Confessions of an Ex-Enabler

hand separating parents from child representing being an ex-enabler

Confessions of an Ex-Enabler

By Lakeview Health
Lakeview Health
Author Adam Bean
Adam Bean

Adam spent the first half of his career as an editor at National Geographic and Runner' World magazines. He later switched over to writing... read more

Published: July 30, 2021

I’m better now, and will share some things that helped me, but those early days were tough.

With the onset of my son’s heroin addiction, my first impulse was always to help him out of his messes. I’m his dad, that’s what I do.

I’d jump in, try to make things better, and try to get him back on track. 

The way I figured it, if I didn’t fix whatever the problem was, he would get into deeper trouble, get depressed and hopeless about it, then self-medicate with drugs to try and feel better. Which would make things worse, like it always does.

It was my job to head all that off. 

But it didn’t work. It sometimes did in the short term, but the fix didn’t last. Soon enough, he’d get into another jam—oftentimes worse than the previous one—and the downward spiral continued.

Bottom line: I wasn’t helping, I was enabling. And in the addiction world, the difference between those two is everything.  

What exactly is enabling, and are you doing it now? 

Enabling is allowing someone with substance use disorder (SUD) to continue their self-destructive behavior by covering for him, making excuses for him, bailing him out of debts and trouble, or not holding him to a normal standard of conduct. 

Even more simply, enabling is doing things for someone that she would normally do for herself if she were sober. 

The usual result of enabling is further self-destructive behavior, because the person with SUD doesn’t feel the consequences of his behavior. Why? Because the enabler keeps bailing him out. 

And because the enabler removes the negative-feedback mechanism from the equation, there’s no reason to change behavior. 

Take addiction out of it. It would be like the young person who keeps spending more money than she has in the bank, but her parent keeps depositing more in, so she keeps spending it. Again, why not? She can buy lots of cool stuff, and never has to pay an overdraft fee!

Enabling: The curse of parents everywhere

Parents are the Master Enablers (MEs). It’s often our go-to behavior when our children have substance use disorder. 

Friends, loved ones, and other non-parents do plenty of enabling as well, because they want to help. But us parental MEs tend to do more of it, because we need to help. That’s the difference. Our desperate need to help leads to more enabling. We MEs are the champs in that department.

That is completely understandable, by the way, so try not to beat yourself up too much about it. We are genetically well-intentioned toward our kids. 

Disabling the enabling complex

As I hinted at the beginning of this article, I eventually got better at recognizing what I was doing. My wife got better, too. For me, the most common instances of enabling involved money. Paying his bills. Paying his legal fees. Paying for things he could’ve and should’ve paid for if he’d been working or not spending his money on drugs. 

At a certain point, when I finally realized the effect I was having on him, I pulled back on the enabling (more on this below). This was really hard at first. It felt mean. It felt like I wasn’t caring for him anymore, that I wasn’t parenting properly. It felt unnatural. 

I had to keep reassuring myself that it was for the best, and that I was doing the right thing. 

Going from enabler to helper

Below are four things about enabling I learned along the way. 

And please know that I never stopped enabling entirely. I got better at recognizing it—and did less of it. Hopefully this advice will help you do the same. 

It presents as a quick fix: A good way to tell if you’re enabling rather than helping is if the action you take quickly gets your loved one out of trouble. (Sounds weird, I know, but stay with me a second.) Things like paying a late bill. Calling his manager to say he doesn’t feel well and won’t be coming to work today. Texting your child’s friend and lying about why she didn’t show up at the party the day before. 

All these are classic enabling moves because they all solve a problem for your loved one in the short term, but do nothing for long term sobriety or well-being. They let her off the hook with little or no consequences, which simply makes it more likely she’ll repeat the behavior. 

Why? Because she’s using, she’s probably enjoying it and regardless is addicted to it, and it’s not causing her any big problems. Your well-intentioned quick fixes are enabling that.

It’s constant: When your child is in active addiction, really struggling, and living at home where you can witness it all, it can feel like stuff just keeps coming at you nonstop. In other words, plenty of opportunities for you to enable.

Every day you’re hit with choices … do I jump in here and try to make things better? Should I help him with this problem? Should I ignore that she came home way past her curfew time last night so we don’t have to argue about it again? Should I enforce the rule we have about no drugs in the house—or let it slide this time? Should I just pay his darn car loan one more month rather than refusing to this time? 

There are endless should-I-or-shouldn’t-I choices, and it’s exhausting. You just want it to stop. To keep the peace, and get through another day in relative quiet, you often take the easier route. The relentlessness of it wears you down, so you go for the quick fix, and hope for the best.

After weeks, months, and sometimes years of this, you eventually lose the ability to know if what you’re doing is helping or enabling—and a part of you doesn’t even care anymore.

That’s when it’s official: You’re a full-time enabler. 

It’s fixable: As I said, a lot of the enabling I did—or at least the enabling I was aware of—involved money. Paying for things my son could’ve paid for if he were sober. The good thing about that was, money is at least a tangible thing. You can actually see it leaving your wallet, or your bank account. So it’s easier to recognize you’re enabling with it. 

At one point my wife and I looked at each other and said, “Why are we doing this?! It’s not helping, and we just end up paying for [fill in the blank] again next month. This is costing us a lot of money.” 

We pretty quickly got a lot more discerning about what we paid for. If the outlay was something positive that our son likely couldn’t afford even if he were sober—like a college class, health insurance, or an expensive tool he needed for work—we considered helping him with that. If it was something addiction-related like a court fee or traffic fine from when he left the car in an illegal spot overnight, we didn’t help him with that. Or usually didn’t.

We became more aware of our enabling in other areas as well, and tried to stop doing it.

AA has a phrase I really like. They say that enabling people with SUD is akin to “putting pillows under them” so they don’t feel the pain of their actions. I love that—so visual. To stop enabling, or at least to cut way back on it, we started removing those pillows, even if it was just one at a time. 

Which, for you, might mean to: 

  • Stop doing things he can do himself.
  • Stop taking on her responsibilities.
  • Stop rescuing him from legal trouble.
  • Stop loaning her money.
  • Stop lying and making excuses for him.

A final thought about fixing one’s enabling. Because the line between helping and enabling can be so hard to identify, it’s helpful to talk about it with a therapist, psychologist, or a trusted friend. 

Point being, find someone outside your immediate family circle who can see the situation objectively, and won’t be afraid to tell you things about your enabling that you may not want to hear. (You know, like the truth.) 

Above all, be open-minded. Be determined to listen without getting angry or defensive. There’s a good chance this person will pick up on things right away that you didn’t realize you were doing.

It’s natural: I want to end with some empathy. Because you deserve that. As the parent or loved one of a person struggling with SUD, it’s the most natural thing in the world to want to help him or her in any way you can. If some enabling happens along the way, that’s understandable. 

No one can fault you for that, and hopefully, things will work out for your child regardless of your enabling habit. When it comes to addiction, things usually do work out. People with SUD usually get better.

Just know that if you decide on the other hand that enough is enough and you’re done with enabling, no one is going to fault you for that either—except maybe your addicted child!

Be determined to stay strong, stay positive, and stay the course. To stop enabling is hard, but it’s one of the most important things you can do to help your loved one find long-term recovery.