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 addict as caring less and being irresponsible. Our dysfunctional thinking coupled with recurrent selfless attempts to rescue the addict are signs and symptoms of codependency. We are hard-wired in our belief that it is in the addict’s best interest that we take care of his unpaid bills, protect his 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 addicts become enmeshed in the addict’s life. They unknowingly feed into a disease that is “cunning, baffling and pervasive” (Courage to Change). Doing things for addicts that they reasonably should be doing for themselves is enabling behavior. Covering up for the addicts’ 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 an active addict.
Those of us who have addicts in our lives need to be cautious not complacent.
The first clue that we are on the slippery slope of co-dependency is when we find ourselves working our addicts’ program harder than they are working it. It is not our business to take our addict’s inventory or manage his/her problems. It is in our own best interest to create and maintain clear boundaries with the addict. It is an overreach when we substitute the addicts needs and desires for 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 addict.
The ability to differentiate caring from enabling behavior is a challenge for many family members and friends of an active addict. 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 the addict to define and direct his/her 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 our addict.” In effect, “it prevents him/her 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 addicts’ 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 addicts’ 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 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.