The Difference Between Helping and Enabling | Futures of Palm Beach
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The Difference Between Helping and Enabling

An Educational Resource for Families

Helping vs. Enabling a Loved One

It’s hard to say how many people are currently addicted to some form of substance abuse. The Nation Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported the results of the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health that accounted for an approximate 2.4 million people in the United States who had used a prescription drug without medical reason in just one-year’s time.[1]

That’s merely one piece of the puzzle; add to it the addictions to alcohol, bath salts, marijuana—even in synthetic form – and hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, and you’re looking at a national epidemic. A 2011 CASA Columbia study produced alarming results that paint a grim outlook of the future of America, with a quarter of those who used any addictive substance prior to turning 18 ending up addicted.[2]

Do You Love an Addict?

If you find that someone you love has fallen prey to the dangers of drug or alcohol abuse, the time to take action is now. The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence classifies the signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse as belonging to three different categories: health-related and physical, behavioral, and psychological, as detailed below.[3]

Physical Symptoms

The health-related signs of drug abuse are visible. Common signs you might notice in your family member are:

  • Pupil size decrease/increase or bloodshot eyes
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Sudden weight fluctuations
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Unexplained injuries or accidents
  • Seizures when there is no history of epilepsy
  • A lack of concern for appearance and hygiene
  • Unusual smells on their clothing, body or breath
  • Slurred speech that is hard to understand
  • Poor coordination, including tremors or shakes

Behavioral Signs

The behavioral signs of drug abuse are something that most people try to ignore or explain away. They include:

  • Poor performance or attendance at school or work
  • Decreased interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Complaints from peers, teachers or superiors
  • Financial troubles, such as an inability to explain why they need money, theft, or unexplained disappearances of valuables or money
  • Reclusive and behaving suspiciously
  • Abrupt change where they hang out or what they spend time doing
  • Frequently delinquent and/or aggressive behavior

Psychological Signs

Last but not least, the psychological warning signs of substance abuse are also things that family members will often try to rationalize or find an excuse for, such as:

  • An alteration in their personality or outlook toward others that cannot be explained
  • Sudden mood changes, such as expressive rage or laughing for no reason
  • Periods of mania-like behavior, including restlessness and irritability
  • Lazy or unfocused; lacking motivation
  • Paranoia, fear and anxiety that cannot be explained

With the rate of addiction being as high as it is, most people will find that they encounter at least one addict at some point in their lives. For some, the addict will be a parent, child, sibling or someone else they hold dear. The first step to helping that person is recognizing how they’re affecting your life. According to the American Psychological Association, families of addicts not only deal with the user’s behavior and the legal and financial ramifications of such, but they are at an increased risk for domestic violence, social problems, sickness and ultimately, a broken home.[4] The link between substance abuse and violent behavior is obvious, with some reports accounting for 92 percent of domestic abusers having used alcohol or drugs on the day of the assault.[5]

domestic abuse related to drugs alcohol

Recognizing addiction in a loved one isn’t something many find to be very pleasant. In fact, the majority will try to rationalize how their loved one is acting. Many will turn the other cheek and downplay the addict’s behavior in an effort to avoid accepting and facing the real issue at hand. Even in successful recovery cases, if denial was present in the beginning, post-traumatic problems can stem from it and appear later in life, especially for children.[6] At some point, however, these behaviors will become too catastrophic to ignore. A 2010 study carried out by the Dublin Institute of Technology produced results consistent with previous research that confirms the significant detrimental effects substance abuse has on a family over the course of their lifetime.[7]

Helping vs. Enabling

We see this scenario time and time again. Families think they’re helping the addict when they’re actually making things worse. A habitual drug user will take your money, your charity, your time and your energy, and they’ll leave you completely drained. They’ll break your heart, and they’ll break their promises. How you respond to an addict’s behavior is crucial to veering them off the path they’re on.

The Many Ways of Enabling

Remind yourself: if things aren’t getting better, then you aren’t helping. There are many example of enabling, such as:

  • Giving an addict money that they may use to buy drugs
  • Cutting them some slack and ignoring it when they use drugs after promising they’d quit
  • Calling an addict’s boss to say they’re ill when they’re really absent from work due to their addiction
  • Taking care of responsibilities for the addict: housekeeping, running errands, paying their bills, child rearing, etc.
  • Bailing them out of jail
  • Rationalizing or making excuses for their bad behavior

If you have to lie in order to assist someone else, you’re probably enabling, not helping.


Often, the addict isn’t the only codependent in the family. When an addict claims they’re going to change, or quit using drugs or alcohol, but it’s on the contingency of you helping them with something else, you have to find the courage to say no. If you are fearful that the addict will cut off contact with you or impose some other form of punishment if you don’t help them, you are becoming codependent and need to stop that behavior in its tracks.[8] It will only hinder the addict and hurt everyone involved if family members become putty in the addict’s hands.

Codependent Behavior

Addictions train people well to be masters at manipulation. The kindest and sweetest of human beings can turn into the most destructive and hurtful people when addiction is in play. When you’re trying to support an addict, you’re inclined to want to help in ways that you would help others who are down on their luck. Many will offer money or a place to stay; some will simply be there as a friend, while others will go as far as taking in and caring for an addict’s children. These are all enabling behaviors, and they contribute to prolonging your loved one’s addiction.

For anyone who loves an addict, one of their biggest fears is what would happen to the user if they turned their back on them. Families allow this fear to paralyze and trap them in a never-ending cycle of enabling. The trepidation you feel inside when thinking about removing yourself from the addict’s life controls your behavior. Every time you catch them when they fall, they are reassured that you will next time. They are keenly aware of the control their emotional, psychological, and sometimes even physical threats have over you.

How to Help

Stop hoping it will get better on its own. Do not turn the other cheek and allow an addict to wreak havoc on your life. This isn’t to say they can’t be in your life, but it needs to be on healthy terms. There are safe ways to protect yourself and other family members from an addict without cutting ties.


In this day and age, interventions are a hot topic. There are entire television shows and documentaries based on this therapeutic concept and for good reason — they’re successful in terms of getting the addict into rehab. Family involvement in substance abuse treatment programs, inclusive of interventions, is a frequent precursor for addicts entering into rehab.[9] This reinforces the idea that addicts with familial support have a better chance at recovery. Likewise, it can hinder an addict’s recovery if families don’t follow through with their responsibilities and support the addict for the duration.[10] The best thing you can do to show an addict that you care is to educate yourself on what they’re going through. Learn what it feels like to be dependent on a drug or alcohol. Understand how desperate you become when under the influence of an addiction. Put yourself in the shoes of the addict who you love and ask yourself what you’re feeling. Addiction and self-esteem often go hand-in-hand.[11] It can be disheartening for the addict to face the people who knew them before their addiction took over. They’ve lost their respect, and it feels shameful and embarrassing.

Take Action Now

Do not wait for the addict to hit rock bottom. The idea is often pushed upon society that someone cannot recover from an addiction if they aren’t committed to changing for the betterment of their own self. A picture is painted that those who are pushed into rehab against their will by their concerned families have no chance at success. This couldn’t be further from the truth.[12]

Hitting rock bottom certainly does motivate some addicts to get help, but it isn’t an end-all-be-all requirement of addiction recovery. Likewise, rock bottom doesn’t have GPS coordinates; it isn’t the same place for every addict.[13] Some addicts are motivated to quit for their families, whereas some stop when they realize they’re hurting themselves. Some take action at the first sign of trouble, and others are still using after they’ve lost everything that ever mattered to them.

There are also addicts who are troubled by ramifications or shame they face because of their addiction, and this leads them to seek professional help. Others may be legally forced to.

Family members and loved ones of addicts often benefit from seeking help too. Support groups and family therapy play a hefty role in the rehabilitation of broken families and serve to support family members of addicts and teach them ways to help instead of enable.

Enter, Rehab

Taking the step to accept help is a huge one, but it’s only the beginning of the long battle that lies ahead of an addict. You must be prepared for what you will endure while holding their hand through this process.

It is a commendable trait to be compassionate enough to put your own feelings and judgments aside while helping a struggling loved one, especially one with an addiction. Your reward for such, if handled correctly, can mean getting the relative you know and love back. Whether your family member is participating in an outpatient or inpatient treatment program, you need to be equally as prepared to support them through it. When someone enrolls into inpatient treatment, it’s easy to feel like the problem has solved itself when it’s no longer in your home or impacting your daily life. Due to this, many people will get lax in their supportive roles.

Some stop visiting or even stop taking phone calls from the addict. This can be very depressing for the person seeking treatment. Drug and alcohol addiction are scary things that no one wants to go through alone. Most addicts worry about what will happen after they leave here. As their family, it is your job to reassure them that they’re coming home to the recovering addict.

Family members and loved ones of addicts often benefit from seeking help too. Support groups and family therapy play a hefty role in the rehabilitation of broken families and serve to support family members of addicts and teach them ways to help instead of enable.


[1] “How many people abuse prescription drugs?(2011, October). National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Retrieved June 13, 2014. [2] “Adolescent Substance Use.” (June, 2011.). CASAColumbia. Retrieved June 13, 2014. [3] “Signs and Symptoms.” (n.d.). National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Retrieved from June 13, 2014. [4] “Family Members of Adults with Substance Abuse Problems.” (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved June 13, 2014. [5] Brookoff, D. (1997, October). “Drugs, Alcohol, and Domestic Violence in Memphis.” Nation Institute of Justice. Retrieved June 13, 2014. [6] Dayton, T. (n.d.). “The Set Up: Living With Addiction.” Retrieved June 13, 2014. [7] Stack, A. (September, 2010.). ““It’s Like Throwing a Pebble into Water and There is a Ripple Effect Throughout the Entire Pond” The Effect of Drug Use on the Family System.” Dublin Institute of Technology. Retrieved June 13, 2014. [8] Schwartz, A. (n.d.). “Codependent and Enabling Behaviors – Addictions.” Retrieved June 13, 2014. [9] Copello, A., Velleman, R. & Templeton, L. (July, 2005.). “Family interventions in the treatment of alcohol and drug problems.” Drug and Alcohol Review. Retrieved June 13, 2014. [10] Ibid. [11] Hartney, E. (2014, June 11). “Understanding an Addict – How an Addict Feels.” Retrieved June 13, 2014. [12] Hunter, T. (March 16, 2012.). “The Myth of Hitting Rock Bottom: The Power of Intervention – IPRC.” Indiana Prevention Resource Center. Retrieved June 13, 2014. [13] Ibid.

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