situation. You allow the addict you love to yell and scream at you, call you any variety of horrible names, punch holes in the walls of your home, and even resort to physical violence such as shoving or hitting you or someone else in the family in order to get what they want. They’ve learned that all they have to do is bully you and you’ll cave. And the addiction continues.
- The addict in your life steals money, credit cards, jewelry, TVs, computers, and anything else that will yield them money—and what you do is put a lock on your door instead of setting a healthy boundary. Even after you make sure that everything of value is hidden in the locked room, they simply pick the lock or break down the door, probably when you’re not around. You believe that you’re unable to go away on vacations, or even to a movie or a counselling session for yourself. You feel like you’re a hostage in your own home—while they are just waiting for another opportunity to get their hands on the goods, so that their addiction can continue. And make no mistake—the addiction will
- Your addict manipulates by becoming whiny, telling you how awful you are and it’s all your fault—and threatening suicide if you don’t give them what they want. Because you love them so much, this is very scary for you, and you feel you have no choice but to give in, just to keep them alive. And the addiction continues.
Are you seeing the pattern?
Enabling keeps the addiction going—it’s as simple as that.
Any time we enable an addict by giving in to manipulative demands and sob stories, we are basically saying that it’s ok with us if they stay in active addiction. We are essentially letting the addicts we love know that we don’t believe in their resiliency or in their ability to choose to create a healthy life for themselves. Indeed, we are helping them maintain their dysfunctional ways—which isn’t good for them, for you, or for anyone else in your family system. This is why I say that enabling is NEVER a loving act.
ENNOBLING VS. ENABLING
Let’s look at how you can ennoble an addict instead, even one who is choosing to remain in active addiction for a prolonged period of time.
The most important and valuable thing we can do for addicts is to believe in them—probably more than they believe in themselves. Most addicts are terrified of giving up their addictions of choice—these are what have been filling up the hole in their soul, often for a very long time. They don’t know who they would be without them, and they don’t want to face the pain, loneliness, and emptiness they believe they would feel if they didn’t self-medicate with addictive behaviours.
And yet, this is exactly what has to happen in order to give up an addiction and shift into active recovery of some sort. We need to encourage the addicts we love to require more of themselves—and that usually has to start with us requiring more from them. In other words, most loved ones set the bar very low for their addicts and argue for their limitations—often in the hopes of staving off their rage when they don’t get what they want. Loved ones need to learn how to deal with this dynamic in a healthier way—and sometimes this means getting some counselling for themselves first.
We don’t need to go through the five examples of enabling that I cited above to see how we can ennoble instead. There is only one ‘formula’ to follow, to shift from enabling to ennobling. It has to do with the overall message you need to give to the addict in your life. This is what you need to be willing to say:
“I love you. I love you so much. And I understand now that I’ve been enabling you, and that this wasn’t good for you—and I’m sorry for having done that. But now that I know better, I’m going to stop enabling you and instead I’m going to practice more ennobling behaviours.
“This means that I will no longer support you in active addiction. If you choose to stay in that place, you’ll have to do that somewhere else. When you’re willing to shift into active recovery, let me know and I’ll be here for you. I’m doing this because I love you, not because I don’t.”
ARE YOU READY?
Some of you who are reading this will immediately say “YES! I’m ready to come out of my own comfort zone of enabling and do things differently.” But most loved ones of addicts will feel overwhelmed by the prospect of saying this to the addict in their lives—they are still afraid of the addict’s anger and manipulation, afraid that this person won’t like them anymore, afraid that their addicted loved ones will die out there on the street or commit suicide if they stop rescuing them.
And that’s actually a very understandable way to feel.
If you are the loved one of an addict, you have probably been engaged in enabling behaviours for a long time and, just like the addict you’re wanting so much to ennoble, you may need help to get to the place of setting healthy boundaries. In order to be a positive influence for your addict, you’ll have to recover from your own codependency, your own people-pleasing, and your own addiction to your addict’s addiction.
There is good news—and that is that there is help available for you. Although historically there was very little help for families struggling with addiction, there are now a few avenues you can follow for yourself. You can attend support groups such as Al-Anon and Parents Forever. You can read books like mine that give you proven strategies for dealing with this very difficult situation. And there are also a small number of addiction therapists who, like myself, specialize in working with the whole family unit—including the addict as soon as that person is ready.
If you know you want to make changes but don’t know how to even begin, perhaps a starting place would be to talk with someone like me. I offer a free 60-minute telephone consultation to those who feel like they are done being manipulated, people who feel very little self-respect after years of letting their addicts walk all over them. If you feel you’re ready to have that 60-minute strategy call with me, you can fill out my questionnaire here and if we are a fit to work together, I’ll contact you once I receive it. I can empower you to stop enabling, and teach you instead how to ennoble the addict you love.
The next time you enable your addict, either because you think it’s the kind and loving thing to do or because you simply don’t know what else to try, do your best to remember that those behaviours—although familiar to you and easy enough for you to do—are anything but loving for the person in active addiction.
If you want the addict you love to recover from their addiction, you’ll very likely need to be willing to first recover from your own.
Are you up for the challenge?