Enablers are often those close to the home

Chemically dependent people always have families – wives, husbands, mother, father, son, daughter – and addiction to alcohol and other drugs touches all their lives. They have to live the pain and suffering of seeing their loved one destroyed by the addiction, and the disruption of family life that comes with substance abuse.

Anyone familiar with substance abuse knows how hurtful and cruel they can be to their loved ones and how the addict or alcoholic can sap family resources. Family members live in continued fear of fallout from drunkenness or drug abuse – anger, verbal abuse, physical abuse, destruction of property. This is why programs like (Al-Anon) spouses, and Al-Ateen children, have been recommended. These programs are designed to help loved ones take care of themselves, even if their loved one continues to drink and drug.

Sometimes spouses are referred to as “co-dependents” and the term “enabler” is used to describe a spouse, parent, or child or friend who encourages the substance abuser in subtle and unconscious ways. As of this writing, little has still been written or researched to understand, explain, and change the behaviors of these individuals. Not everyone who is struggling with a substance abuser is an enabler, however, many family members are.

There are enablers who appear to help the addict and alcoholic continue their addiction. They fall into three categories according to REBT. First, by providing the chemically dependent person with alcohol, drugs or money, or by joining them in the use and abuse of alcohol or other drugs. REBT calls this type of enabler “the joiner.”

A second type of enabler clearly states they are opposed to their loved one’s drinking or drugging and makes an open campaign to try and change him or her. REBT calls this type “the messiah.” In an attempt to change him or her, the messiah intervenes for the addict or alcoholic in such a way that prevents the addicted person from receiving the natural consequences of their drunkenness and loss of control.

Bailing them out of jail, covering DWIs with high-priced attorneys, lying to employers, in an attempt to “rescue” the addicted person from negative consequences of their addictions does the addicted person no good. In all honesty, in the three years I’ve written this column, the people that call me and want help with their enabling never call me again.

Telling a parent to let their child sit in jail overnight instead of bailing him or her out, the spouse who is beaten physically who I’ve told to pack up and leave for the benefit of herself and her children, the families that continue to center around “getting help” for him or her through 10 outpatient treatments and four inpatients, by mortgaging their house. My simple question to my clients in outpatient, inpatient and halfway housing was simple – “are you done?” They would look at me strangely when I then added, “if you are, then what are you going to do about it?” The people who I’ve worked with and gotten and stayed sober, worked very, very hard to achieve this. They did it, not me, so if you talk to someone who has sobriety, he or she will tell you what I’m talking about.

The third type of enabler is the “silent sufferer.” Silent sufferers do not make attempts to change the sick person, nor do they make rescue attempts to help the addict or alcoholic with problems caused by their drinking or drugging. Silent sufferers are always there. They will not confront the drunk with their obvious abuse, nor will they mention the bills that can’t be paid, the friends that have been insulted or the insults that have been rained down on them.

They just take it, absorb the pain and let the person doing the abusing know they are stil there. They pretend nothing is wrong, but are preventing the addict or alcoholic from experiencing the natural consequences and punishments of addiction by always being there. The silent sufferers’ pretending makes it easy for the alcoholic and drug addict to deny that there are problems resulting from drinking and drugging. Silent sufferers have a great tolerance for pain and a great ability to act and deny the problem and to present an image to the world that all is well. I once worked with a client (briefly) that had 13 DWIs. When he came in, he brought his grandmother, who he lived with. Together, they denied every arrest and blamed the police because they were “out to get him.” He drove to the treatment center, even though he had no license or insurance. I’ll not tell you how it ended, but the treatment number is at the end of this article.

Each of us, as counselors, has had the experience of treating someone in therapy for a long period of time before we discovered that this client was involved with an alcoholic or drug abusing family member or lover. Many counselors are surprised at their own inability to detect the problem. The surprise was the client’s unwillingness or inability to notice or mention that a significant other was chemically dependent, and that the client was unwilling or unable to share the abuse suffered from the abuse from the significant other. These cases usually involved the following problems of spousal abuse, child abuse and neglect, females with serious depression, families where people do not talk to each other for months or years, or families with serious financial problems despite what appears to be adequate income, or cases of child behavior problems where one parent refuses to be involved with treatment – usually the uninvolved parent turns out to be chemically dependent, cases with a young child who does not work, and finally cases of serious marital dysfunction where one spouse refuses to come for marital therapy. Frequently enablers are too embarrassed to admit that a substance abuse problem exists and they will mention that they fought with their spouse, often at parties where the spouse drank too much. For example, clinical folklore maintains that children of alcoholics will frequently marry alcoholics. Thus enablers are likely to have the same traits ascribed to (ACOAs) Adult Children of Alcoholics. These traits are usually a demand to control others totally and fear of assertion coupled with the extreme demand for love and approval, which shows itself by repeated efforts to please others.

Next month: Helping the enabler.


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