Learning to Love With a 10-Foot Pole: When Helping Becomes Enabling

Years ago, if you asked me what kind of parent I was, I’d quickly have labeled myself with descriptors such as “firm,” “strong,” or “no-nonsense.” I’ve never had patience for overindulgent parents who allowed their kids to rule the roost, and my parenting style, while loving and open, was always about making sure my children were given rules, guidelines, and clear boundaries. Yet when I found myself dealing with a young adult child who was an addict, all those rules and boundaries went out the window and instead, I did what no parent or loved one should ever do. I became the perfect enabler, and nearly killed my child in the process.

My daughter is my ex-husband’s child from a previous relationship. I adopted her after he and I married, and I immediately made it my goal to provide her with a loving and secure home—something she’d been missing for most of her young life. In some ways, I was probably too strict, with minimal understanding of the trauma she’d suffered and how it would affect her. I was also a helicopter parent, hovering constantly, micro-managing her schoolwork, her activities, even her friendships.

When she eventually and expectedly rebelled, she dove headfirst into alcohol and then drugs, which wreaked havoc on our entire family and made me question every parenting method I’d ever tried. I felt as if I’d failed her, and my own feelings of inadequacy as a mother made me want to help her, fix her, make everything better for her.

What We Can’t Fix as Parents

Seeing any loved one in pain is difficult. For parents, seeing our children suffer not only highlights their problems, it also highlights our flaws as parents. We are especially adept at making it all our fault, and in doing so, we deflect responsibility from our child, protecting them from their own bad decisions and creating a cycle of enabling and codependency. While in the midst of this tumultuous back and forth, we might feel like we are helping, and that things could actually be worse for our child if we let them fall. But by never allowing them to face the natural consequences of their addiction, they never hit their rock bottom and aren’t motivated to get help.

For my daughter, my efforts to control and minimize her addiction only made her angrier. She would ask for money, which I gave freely and never asked for repayment. The few times I said no, she would call me every name in the book and recite a laundry list of the ways I failed her. I thought she’d do better if she lived with me, so I invited her to move in, which only lasted a few months before her drinking and overt disrespect took over my home and I had to ask her to leave. I did her laundry, I cleaned up after her, I paid her bills when she got behind. I signed her up for college classes when she made vague noises about being interested; she never attended a single class. I bought her a car, which she ran into the ground and eventually abandoned at my house, then screamed at me when I sold it for $400 and wouldn’t give her the money.

If there were family dinners, she’d show up late or not at all. Holidays, she’d arrive empty-handed, collect her gifts and then make an excuse to leave. Through all of this, I was uncharacteristically silent, terrified of conflict and confrontation. I accepted her behavior and never once called her on it, as I struggled with my own guilt and fear that I would lose her.

Enabling Damages the Entire Family

Enabling and codependency can cause long term damage to relationships, the very same kind of damage the addiction itself causes. When we enable, we take responsibility from the addict and place it on ourselves. We make excuses for them, blame ourselves for their behavior, and do everything we can to minimize the negative consequences of their actions. We make their feelings our own, and as a result, they are able to continue along their destructive path with no cost to themselves.

We may also fall into the trap of codependency, where we try to control the addict, believing they can’t function on their own and that we must sacrifice our own wants and needs to keep them safe. This can create a situation where we become martyrs, fulfilling our desire to feel loved by them by making ourselves indispensable to their addiction. I was guilty of all this, and refused to admit or see it for quite a long time. As a type A personality and a bit of a control freak in all areas of my life, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t able to govern my daughter.

My lightbulb moment came when my younger child broke down one day, upset because my daughter had no-showed another family get-together. He told me how scared he was for her safety, that he often laid awake at night worrying about her. I realized that I wasn’t the only one being damaged by her addiction, and that my family was spiraling right down the drain with her. I knew that none of us could continue this way.

Al-Anon Meetings and Learning to Let Go

Since my daughter wasn’t willing to get help, I decided to get help for myself. I started attending Al-Anon meetings. A support program designed to assist families of alcoholics, Al-Anon focuses on letting go of enabling and codependent behaviors and understanding that you cannot change another person’s behavior; you can only change your reaction to it. Their tenets are the same as those of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, with a “one day at a time” mantra that helps you stay in touch with the here and now. While AA teaches addicts that they are powerless over their addiction, Al-Anon teaches families and friends of addicts that they are powerless in controlling their loved one, that only in stepping away and taking care of themselves can they really help.

I learned to employ tough love, but with compassion. I learned more about the disease that is addiction and strove to understand it. I started focusing on taking care of my needs, my other children and family members, my job, and my own happiness. I stopped trying to chase my daughter down, force her to get help, or make her be who I thought she should be. I let her go, with love, with compassion, and with hope.

A few months later, she called me in a panic because she’d wrecked her car and the police were about to impound it. With no car, she couldn’t get to work, and with no job she would lose her apartment. Her boyfriend had recently broken up with her and her friends had written her off. I told her I couldn’t help her with the car, but if she was ready to get help, I’d be happy to assist her with getting into a treatment program. Rather than responding with anger and hanging up, as she’d done so many times before, she paused for a long moment. And then she said yes.

That was almost four years ago and I can’t say the journey has been easy for either of us. After a year of sobriety, she relapsed fairly severely, but was able to re-enter treatment and has been doing well since then. Currently two years sober, she has a decent job and an apartment, as well as a strong AA support group. She recently signed up for college. She did all this on her own, without my interference or “help.” I cheer her on, but from the sidelines—keeping my distance and letting her run her own life. Because it is her life, not mine. We take it one day at a time, the both of us, and today, well, today is pretty great.

Featured image by Kristina Tripkovic

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