Early on in my work with addictive behaviours, I noticed that most addicts struggle with addiction their whole lives, while a smaller group seemed to be able to completely recover.
At that time, I was about three years clean and sober—and I was intrigued because I wanted to be part of the group that stayed in recovery. So I dedicated my life’s work to figuring out what made the difference between the few that decided to remain in recovery while the rest chose to relapse time and again.
What I discovered helped me to maintain sobriety for 32 years—and it has also helped the hundreds of addicts and their families I’ve worked with as clients. Today, I’m going to share that secret with you.
Loved Ones Actually Have More Leverage Than They Know
What loved ones of people struggling with addiction need to understand is that they can be the key to changing their addict’s behaviour, thus reclaiming health and happiness for their families. In fact—they ARE the key.
Most loved ones feel as if their addict is running their lives, and they have no idea what to do to stop the vicious cycle they find themselves in. They feel increasingly frustrated because they have spent so much time and money trying everything they can think of, but nothing has worked long-term. They’re desperate to know how to fix this problem so that their families can have peace again.
If you are the loved one of an addict who is still in active addiction, you know the kind of pain this can cause in a family. You know the intense guilt and shame of wondering whether you are to blame for causing this to have happened—those toxic thoughts that keep you awake at 3 o’clock in the morning. “Is it really my fault?” “Am I truly a terrible mother / father / sibling…?” “What should I have done differently?”
But because few families talk about these feelings, they are not aware that so many other people also experience these thoughts—and as a result, most loved ones often feel as if they are all alone in this. Here are two truths you may not know:
- Virtually everyone today, regardless of where they live, is in some way negatively affected by either their own addiction or somebody else’s—or they know someone who is.
- Another person’s addiction is NOT your fault. You did not cause this to happen. The addict is at choice about whether to be in active addiction or in active recovery of some kind, regardless of anyone else’s actions.
How do I know this?
I know this because my life was not a picnic in the family I grew up in. There was addiction, there was heavy emotional abuse and trauma, and there were some devastating secrets that were wrapped up in pretty pink bows so that no one would know what was going on behind our closed doors.
And yes, even though my addiction began due to a chronic illness (Crohn’s Disease) that doctors didn’t know how to treat in the early 1970s—except to throw plenty of addictive medications at it—it was entirely my decision to stay in addiction for as long as I did.
The very moment I made a different choice—to stop using and stay alive—is when my recovery began. No other person could make that decision for me; we simply can’t do that for anyone else.
And now, one day at a time, one second at a time sometimes, I am 32 years clean and sober. What I know to be true is that my choice to remain in recovery is entirely up to me and no one else. The moment I decide to stop practicing holistically healthy self-care—the moment my Sobriety-Loses-Its-Priority (S.L.I.P)—that is the moment I will be choosing to set myself up for a relapse.
That’s how it works.
Enabling vs. Helping
This is a planet of free will, and we all have the right and freedom to make our own choices. I am totally responsible for the consequences of the choices I make, and I understand today that I cannot blame anyone else for any of that.
However, that being said, until we learn this vitally important lesson about free will, there is a pretty good chance that as loved ones of addicts, we’ve been contributing to the addiction—especially if those unhealthy addictive dynamics are still going on.
But here is the great news: If you’ve been part of the problem, that also means you can be part of the solution. And if you want things to change, you’ll have to discover what that solution actually is. If you truly want your addict’s addiction to stop, then you’ll need to learn the difference between helping and enabling—and act accordingly.
When we do anything to contribute to the addiction continuing—such as giving an addict money when we know full well where that money will be spent—we are enabling the addict. Conversely, when we end our enabling and start offering behaviours that assist the addiction to stop, we are helping the addict.
This is a simple definition, but it says so much. Some of us, as loved ones, are actually addicted to enabling behaviours in order to meet our own needs, such as being liked or avoiding confrontation.
But if you really think about it, enabling an addict is never a loving act. How could it be? If you’re enabling instead of helping, then you’re colluding with the addict and making it easier for them to continue the addiction—and to ultimately live a life with no self-respect and no real future, except for more and more addiction as the condition progresses.
If this is what you’ve been doing with your addict, please know that you’re not the only one. But it’s imperative to understand that in order for their addiction to stop, it is very likely that you will have to do your own inner work around why you’ve chosen that course of action.
It will be essential for you to discover why you feel as if you always have to please other people, to never say no, perhaps to feel excessively responsible for others—especially when you know that your own needs and wants have been languishing on the back burner for far too long.
When new clients come to me for the first time, they invariably—and courageously—admit “I know I’m enabling, but…” They often then go on to rationalize why they’ve been doing that. Most of the time it’s because they haven’t known what else to do, because they’ve never really sought out help or talked about it before.
But think about it this way: If you know you’ve been enabling and you know that hasn’t been a good thing to do, aren’t you an addict of sorts too? How can you be asking the addict in your life to change what they’re doing if you’re not prepared to change what you’re doing?
We Need to Stop Enabling Our Addicts
It’s definitely time for us to stop enabling addicts—in our families, in our societies, and even globally—and start doing things that will actually help them. That is virtually the only way to end addiction. Anything else is like putting a bandage on a heart attack.
At the beginning of this article, I said I was going to share the “secret” of why some addicts make the decision to recover while others continue to choose active addiction for a very long time. In case you’re still wondering what that secret is, I’ll make it very clear:
An enabled addict does not stop using.
The question to ask yourself shouldn’t be “Why don’t enabled addicts stop?” Instead, the question needs to be “Why on earth would an enabled addict stop?”
If you are the loved one of an addict who continues to choose active addiction, please become willing to look at how you might be contributing to that decision.
Remember: Enabling an addict is never a loving act.
If you need assistance to learn how to stop enabling, please reach out as soon as possible to someone like myself, who can help you with this. Because the truth is—if nothing changes, nothing changes—and it doesn’t have to be that way.