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How to Support Addicted Loved-Ones without Enabling

Tough love dictates that we not enable our loved ones when they are active in addiction. Enabling is simple; whenever we protect our loved ones from the natural consequences of their actions, we are enabling. As much as we hope and pray that they will enter recovery, the challenge becomes; what can we do to be supportive while they continue to drink/use?

Boundaries Are the Key

First and foremost, be clear with your loved ones. Boundaries guard against manipulation and misunderstandings. Setting them is best accomplished by saying: here is what I’m willing to do and here is what I am not. We’re often uncomfortable expressing the limits of our willingness. With practice we come to appreciate the fact that they simplify our lives and reduce stress.

There’s a balance to be struck here:

  1. We are free to set boundaries with those who are active
  2. And we must respect the boundaries they set as well

If the addict or alcoholic is not willing to discuss sobriety or recovery then I strongly suggest not broaching the subject.

In our interactions with those who remain active we often feel pressured. We’re afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and that we’ll end up pushing them away. I encourage folks to be genuine. Never walk on eggshells, pull punches, or withhold your real feelings within the scope of agreed upon boundaries. Pretending that things are fine doesn’t make sense.

It’s a healthy boundary to refuse to spend time together when loved ones are under the influence. During times of sobriety we can provide support simply by continuing to make ourselves available. Give a consistent message that you care, that you’re willing to support healthy goals, and that you genuinely want to maintain communication and connection.

The Benefits of Accepting Powerlessness

Say the Serenity Prayer ten times a day. It promotes sanity and a healthy perspective. When we accept what we cannot do; we become free to focus our energies on what we can do. There’s a world of difference between being worried and being concerned. Our loved ones do not benefit from our being afraid for them.

Embrace the “Knots Prayer” and say it ten times a day. It’s not as though we can simply change how we feel, but we do have choices every day as to what we will focus our time and efforts on. Our efforts can benefit others impacted by addiction and can be placed toward productive ends, or we become resentful when we put our lives on hold waiting for others to get better. Go out and live.

Choose Where to Put Your Time & Energy

Focus on what you can do, not on what you can't.

Putting our lives on hold is something we quickly come to resent. Resentments become baggage that we carry and they create both obstacles and distance in any relationship.

It’s understandable that we can’t imagine just going about living our lives in the midst of such scary unknowns yet this is exactly what we must do. While we’re waiting for the phone to ring (from our loved ones, the hospital, the jail, or the institution) we have to engage in meaningful activity. We have to be productive and we have to maintain a sense of purpose.

So do something:

  • If we can accept just for today that we don’t get to help our loved one(s) in the way we want to then we become free to help someone who is both deserving and willing to accept help. The world is full of people who are up to their ass in alligators.

I have had the honor of knowing extraordinary 'Affected Others' who created both formal and informal volunteer/charitable efforts. To be of service to others gives us outlets. It is meaningful and the ripple effects include benefits we can’t possibly imagine when we first get started. There is joy to be experienced and all it takes is a simple choice to focus on what we can do instead of hating ourselves for what we can’t.

  • If your loved one has children – pick up the slack wherever and whenever possible. Go be a sane person in their lives and help ensure that their needs are met.
  • If your loved one neglects a garden, pets, or anything else living and beautiful, go nurture it, sustain it, help it to grow.


“"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

Focus on what you can do in your community. What can you advocate for? Wish your loved one was in rehab? Do you know what the waiting list for rehabs in your area looks like? Are you aware of how decisions made in your state legislature impact the availability of services for those who genuinely want them? Would you like to see more meaningful responses to one of our greatest social problems (addiction)? Excellent! Take the advice my recovery friends offer – get out of the problem and into the solution. Each of us has the opportunity to impact systems at every level and when we organize, exponentially so.

Get What You Need

The support that we’re least likely to consider as benefiting those who remain active in addiction is getting help for ourselves. How healthy do you want to be when at last your loved ones reach out for help? How knowledgeable would you like to be about addiction? Instead of simply hating the disease, become educated about it.

Get involved in organizations like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and CODA. In addition to fellowship and step work, these groups provide members with a greater understanding of addiction and how to be supportive of our loved ones. At our best, we become willing to receive support for ourselves and we become willing to invest in self care.

Clinical Social Worker/Therapist
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. I'm an aspiring author - check out my recovery blog at: Thanks! Jim

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