Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Helping or Enabling?

How do I know the difference between helping my alcoholic, and enabling them?

One dictionary defines enabling as: "to make possible or easy." When I lived with active alcoholism in my first marriage, and hadn't yet heard of Al-Anon, I enabled the alcoholic. I made runs to the liquor store so he wouldn't drive while intoxicated. I made excuses for him. I "explained" him to family and friends. I did it because I was fearful of the consequences, and also because I wanted to be a good wife.

In this marriage, because the alcoholic had been sober for many years before we met, and I was fairly new to Al-Anon, I imagined him cured, and let go of all the teachings of the program about enabling - I was under the mistaken impression that enabling was part of active drinking, and not alcoholism as a whole. I can still have some difficulty distinguishing between helping and enabling, especially when I'm asked to "do a favour" and either I forget to say "I'll get back to you on that" or :"Let me think about it" because the person asking the favour is pressuring me for an immediate answer, or because I'm in HALT - hungry, angry, lonely, tired.  When I'm vulnerable, I'm less likely to resist manipulation, because I don't have the energy to stand my ground against repeated verbal pressure. That's when I need to remove myself  - by leaving the room, and sometimes the house, even if all I do is wander outside to look at my garden.

For me, enabling has almost always been driven by fear - fear of financial insecurity, fear of what others may think, fear of the future. At some point in my recovery, I found that I can ask to have my fear removed, and it will be, as long as I am willing to also let go of the coping mechanisms which have arisen around that fear, and learn a new way to be. If I try to ask to have the fear removed without any willingness on my part to let go of old patterns of behavior, and old coping mechanisms, I will be asking again 5 minutes later, because I'm not doing my part.

 Fear used to make me angry, and in my anger I would lash out at the alcoholic, saying hurtful things, and blaming him for all the problems in our life.I wanted relief from the awful fear I felt, but I wasn't changing the way I behaved as I asked to have my fear taken. I didn't understand at that point, that to be at peace, I need to be loving. I can't get relief from my own fear while being mean to someone else.

As is the way with so many of these realisations I've been granted, on this side of it, I'm amazed that I didn't get it earlier. In effect, I was saying to my HP  "Please make me feel different, (no fear) while I do exactly what I've always done in this situation. (lash out in blame.) I would do it, make an amend, then do it again the next time. I didn't get the correlation between my unhappy feeling about behaving that way, and my fear about whatever it was. I always had a good reason for my behavior, and felt justified because if it weren't for the alcoholic, I wouldn't be feeling so awful. On this side of the realisation, I have discovered that the fear was a smaller part of my feeling that I had thought - distress about being a person who acted that way when she was afraid was the major part of it.

When I let go of who I have been, and try my best to be more loving, I feel better about myself. When I feel better about myself, fear doesn't have the same ability to grab me by the throat the way it once did. When I am more loving to others, I am more loving to myself. I pray to be always more loving.


  1. Just found your blog, I'm really looking forward to catching up with your posts. I have just over a year of sobriety, but am constantly working at the whole detaching with love thing. I too struggle with "helping" versus "enabling", so this was a timely and helpful post. Thanks! (I've added you to my Reader.)

  2. A good reminder about what fear will bring me to. My fear is about rejection and abandonment. I used to think that if I didn't do things for others (=enable), then I would not be loved. I'm glad to realize that love isn't based on what we do but what we feel.

  3. I also just found your blog and, as a total newbie to Al-Anon, am grateful for the chance to catch up on your posts and learn from your experiences. This post in particular really resonated with me since I'm at my ugliest when letting myself be ruled by fear.

  4. My sobriety date is 11/27/86. I have slipped into the "I'm beyond that" gully and need the wisdom of Al-Anon more than ever. My troubled adult son has returned home and I want to fix him. I am letting go, sorta! I know that he is on his path, not mine. Unfortunately, my righteous opinions are causing me internal pain.I hope and trust that the ancient truths of Al-Anon will free me again. I trust this blog. Thanks