The most confusing and piercing words that describe the contributions of friends and family to the disease of addiction are enabling behavior and codependency. With the best of intentions, unconditional love, unwavering commitment, and a blind eye to reality, we unknowingly become dance partners with the disease.
Our enabling behavior is particularly difficult to relinquish since we interpret doing less for our loved one as caring less and being irresponsible. Our dysfunctional thinking, coupled with recurrent selfless attempts to rescue the person, are signs and symptoms of codependency. We are hard-wired in our belief that it is in our loved one’s best interest that we take care of their unpaid bills, protect their professional image, mend whatever needs fixing, and above all, ‘keep calm and carry on’.
The disease of addiction is deemed a ‘family disease’ that preys upon anyone who does not understand its etiology and progression.
Many parents, husbands, wives ,and friends of people suffering from addiction become enmeshed in the person’s life. They unknowingly feed into a disease that is “cunning, baffling and pervasive” (Courage to Change). Doing things for someone that they reasonably should be doing for themselves is enabling behavior. Covering up for their behavior and activities at our own expense is co-dependency. Enabling behavior and co-dependency are co-conspirators with the disease of addiction, and neither protects the health or well-being of anyone involved.
The first clue that we are on the slippery slope of co-dependency is when we find ourselves working our loved one’s recovery program harder than they are working it. It is not our business to take our loved one’s inventory or manage their problems. It is in our own best interest to create and maintain clear boundaries. It is an overreach when we put the addicted person’s needs and desires before our own. Alarms should sound when we feel driven to ‘people please’ or adopt values inconsistent with our own, in order to maintain a relationship with our loved one.
The ability to differentiate caring from enabling behavior is a challenge for many family members and friends of someone in active addiction. For those of us who find Al-Anon and work our program of recovery, we learn to identify our resistance to let go of hard-wired beliefs. Initially, it feels counter-intuitive to allow our loved one to direct their own destiny. It takes time to admit to ourselves that our enabling behavior and co-dependency, under the guise of caring and protecting our loved one, is actually a “great disservice” to the person. In effect, it prevents them from “discovering the joy and self confidence that can accompany personal achievement” (Courage to Change, p.124).
It takes courage for us to step back, disengage from our enabling behavior and co-dependency, and support our loved one’s right to experience the consequences of drug abuse, including their decisions and choices. It takes insight to recognize that every step we take to manage our loved one’s affairs is simply an attempt to control our own pain and discomfort.
Freedom from enabling behavior and co-dependency “is simple, but it is not easy,” as they say in Al-Anon. It begins and ends by focusing on ourselves and accepting that we are powerless over other people, places and things.
If someone you love is caught in the grips of addiction, there is hope. Let us help. Contact us anytime at (888) 989-9690.
Courage to change: One day at a time in Al-Anon II. (Large print ed.). (1992). New York: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters.