Enabling: Helping or Hurting?


“I'll give it to you, but this is the last time I mean it!”


“What? Where are you? Alright, stay right there I'll come get you, but don't call me again!”


“Did you take my (fill in the blank)? If you touch any of my stuff again, I'm going to (fill in the blank)!”


“That's it, I'm done!”


Sound familiar? If you're the family member of an addict/alcoholic it will…


I can't tell you how many times either myself, my parents, or my sisters have said any of the above and more to my sister, who is a former addict with 10 years of recovery or my brother, who was an alcoholic and died from the disease. Each time we said it, we meant it and each time without fail, we backed down... why?


I'm going to speak for all of us and say that whatever we did or didn't do, it was always done from a place of love.


My sister suffered from her addiction for many years, and would steal from whoever and wherever she could to feed her habit. Not only had she been arrested many times for shoplifting, but in some cases she would put herself in great danger by stealing from the wrong person. I can't tell you how many times my sister would come to my parents, especially my father, crying saying that she needed money for food or to pay a bill, and in order to make sure she was okay, my parents would give her money. My parents knew exactly what she was going to do with that money but they still gave it to her.


My brother was actually a high functioning alcoholic, but there were times when he would have to borrow to pay his rent or bills. He would rarely take money from my parents, but he did borrow from me and my sisters on occasion, and while he usually paid us back, sometimes he didn't and we never pressed the issue.


We saw our sister, brother, child in need and did what we could to help them; what we didn't know at the time was that we were actually 'enabling' them to continue in their addiction. Knowing what I know now about addiction and enabling behavior, I can look back and see very clearly what we were doing wrong, but at the time, we were just trying to deal with the situation the best way we knew how.


Nobody ever told us that our desire to help was actually driven by our own anxiety, guilt and shame to save my brother and sister from their predicament and spare them from the immediate consequences of their actions. Truth be told, I think we were trying to meet a need of our own, rather than what they needed, and we didn't even realize it at the time.

Without the knowledge, understanding and tools needed back then to handle the situation, we made so many mistakes that not only hurt them, but ourselves as well. You see by constantly coming 'to the rescue', we didn't allow my brother and sister to learn how to correct their own mistakes. They knew one of us would always be there to save them, so there was never a need for them to learn how to save themselves. There was no pressure for them to get it together and as a result, their addiction got worse. Our enabling behavior became so ingrained that we were always on alert waiting for that phone call either asking for help or telling us they were dead; still we swore we would never help them again. The addiction had taken hold of us as well and we felt compelled to help.


The result of all this enabling behavior had devastating results. I can't speak for my sisters or my parents, but for me it destroyed the extremely close relationship I had with my siblings, and led to a lot of resentment and mistrust that has only recently begun to get better with my sister. My brother moved out of state and I didn't talk to him much because each time I did, he was drunk and as a result, I found out too late that he was in the ICU and died before any of us had a chance to see him. I will never forgive myself for not being there to say goodbye; he was my only brother and the oldest and I miss him every day.


For family members who have a loved one suffering from addiction or alcoholism, I beg you to find out everything you can about the disease and the issue of enabling. Not only will it give you a greater understanding and the tools you need to deal with the addicted love one, it will help you as well,  because addiction is a family disease and we would all benefit from the ability of knowing how to deal with it.


Nadine Herring is the owner of Virtually Nadine, a virtual assistant company that provides online administrative support to addiction specialists and social service organizations. I specialize in working with this undervalued and overworked field to help them deal with the time consuming process of running an organization.

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