Addiction can’t really be considered contagious. People can’t really “catch” the disorder through breathing the same air and spending large amounts of time in close proximity to those who are addicted.
Addictions aren’t viruses, so they don’t really pass from an addict to a healthy person on a molecular level. Addictions can change the way everyone near the addict acts and feels, however, and these changes can be remarkably persistent.
For example, a study published in 1993 found that adult children of dysfunctional families had more symptoms of depression and lower self-esteem scores, when compared to adults who did not grow up in dysfunctional homes.
Just living with chaos changed these people in real and profound ways, and that damage might have been difficult for the people to identify and correct. For many families and friends of addicts, these changes revolve around the issue of enabling. As the addiction progresses, and their distress about the addiction grows, they begin to change their behaviors and perhaps even their opinions regarding addiction. As a result, these people and the addicts they love all suffer.
Learning to spot enabling behavior, and understanding why it must be stopped, might be the best way to help everyone heal.
When Helping Becomes Harmful
Enabling is commonly defined as providing help when the person being helped can and should handle the task alone. The stress should be placed on the words “can” and “should.”
There are many tasks that addicts can and should be handling on their own, but their addictions are preventing them from tackling these tasks. These are examples of situations in which the addiction prevents the person from doing something that would commonly be expected in a reasonable society:
The addict engages in a binge, and cannot wake up on time in the morning.
The addict spends all of his/her rent money on drugs, leaving none for rent.
The addict drives under the influence, is convicted of the crime and now has no valid driver’s license.
The addict pawns all of his/her possessions for drugs, and now has no dishes or cookware to make meals with.
When families and friends see these situations, they may be compelled to help. They may offer money, make calls to landlords or employers or bail the addict out of jail. Unfortunately, while these behaviors may seem to help the addict in the short term, they can be incredibly damaging in the long run. By buffering the addict from the consequences of the addiction, they allow the addiction to move forward.
Perhaps, by stepping back just a little and allowing the addict to feel the pain of the consequences, the family can help the addict have an epiphany about drug use and the dangers of leaving an addiction untreated.
Changing Thought Patterns
Enabling sometimes takes place in the minds of the friends and family members of the addict, and these tendencies can be horribly destructive.
A study published by the University of Arizona found that people who enabled were stressed, angry and depressed. These are the sorts of feelings that might be expected in someone who has an addiction. After all, addicts are living lives that are out of control, and their behaviors aren’t accepted by society at large. They have much to be angry and worried about. However, people who enable take on these negative feelings as their own, and they may even feel a sense of solidarity with the addict, feeling elated when the addict doesn’t use and feeling horrible when the addict slips back into using.
Statements like the following are commonly uttered by people who have enabling thought patterns like this:
“He can stop anytime he wants to.”
“She only uses because I aggravate her.”
“His job is so stressful, and his boss is so horrible, that they drive him to use.”
“If I wanted her to quit, and I really asked her to, she would.”
“His problem isn’t as bad as you think it is.”
Over time, these thought patterns can normalize the addictive behavior, making poor decisions seem reasonable or even understandable. Again, this can keep an addict from getting the help needed to combat the addiction.
The Myth of ‘Hitting Bottom’
In the past, it was commonly assumed that people who were addicted would need to “hit bottom” with their addictions before they could get well.
The idea here was that an addict wouldn’t understand how dangerous an addiction truly is until the addict had lost almost everything. When the addict reached that point when everything the person once held dear was gone, the theory goes, the addict would finally admit that the addiction was too powerful to handle alone.
Now, experts agree that addicts can get help and benefit from it long before they lose everything.
The celebrity radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh provides a good example of this fact. According to news reports, he entered a treatment facility for addiction in 2003, when he had been convicted of no crime and had not fallen from public favor. He was far from “hitting bottom,” yet he was able to recover with treatment.
Thankfully, there is a middle road families and friends can take that allows them to help, without enabling the addiction.
Families were once told that they should provide no help to the addict at all, in order to help that addict reach the absolute depths of misery. Only then, these families were told, would the person they love be able to see the consequences of the addiction and agree to get help. Most family members and friends would agree, however, that providing no help at all is completely unrealistic. They love the addict, after all, and can’t imagine taking a fully hands-off approach.
Repairing the Damage
Those who enable may believe that they cannot heal unless the addict chooses to heal. This is absolutely untrue.
While the enabler does have a set of behaviors that began only in response to the addict’s drug use, the enabler can make changes to behavior and make his/her life better, even if the addict never chooses to make any changes at all.
Children living with alcoholic parents are encouraged, by the Nemours Foundation, to begin their healing by talking to a friend, coach, counselor or teacher about the issue.
The idea here is that articulating the problem gives the child a sense of power, and it enables the child to step away from the addict and do something that isn’t related to buffering the addiction. This is good advice for adult enablers to follow as well, even if the people they love use drugs instead of alcohol. By talking about the problem in clear terms with someone who is outside of the family unit, people can gain some perspective and power over the situation.
For some people, a counselor provides a listening ear, and real lessons in techniques families can use to change their opinions about addictions, and their responses to the addictions their family members have.
Some people benefit from joining support groups such as Al-Anon. These support groups are attended by other people who are also in close relationships with addicts. In each meeting, the group discusses pertinent issues relating to addiction, and they share strategies they’ve used to stop enabling the addictions. Participation in these groups is free, and the membership is completely confidential, so people can share information without worrying that it will somehow impact the health and happiness of the addict.
As family members and friends learn more about addiction and enabling, they may learn to observe the addict’s behavior without moving in to rescue the addict.
The addict’s behavior may cause deep sadness, or even disappointment, but the family members and friends might learn that these deep emotions can’t truly be corrected. They must simply be felt.
Family members and friends might also learn how to care for their own mental health, instead of focusing exclusively on the addict.
By exercising, meditating and supporting their own hobbies, they’ll model the behavior they want the addict to follow, and they might feel more secure and happy as a result. These changes can be difficult to make, and therapy might be the best way for family members and friends to make these adjustments, but they can be incredibly helpful for those forced to watch an addiction unfold.
Helping the Addict
When people begin to see how their behaviors have enabled the addiction, they might begin to think about how they can encourage the addict to obtain the needed help for the addiction. An intervention is a great way to do just that.
In an intervention family members can outline how the addiction has impacted them, and they can encourage the addict to get help. At the end of an intervention, the addict may agree to get help, but even if the addict does not, the family has finally mentioned the addiction by name and pointed out that the addiction isn’t acceptable. This can be a line in the sand families can use in their later discussions with the addict. Now that they have pointed out that they know about the addiction and don’t support it, they no longer may feel compelled to tiptoe around the issue and shield the addict.
If the addict agrees to go into treatment, the family may still need to remain on point for enabling behaviors.
According to a study in the journal Addictive Behaviors, people drop out of treatment programs for all sorts of reasons, including conflicts with staff or a basic lack of motivation to tackle the addiction. The addicts may drop out of therapy and expect the family to continue to provide support for the addiction.
It might be beneficial for families to start their own counseling sessions, so they’ll know what enabling behaviors look like and what they should do when they begin to appear once more. Then, when the addict enters treatment and leaves, or enters treatment but begins to slip back into addiction, the family will know what to do to avoid being pulled back into bad habits of their own.
It can be hard to even think that by helping, family members and friends are actually harming the person they love. It’s important to remember, however, that behaviors can be changed and healing is always possible.
By learning more about addiction, scheduling an intervention and getting help for their own addiction-related changes, family members can heal, and they can help the addict they love to heal as well.
Call us today for more information on how to take the first step away from enabling by staging an intervention for your addicted loved one.