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Helping Addicts Sometimes Means Backing Away

It’s a classic scenario: a parent, significant other, or friend swoops in to help a struggling addict who has found themselves in a difficult situation due to their use. Perhaps it’s something as simple as providing a couch when they lost a job, or something as big as bailing them out of jail. But so often this “help” actually proves to be a hindrance in the overall scheme of the addict’s life. Particularly when looking at it through the lens of long-term recovery. These small incidences of assistance can enable the behavior rather than move their life in a better direction (which is of course the original intention). All too often, helping addicts sometimes means to stop enabling by backing away from the situation so they experience the real consequences of their self-destructive behaviors.

Learned Helplessness

By continually cleaning up the messes of a loved one struggling with addiction, the road is cleared for that addict to continue on their current path. One might expect some kind of appreciation or change of heart in the face of receiving such a kindness, but an active addict’s set of priorities are not functioning as they normally would. Continuing use will almost always end up as number one.

This is why it’s important to stop enabling and back off from the wreckage of that person’s personal choices and let them sort it out for themselves. While there is a line where you don’t want to end up feeling like “I could have done more,” it’s an equal or greater disservice to not allow that person to have room to grow and take initiative in their own life.

So how does one distinguish between help which actually moves addicts toward a path of recovery, and help that enables them to continue their current behaviors?

Stop Enabling: Backing Away is an Act of Love

First, loved ones of people suffering with active addiction should find out if that person is sincere and committed to working on their problem. How are they behaving differently from previous attempts which did not prove genuine? Are they really ready to put in the work to making a lasting change?

One way to tell is by seeing how their efforts match up to your own. Are they taking steps to find treatment, talk to their sponsor, or remove the negative environmental factors that support their addiction? If you feel that you are giving help and nothing is changing, or you are angry toward their lack of efforts, those are signs that your help may actually be enabling your addicted loved one.

As a final thought: backing off from someone being self-destructive can feel wrong. To stop enabling can feel like abandoning someone who needs your help. But though this choice may be uncomfortable, it is an act of love and compassion. It is putting their need to make their own choices before your own sense of guilt for not propping them up before they’re ready.

If you or a loved one is seeking help for a substance abuse problem, our addiction counselors are available 24/7 by phone:  855-997-4702

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