Thursday, August 11, 2011

Doing for others can hurt everyone

Have you ever done and done for others who you love in hopes that they would stop their destructive behavior?  I have.  I did a lot of doing over the years, but it was seldom about doing for myself.  It was all about doing something for someone that they could be doing for themselves. And that in recovery talk is called enabling.  In the long run, the things that I did made it easier  for the alcoholic to continue in the progression of the disease.

In many cases, enabling means that you cover for the person who is drunk by making up excuses or fixing things when they make a mess. I didn't do that, although I offered up a lot of apologies for the messes that she would make.

My qualifier has always had a great job and has been functional. There wasn't any long-term binges  or staying out all night.  But there would be free for all's at social events or sipping away at home.  I would start to get anxious about going to parties where I would have no  "control" over the other person. What if she gets drunk? What if she makes a scene? What will the people think?  I would work myself up ahead of time, yet I would still go to the party. I had no back up plan.  I would count drinks.  I would whisper, "Don't you think you've had enough?"

None of this did a bit of good.  She did what she was going to do, and I pretended that all was okay.  When things weren't okay, I would make apologies and try to get her to leave.  Scenes from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf" come to mind. Not pretty. 

I probably did many other things to enable the alcoholic, over and over again.  I stuck around for years of unacceptable behavior.  And I hear in meetings and on blogs the pain of those who are doing all they can to "help" their loved ones who are deep in their disease.  But is it really helping?

Helping means to me that I am doing something for someone that they are not capable of doing by themselves.  I helped an Al-Anon friend with some online computer forms the other week because he is not knowledgeable about computer forms.  He was happy, and I was happy.

Enabling though is a different thing from helping.  Enabling prevents others from having consequences for their actions.  And the more I enable, the more I am expected to keep enabling.  At meetings, people share about how they feel guilty because they might not be doing enough to stop the drinking or using.  They have spent all their money on rehabs,  bailed loved ones out of jail, hired attorneys, and still there must be something else that they could do to stop the disease.  And the loved one doesn't seem to appreciate any of it.  Instead, they lie, coax, wheedle, deceive, beg, and ask for more.  We then cave in, give more, and then get asked for still more.  The cycle continues.  We are in the dance.

But what are the consequences of all of this?  I now believe that enabling in the name of being good spouses, good parents, good friends is actually hurting and feeding the disease.  The disease of alcoholism is cunning, baffling and powerful.  And it is a disease that affects everyone around the alcoholic.

Sadly, it can take years, as it did in my case, to realize that I was not helping anyone and was doing great harm to myself and the alcoholic.  Enabling allows the alcoholic to avoid the the consequences of their actions.  Someone is there to bail them out, put them into rehab, give them another chance, so why should they stop?

It really took a major shake up in our marriage for both of us to take notice and get some help. I no longer try to rescue my wife nor do I feel stifled in doing the things that I like to do.  What I now realize is that until the alcoholic's drinking, thinking and behavior becomes painful enough they will not reach out for help. If I try to help diminish their pain then I am really preventing them from feeling that "pain" that would be a natural result of their own actions. I am effectively cushioning their downward spiral and if I make things cushy enough then they won't even know that they fell. If they never face the pain their drinking causes, why should they ever quit?

Some people will say, "Yes, but this is my child. You don't understand."  No one wants their child to fail, be ill, or be hurt.  But isn't that how we learned when we were kids?  My father taught me to ride a bicycle.  I had training wheels and then one day, he took them off and let me ride with a push.  I learned to ride in spite of falling a few times.  But he knew that I had to learn to keep my balance.  If he had held onto me or kept the training wheels on,  I would not have found my balance or ridden.

I am still striving for balance today.  But at least I know that I can fall and get back up on my own. 


  1. Good post Syd.

    It took me sooooo long to learn the diffenece between enabling and helping. Then it too me soooo long to forgive myself for not realizing the difference and seeing the damage I did.

    The mistakes of good intentions. They haunt us all.

  2. And it's not just alcoholic behavior that some of us have spent years enabling. It's other forms of destructive behavior that we see in people we love and try to "help" with, too.
    I have finally learned my lesson there, although it does still take a great deal of strength to just step away and let the person find his or her own path which is really the only way change works.

  3. Such a great post, the idea that yes enabling is very different than helping. I think we can enable just about anyone or anything and it's our program and our ability to discern the situation and our motives...
    Great post thank you!

  4. good stuff...for me this happens all the time in families that i work with...not alcohol related but as parents enable their kids in the belief that they are helping them...

  5. I spend many years "polishing the halo" of a dry drunk. I don't do that anymore, and it has caused major strife and conflict in the marriage, but I have the love and support of my Al-Anon friends, my Higher Power, and my love of myself, to keep me balanced.

  6. Amazing post. Exactly what I needed to read today. I'm working very hard at not enabling my qualifier this very day. I think you are right. I've been so cushioning that he hasn't even known he was falling.

  7. For me, a simple test worked..did I do it, even when I wanted to say no, I won't. Then it was enabling to me.

  8. Wow that is so helpful. My main focus is on my own recovery from active alcoholism (sober 2 1/2 years now, thank god), but I was raised by alcoholics and have no doubt I have many, many issues you've touched upon. Wonderful post ~ many, many thanks...

  9. That was a great post. I am still learning the difference but I notice when I am speaking with him now (after years) it is way different especially right now more than ever I realize the damage that did to my son. Now he is really facing consequences and is having a much harder time than most people who haven't had people try to "save" them over and over again.

    It is really hard to stop that behavior but so dangerous to not to.

    Really, really great post.

  10. And I know from my experience in growing up with an alcoholic mother that 'enabling' becomes a way of feeling good, of keeping an alcoholic relative dependent and grateful, needy, helpless. A dangerous kind of satisfaction for anyone.

  11. Some of us are just hard wired to enable. It takes a lot of work and a lot of meetings to change, like learning to write with the opposite hand. For me it has been a slow process that is getting challenged again. The line between helping and enabling is very thin.

  12. I'm grateful to not be an enabler today...

  13. The other person doesn't have to be an alcoholic for me to become a total enabler. I used to do this with my son (14 years old) all the time; it's still easy for me to slip back into. And I notice that, just like an alcoholic (I can say this because I am one), he HATES it when I stop enabling. But you're right, kids do have to make mistakes and feel the pain in order to learn.

  14. You are a WISE man, Syd. Great post.

    Have a terrific weekend.



  15. Great story about your dad teaching you to ride a bike and you learning to balance the bike. If someone spends energy looking out for a spouse or child or friend who is an alcoholic, when does the person take care of their own self; how can they be healthy and happy when they put someone else before all else?

  16. Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing. "I stuck around for years of unacceptable behavior" when you said this it really struck home to me... I put up with unacceptable behavior for a long time, but today I can recognize that unacceptable behavior and take action to take care of myself.

    Enabling is the guaranteed insurance the Alcoholic will never get better.

  17. Syd, you know how I struggled with my Stephanie. I beat myself up for a long time (even though I'd been in recovery for a year when she died) that I hadn't done enough, that if I had just done [insert crazy behavior here], she would still be alive.

    Your post is right on. As I have transitioned from Celebrate Recovery to Al-Anon, I find your insights to be so helpful.

    Thank you for sharing...D


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