Enabler, Codependent, Enabling. What are you talking about?
When I was first “assigned” these labels in 2003 while attending family therapy group sessions at the residential treatment center my loved one had entered for alcoholism, I more than flinched. I downright declared, “Are you kidding? Not me! I’m just trying to help and keep it all together for all of us!!” Repeatedly, it was explained to me that I was, in fact, a co-dependent and an enabler. Well, if you are having a similar experience, you may be wondering just what in the heck these terms mean.
Carole Bennett, MA, and substance abuse counselor, activist and author of Reclaim Your Life: You and the Alcoholic/Addict, wrote an excellent piece for Huffington Post on June 21, 2012, titled, “Are We Addicted to Being an Enabler?” that shares her insights on the terms, “enabler” and “enabling.” It’s a wonderful piece, which I encourage you to read if you are a family member or friend grappling with a loved one’s drinking or drug abuse.
But, it may also help to understand a bit of the brain science that’s involved when a person is “addicted to enabling.” At least that was the case for me.
The science behind the concept of codependent or codependence involves the chronically activated fight-or-flight stress response system. This chronic activation typically happens to family members who are repeatedly exposed to a loved one’s drinking behaviors (the arguments, verbal, physical or emotional abuse, broken promises to stop or cut down…), when it’s not understood that the source of the behaviors is the chemical, structural and functional changes in the brain caused by the brain disease of addiction – not the person. When it’s not understood that as long as the person consumes any amount of their substance of choice, there can be no change – ever.
When the family member does not understand that the person (the alcoholic or drug addict) has no control over their brains and thereby their behaviors if drinking or using any amount of their drug of choice, the drug addict, alcoholic and family member all believe “this time” or “next time” will be different. When it doesn’t happen, the family members often steps up their vigilance to make sure the promise is kept the next time or to keep the kids safe or to control what they consider potential triggers to drink or use (kids fighting, cutting off an allowance, not loaning them the car, expecting them to get a job, as examples). This is enabling. This in turn sets up a steady stream of constant worry, attempts to control, fear and anger, emotions that trigger the fight-or-flight stress response system.
When this system is chronically activated, the family member experiences brain and physical changes, as well, which can lead to physical ailments (migraines, skin problems, stomach ailments, as examples) and mental health issues (anxiety, depression, for example).
The term I’m using in my work for this is Secondhand Drinking/Drugging (SHDD). Just as there are Secondhand Smoke impacts on the health of others in the sphere of the smoker, so too are their Secondhand Drinking/Drugging impacts on the health of those in the sphere of the substance abuser or addict. These are the impacts on a person’s physical and emotional health and quality of life caused by being on the receiving end and trying to cope with someone’s drinking or drug use behaviors. Unless a person understands SHDD and how to cope with it in a healthier way, that person will likely continue to enable or as they say in recovery circles, to be an enabler, aka a co-dependent.
The most important thing for the family member to do is to learn more about the brain disease of addiction (whether it’s to drugs or alcohol), SHDD and the fight-or-flight stress response system. This will help them better understand what they can do to help their loved one, and as importantly, to help themselves. For as they also say in recovery circles, “…you’re worth it!”