In AOD treatment and prevention programs you will frequently hear the word, “enabling.” Generically speaking, enabling and/or helping on the part of most people is a natural and expected response by most people who have any degree of compassion and kindness in their hearts. We are willing to help those people we love because we don't wish to see harmful things happen to them. When our children, whether as a child or an adult, does something stupid or careless, even if we taught them to behavior appropriately, we don't desire to see them suffer from their behavior. Since most of us during the course of our lives have done things we know we should not have done and in turn suffered the consequences. We have found it comforting to know that there were others in our lives who were willing to stand by us and help us through the tough times, despite their expressing disapproval of our irresponsible actions.
For most normal, ordinary, responsible people, we learn from our mistakes and we have the capacity to self-correct our occasional stupid behaviors. We, thereby, appreciate family and friends who assist us get through these experiences. As a result, we hopefully learn from these experiences and our behaviors and future decisions reflect this new awareness and we become better human beings for it. Experience can be a powerful force in helping us mature and grow as human beings. In most, life situations when we assist someone who did something they should not have done, we expect them to correct their behaviors and take responsibility for their current and future actions. In most cases our experience reinforces this view of the world around us.
When behaviors related to AOD dependency enter into the mix, all our views about what is normal, ordinary and responsible get turned upside down and twisted. We find ourselves confused. What we thought we knew about life and people and what is normal no longer applies. We have now turned the corner from helpfulness into enabling. Enabling an individual with an AOD dependency problem only prevents them from experiencing the expected, natural, harmful and painful consequences and deflects their attention away from the base problem which is their continued use of harmful substances.
When we relieve someone from experiencing the consequences of their AOD dependency and its related behaviors, we are preventing them from “hitting bottom.” Our enabling behavior is metaphorically speaking, actually catching them during their free fall toward the bottom. Facing the consequences is the place where they might be open to accepting genuine help and surrender to their addiction. Many people never have the chance to “hit bottom” because there are too many individuals always available and prepared to catch them from hitting their bottom.
There are a variety of reasons we might find ourselves enabling someone with a Substance Use Disorder (SUD). One reason is a lack of knowledge about the nature of AOD abuse and dependency. We might genuinely be unaware that the person has this type of problem. This frequently happens, in the early stages of SUD or with people we do not know well or have little regular personal contact. As a result, we inadvertently enable the person's addictive behaviors because most of us are wired to be helpful. This situation often happens to pastors when responding to individuals asking for some type of assistance from the church.
Then again, we might suspect a problem exists, but we lack sufficient reliable evidence to reach a conclusion and limited contact with the individual. Individual's with AOD problems have skillfully learned how to manipulate people they encounter. They have intuitively learned the survival skills to get others to feel sympathy for their situation. When interacting with a pastor, for example, they might flatter you and tell you how many people in the community admire your work, all in an attempt to convince you, your assistance at this time will enhance your currently favorable image in the community. We might mistakenly believe we can actually turn this person's life around by our willingness to help, since they had all those wonderful things to say about us. In the end, it is all enabling and counter-productive, we will achieve little except to get them to return later seeking further assistance another day.
We need to learn, when we are being helpful and when our actions are preventing the person from facing responsibility for their behavior. As difficult as it may be for us, we need to allow the natural consequences of their behavior to play out in their lives. Do not be surprised if you fail at this, AOD dependent individuals are far more skillful at deception than you are. You will get fooled and probably often. Stopping our enabling behavior takes practice and experience to begin to get it right and chances are good you never will completely, so don't feel guilty about it. Don't allow your inability to get it right negatively influence your ministry of helping those in your community.
We might find ourselves enabling due to a lack of confidence and courage to say "no" to a person who asks for our help, particularly a spouse, a son, or a daughter. We find the distress of coping with the consequences of our saying "no" and we don't believe ourselves capable of dealing with the conflict which would result. We believe we would only jeopardize our relationship and so we give into their demands. We attempt to justify our actions, by rationalizing the situation. We don't want our family member to suffer homelessness, poverty, prison time, etc. so we enable and the situation gets worse rather than better. The reality is that when we do stop enabling it will get much worse, before it gets better.
When we reach the point where we know our enabling behavior is counter productive and we need to stop, we should never do it alone. Just as the drug dependent individual needs others; i.e., treatment centers, counselors, sponsors, etc. to enter into recovery, so do we need others to stop our enabling behavior. We need the support of people outside the situation, whether it is group support, counselors, friends, colleagues, churches, etc. Seeking help and support of others helps make it less painful, but it will still hurt. This is one of many reasons why some of us in the presbytery gather together to discuss the issues related to AOD in our communities. We recognize that we need each other, if we have any chance of helping our communities and churches. We invite you to come and join us at our next meeting on Monday, May 8, 2017 at Noon at the Presbytery of Redstone offices in Greensburg, PA. In part three, we will discuss the AOD dependent individual's motivation in maintaining others who will enable themLee McDermott, Contributor