Working in the field of addiction recovery, I get asked frequently by families how they can best support their loved one in their recovery journey. Well, the other day my aunt texted me and asked how she can best support someone who has been sober for a couple of years without enabling. The situation was that the person she was wanting to show support to was falling victim to self-pity, and self-pity is a form of addictive thinking and absolutely can be a quick way to fall into a downward spiral that can lead to a relapse. My aunt went on to say that she had attended a couple of AA meetings in the past because she wanted to learn more about addiction (1st mistake because she should have attended Al Anon, but we will get to what Al Anon is later). She did what anyone might do, new to AA, and listened to others share and when it was her turn, she gave encouraging words to a guy in the room to motivate him and tell him how proud he should be of himself (2nd mistake) . Nothing wrong with that, right? WRONG! After the meeting was over a couple AA members came to her and told her not to do that because it was enabling him. She truly didn’t understand what they meant by that, and I chuckled a little to myself because I do understand AA’s “no nonsense” approach.
Let’s first define enabling.
Enabling looks more like cleaning up someone’s mess or doing for them what they should be doing for themselves. Letting natural consequences play out and using positive reinforcement together have a synergistic effect: the combination of these two strategies is more powerful than using either one alone. This approach allows your loved one to recognize that they are the architect of good things happening as a result of positive behaviors, while learning that consequences are levied for negative behaviors — a powerful promoter of change. In AL Anon they say that “enabling robs someone of their dignity”. This type of behavior typically takes place during active addiction. Enabling someone who is in recovery can look like co-signing their addictive thinking (self-pity, resentments, self-loathing, denial, minimizing, manipulation, control issues, etc.). Addictive thinking is what takes time to change and doesn’t disappear once someone stops drinking or using.
This is where AA comes in. Hopefully, the person my aunt was referring to has a good sponsor and healthy people in recovery to hold her accountable when addictive thinking starts to show. This is imperative. Without this connection and accountability to a sober network, the disease of addiction has room to grow—and it will. I’ve seen it time and time again, and the first thing to go before a relapse is connection to others in recovery. A healthy network in AA realizes that there is no such thing as “rescuing”, which is why those AA members that told my aunt not to do that after the meeting. There are many behaviors such as self-pity or looking for sympathy that they used in the past to get what they wanted. Those are some of the addictive behaviors that I spoke of earlier that take time to identify and not act on. So, it’s just a form of manipulation. Co-signing those or pitying someone or trying to fix their feelings can hinder them, so AA members have a no b.s. approach that works. They will tell it like it is. Tell someone to get off the pity-pot. There’s a saying, “poor me, poor me, pour me another” … meaning self-pity is a quick way to wind up drunk or high again.
So, what is the best way for families, or friends, to show support to someone in recovery? The first step is to take care of YOU. Al Anon is a great support group that allows loved ones to learn how to take care of them and become apart of the solution. Addiction is a disease that wreaks havoc on the family system and because of this the family, even with the best of intentions, becomes apart of the problem. We see this often, unfortunately. And reality is the family is 50% of the solution.
What does being part of the problem look like?
- Not following the recommendations of the treatment team
- Not attending Al Anon and/ or therapy. This is for YOU. Addiction wreaks havoc on the family system, and it is vital for you to get help and heal.
- Not setting or establishing healthy boundaries.
- Using drugs or alcohol with them.
- Co-signing your loved one’s addiction. This can be addictive thinking or minimizing a relapse because in your mind “its only alcohol, or its only pot”. A drug is a drug and the disease of addiction, once ignited by any mood or mind altering substance, becomes a blazing fire out to destroy your loved one.
- Keeping secrets. Addiction thrives in secrecy. If you are keeping secrets from other family members to “protect” your loved one—you are a part of the problem.
- Attempt to control your loved one’s recovery. This is not yours to control. If your loved one is in treatment, then they have a team of professionals surrounding them 24/7 to help them learn how to live sober. If you loved one is out of treatment, then they have a support network that is available to them and it is their responsibility to use this to aid in their recovery. Remember, you can’t fix them. All you can do is take care of you and learn how to be a healthy support for your loved one, which requires setting limits and implementing boundaries.
- Lastly, no enabling. Zero. If you forgot what enabling looks like go back to that paragraph earlier in this blog.
When loved ones are apart of the solution, the chances for long-term recovery significantly increases. We have seen this time and time again. And when families are a part of the problem, chances for their loved one to relapse significantly increases. A treatment center can only do so much, therefore, it is imperative for families to educate themselves and work with the treatment team and be a part of the solution as well.