Enabling, Detaching & Letting Go

Al-Anon stresses that nothing an addict’s relatives say or do is responsible for their loved one’s drug use or recovery. This proceeds from the belief that the addict has to suffer all of the negative consequences of drug use personally, without any intervention by others to ease those blows, in order to trigger an addict’s bottom and surrender to seeking help.

Relatives have to learn what kind of help is appropriate and what isn’t, what enables continued drug use versus placing the onus for repercussions squarely on the addict. They have to recognize their motives in enabling — financial support, psychological security, feeling important by being a rescuer, imposing order over chaos, or from the nobility of sacrifice — and disconnect from them.

A classic case-in-point arises when an alcoholic gets arrested. Do you bail him out? Many in Al-Anon would say, “No.” The addict has to bear the consequences of drug use, and if that means jail time so be it. Maybe, they hope, a stint in jail will be enough to shock him into his senses and force him to face his denial. At the very least, several days in jail will sober him up and keep him alive and relatively safe if only for a short while. But what if it’s your kid’s first arrest and you only suspect she may have a drug problem? Won’t refusing bail ruin all possibility of ongoing trust in the relationship? How many parents would be willing to risk that?

Saying no to a son or sister who, with their one phone call, dials your number for bail is an extremely difficult thing to do. It feels heartless and anything but loving. It will provoke enormous anger and resentment in the person stuck in jail. And yet sometimes it’s the right thing to do. Preparing oneself for such situations by hearing others’ stories of what they did in like situations and what happened as a result is enormously educational.

The situations that pop up are endless. Do you wake up your husband when he’s hung over so he can make it to work? Or make him suffer the impact of being late or not showing up at all even when you rely on his paycheck? Do you provoke or prevent a crisis? How can you set consistent boundaries?

Remember, these decisions aren’t necessarily black-and-white. You need help from experts. That’s what the members of Al-Anon are, experience-based experts at preventing enabling, and detaching from addict craziness. None of this is easy. But with help, you can learn how to better approach this minefield.

Sober addicts have to learn these skills as well because it’s very likely they’ll know people who relapse. That’s one of the reasons many rehabs encourage them to sample Al-Anon meetings in addition to regular attendance at AA meetings. (Another reason is to gain insight into the struggles of their relatives by seeing what others went through.)

I experienced this with more than a few of my AA buddies. Relapsers asked me for money for food, they’d say, which I knew I should refuse because it was really for drugs. But sometimes I couldn’t.

I wanted to rescue my friends so much I acted all wrong. I had to learn, as the families of addicts do, to maintain emotional distance from active users no matter how much I cared. Addicts are unscrupulous in pursuit of drugs and I needed experience to stop being an accomplice, to know what kind of help to offer and where to draw the line. To be like treatment professionals, detached, but detached with love and hope that when the seeds of sobriety germinated my still-using friends would come around.

But until they did, it was my responsibility to make sure they didn’t drag me down with them. Addicts’ families have the same responsibility to themselves.

For the next article in the For Addicts’ Loved Ones series click here.

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