A mother called very upset that her son had not been approved for admission to St. Joseph Institute. I explained that he wasn’t ready for treatment. He wasn’t ready to stop using his drugs. He had no motivation to get clean beyond the desire to “get his parents off his back.” “What can I do to get him ready?” she asked.
I suggested that her son needed to discover the motivation on his own. He needed to feel the consequences of his choices and want to change. She could long for this, she could pray for this, but he had to reach this conclusion – she could not do it for him.
“However,” I explained, “that does not mean you are powerless to help. For years you have let him live in your house and use drugs. You have given him money that he has used to buy drugs. You have financed his car. In short, you have made it easy for him to be an addict… and his addiction thanks you for it. You are enabling his bad behaviors, and that has made it much easier for him to avoid tough decisions.”
While the mother acknowledged the truth of my statements, she was conflicted. “If I make him leave home, he’ll have nowhere to live. If I don’t give him money, he’ll be unable to eat. I can’t do that to my son.” She paused, and then stated: “I’m too afraid to say no.”
This conversation reflects a constant theme in addiction treatment: enabling. Enabling is behavior that tries to resolve a specific problem but often perpetuates or exacerbates the issue. An “enabler” might take responsibility for the addict’s problems or make accommodations for a person’s harmful conduct. For example, a wife may not demand change for fear that her husband will leave her. A father who does not want to “rock the boat” will avoid the tough discussion with his son about the out-of-control drinking. A family will accept their loved one’s promise that “this time will be different,” even though they have yet to see any evidence of change.
At St. Joseph Institute, we know that despite our professional attention, treatment, and support, an addict has dismal chances of recovery if his or her family engages in enabling behavior. We know that an addict must want to change before change is possible. Recovery happens when the addict or alcoholic accepts that they have a disease and wants life to be different. Our clinical staff is trained to evaluate an addicted person’s stage of readiness for treatment. People in the “pre-contemplation stage” are not thinking about changing their behavior and may not see their behavior as a problem. These individuals are often labeled as “resistant” or “in denial.” Enabling by the family, significant others, and friends allows the addict or alcoholic to remain in the pre-contemplation stage.
We know an addicted person is ready for treatment when he or she has entered the “stage of contemplation,” which is a measure of a person’s readiness to make the necessary changes for sobriety. Contemplation signals an acknowledgment that there is a problem and an “awakening” that change is needed.
There can be no guarantees that stopping all enabling will motivate the addicted person to seek help. The addict may keep using; the alcoholic may drink even more. The addiction may still result in jail or even death. Battling this disease is not easy, and there are no perfect answers.
What we do know, and what research confirms, is that if the addicted person is allowed to keep using without consequences, there is far greater likelihood that the addictive behavior will continue or become worse. Denial has so much more power when it goes unchecked. Enabling fosters denial, and while it may look and feel like love, it often has a selfish motive. Love is based on compassion; enabling is based on fear of consequences. Love encourages personal growth and the courage to make important decisions; enabling accepts the status quo. Love pushes the addicted person into the stage of contemplation and thus into the beginning of recovery.
Every person in successful recovery knows this phrase: “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” Change is the foundation of sobriety, and enabling prevents change. For the mothers, fathers, spouses, and friends hoping to see the person they love break free of addiction, I offer a simple prayer: “Be not afraid.” Use the power of love to demand change, and stand strong when the addict rebels against your actions. When enabling stops, the true face of addiction is often seen in all its ugliness. Addiction fights to stay alive. Stare it down, and don’t let it win. When no one is helping addicts stay addicted, they often decide it is time to change.