Have you ever experienced an addiction/enabling situation where the addict was so manipulative to the ones who love them that it was abusive? Can’t believe what you saw or heard? You might think, “how could people live this way or how can it get this bad?”. Usually anybody who knows that particular family, stays away from them or keeps them at arms length while criticizing how unimaginable it is to live that way. The thing that most don’t see is that the family wasn’t always that way. They didn’t always live like that. They live that way now because addiction took over. The rules and boundaries in that family were probably very solid and logical at one time but got pushed little by little over time and were never re-established.
When dealing with addiction of any kind, there is always at least one enabler, many times more. Usually the whole family winds up enablers to some degree which in turn strengthens the addiction more and more progressively over time making things worse and more dangerous. Over that time, boundaries get pushed further and further until literally there are none left and absolute chaos develops. These very bad situations are more common that people think. In fact, most families that we work with are in that very situation and can’t remember when it was any different than it is right now.
For example, the first time a parent found out their child was smoking pot. The parents go light on the child because they went through a “phase” and tried a few things when they were young. So they decide to handle it lightly and give a lecture. In the end, the child gets a slap on the wrist. Since it was just a slap on the wrist, peer pressure is so demanding, and the drugs make them feel good and accepted, the child decides to continue smoking pot and eventually after enough slaps on the wrist, why stop? There aren’t any real consequences other than getting a lecture or having something insignificant taken away from them. So now it becomes established and accepted that the child smokes pot because “they just won’t stop” and “what can we do?”. That boundary has been pushed away and the parents now say “just don’t bring it into the house”. Next it progresses and he or she smokes it in the house and gets that same lecture or gets yelled at again, like usual. Still there is no real reason to stop because nothing is really lost, no consequences. The child realizes over time that despite hearing a lecture here and there, there isn’t anything to stop them from doing what they want.
As we all know in addiction, one drug leads to another because the user reaches a plateau of getting high. Pot leads to more addictive drugs and with that comes the acceptance of the enabling family. As drugs become more harmful, so do the behaviors of addicts toward the enablers. Respect and love for the parents or spouses goes out the window and an addict becomes more volatile because the desperation for the drug becomes more than ever. Meanwhile, the enablers don’t stop loving them, they try to “help” them and wind up being the target for all anxieties and frustrations of the addict. It progresses terribly and it’s like the enabler gets stuck in a rip tide and taken out to sea somewhere, but on a life raft with the addict only, trapped.
As interventionists coming into an addiction crisis to “get the addict or alcoholic into treatment”, our job is actually not just that. Our job is to educate families on how to pull away from their enabling behaviors built over time immediately and to confront their loved one about their addiction and offer them the gift of help. Literally the family that has been trained by the addict or alcoholic, has to change their behaviors and do whatever it takes to remove the unhealthy lifestyle and build new healthy boundaries so that the addiction can no longer be supported by those people. It’s quite remarkable sometimes how great families respond to the thought of hope in their lives once again and the idea that they can all have their lives back again. But as remarkable as it is, changing behaviors to help their loved one during an intervention led by a professional is just the beginning. It’s still a struggle for an enabler to let go of unhealthy behaviors, sometimes like pulling teeth but with persistence and patience, those enablers start to see that change is possible and that they don’t have to accept that lifestyle ever again.