Being an enabler meant that most my life I’ve believed that the best way to be productive is to work at something every waking hour of every single day. I thought this was a good work ethic, but that attitude of non-stop doing, far from helping me, actually set me up for being the enabler/spoiler I became. I had to work for decades to undo this pattern.

What is an enabler anyway

In a nutshell being an enabler is doing things for others that they can do themselves. This happens a lot in  families with addiction. If I saw something that needed doing or fixing, I did it. After all, I was the one with the energy. I was the stronger one, and I did things quickly. I called it “picking up the slack.”

I was in denial about addiction in the family

In families where there is addiction (now called substance or alcohol use disorder, there are crises that need attending almost every day. Things go wrong and tempers flare. I wanted everything to be normal and smooth, so I worked at it. This is so common; I’m not alone in covering up. You may recognize this enabling trait.

The effect was to make everything seem safer than it was

In reality, while crises seemed to be resolved, the effect was just to make everything look better than it actually was. Being a fixer (not like the kind in the mob) was exhausting. The constant resolving of every little crisis that came along also set me up for many kinds of disappointment.

No mom can fix substance use problems without addiction treatment by professionals

We don’t talk much about the impact of addiction on family members, because we’re so busy trying to save addicts, sorry for the use of that word. But here’s the problem. I just couldn’t get anything really fixed. And I was exhausted all the time.

Furrows in my forehead that made me look mad. In fact I was sad. A lot, and I didn’t tell anyone because I thought I could manage it. Fixing someone else’s problems or addictions is not your job or mine. Managing a loved one’s mental illness, however is different, and you can’t always detach when people are at risk for suicide. Let’s make that clear. There are often co-occurring disorders where addiction is a symptom of other problems. So every situation needs to be appropriately assessed. 

 Enabling those who can change is not fixing

If there is active substance use disorder or alcohol use disorder in the family, one crisis follows another. Lost keys, lost credit cards, unpaid bills, run-ins at school, at work, with the law, overdrawn bank accounts are all common occurrences. And so are late night calls to the fixer. The one who deals with problems also becomes the driver of the person(s) who lost the license, credit card, job, etc, and runs the errands that can no longer be performed by the person who may or may not have helped out before. The fixer is a workhorse, and is always waiting for the next shoe to drop.

 Enabling Has No Rewards

Jenna, a mom fixer like me said,

“My children, for whom I worked so hard didn’t appreciate my efforts at all. My husband only gave me grief by finding fault when everything wasn’t perfect. And our household was far from perfect. I was always upset.”

Often family members want more than any human could possibly give, and the fixer pays the price for trying. There are a lot of moms and dads and sisters and brothers and daughters and sons who try really hard and feel worse and worse as the years go by. Millions of very good people don’t feel good about themselves or their situation and aren’t really sure why. Enablers never feel good about themselves.

How to stop being an enabler

We are taught to be kind and giving, even that it is better to give than receive. But we all need to receive as well. Don’t believe anybody who says otherwise. Enabling, while it seems helpful at the time, over a long period of time is actually not allowing others to take responsibility for their own actions and poor decisions. If your loved ones expect you to be the fixer and can’t give anything back, you’re the loser. But so are they.

Enablers Get Lost In Good Deeds

When you work very hard all the time to help (as so many family members do), others begin to expect you to be the fixer for everything. They may forget to be kind when you’d rather take a nap. Worse, they may become enraged when you stop fixing altogether. This expectation doesn’t change when substance abuse stops. Many people believe if only their loved ones would stop using, life would be good again. It doesn’t work that way. It takes time for addiction and enabling to take hold, and it takes time to let go of destructive habits. It seems unfair that the recovery work for an enabler is just as hard as the recovery work for behavior or substance addiction.

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Let’s Face It The Enabler Has An Addiction, Too

Retiring from the fix-it job means giving up an addiction. It’s a tough transition for everyone. People you love may become really mad at you. That feels even worse than not being appreciated. You feel guilty…and scared.  Bad things could happen to people you love. You might fear that their consequences are your fault. They would certainly like you to believe that. As a retired enabler, you’re getting something back, and it feels a lot like hate. That is the cost of recovery and freedom.

Enabler No More

While I liked to think I was doing good in my decades of enabling, I actually prevented people I loved from growing. I didn’t allow myself to rest and enjoy life. I didn’t know how. Now I can choose to do exactly what’s right for me on any given day, and I have a lot more fun. That’s very liberating. Those who have to start picking up their own slack, no matter what the consequences, may not see it that way. Freedom for an enabler may be challenging at first for loved ones. No one said recovery from any addiction is easy. Trust me, if I can change, anyone can.

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Leslie Glass

Leslie Glass became a recovery advocate and co-founder of Reach Out Recovery in 2011, encouraged by her daughter Lindsey who had struggled with substances as a teen and young adult. Learning how to manage the family disease of addiction with no roadmap to follow inspired the mother and daughter to create Reach Out Recovery's website to help others experiencing the same life-threatening problems. Together they produced the the 2016 ASAM Media Award winning documentary, The Secret World of Recovery, and the teen prevention documentary, The Silent Majority, distributed by American Public Television. In her career, Leslie has worked in advertising, publishing, and magazines as a writer of both fiction and non fiction. She is the author of 9 bestselling crime novels, featuring NYPD Dt.Sgt. April Woo. Leslie has has served as a Public Member of the Middle States Commission of Higher Education and as a Trustee of the New York City Police Foundation. For from 1990 to 2017, Leslie was the Trustee of the Leslie Glass Foundation. Leslie is a proud member of Rotary International.

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