“I Know I’m Enabling But….” Recovery from Addiction in the Family

After working for nearly 25 years with the loved ones of people struggling with addiction, I’m still amazed by how many come to their first session with me and say “I know I’m enabling, but…”

Do you have an addicted loved one in your life? Are you already aware that you’re doing things you probably shouldn’t be doing, in the guise of ‘helping’ them?

And even if you’re not getting the results you’re hoping for, do you still continue to enable them anyway—often for way too long?

A logical question to ask yourself in a situation like this would be:

“Why am I doing this?”

The reality is that there are, in fact, a few answers to that question. The first reason may be that no one has ever told you what you could be doing instead. As a loved one, know that what you’re doing isn’t working; in fact, in most cases, the problems continue and just get worse over time. But if you don’t have a clue about what actually can work in these situations, you may be feeling very frustrated, helpless—and quite stuck.


A simple definition of an enabling behavior is one that will keep the addiction going. Here are a few examples:

* Each month, Randy gives money to his addicted sister because he fears that she won’t be able to buy food if he doesn’t—even though he knows that she spends the money he gives her on drugs. He’s even been known to drive her to the dealer to pick up her drugs. He tells himself, “At least I know that she’s safe here with me.”

* Julia pays her boyfriend’s rent when he’s lost all of his paycheck gambling at the casino. Sometimes that means she’s short of money herself when trying to take care of her own bills and other expenses—and she rarely receives a ‘thank you’ for her efforts. But she is stuck in fantasy thinking when she tells herself, “If I just love him enough, he’ll change.”

* At 35, Tess’s parents still allow her to live in the family home due to her longtime crack addiction and apparent inability to hold a job. They don’t set clear and appropriate boundaries about what is expected of her, so she brings sketchy people and illegal drugs into their home. Tess is often high while there, and she doesn’t contribute in any positive way, at times becoming quite abusive with her parents both verbally and physically. Her parents don’t feel they can ask her to leave—“What if we kick her out and she’s on the street?”

When this kind of enabling occurs on a regular basis, the loved ones lose their own sense of self-respect and the addict has no reason to do anything differently. The dysfunctional, addictive behaviors continue—because the most effective way to stop addiction is to stop the enabling that so often accompanies it.


Often, a major reason that loved ones of addicts use enabling behaviors is that they feel guilty about the addiction in the first place. If you’re like many loved ones, you may mistakenly think that you’re somehow responsible for the addict you love.

But you did NOT cause the addiction to happen. You may be contributing to it continuing, but you didn’t cause it. Even though no one chooses to become an addict (in fact, most addicts believe they’re ‘special’ and can handle addictive substances and behaviors without becoming addicted), there always comes a time when addicts know there’s something wrong and that they’re in trouble. It is at this point that they have a choice—to either remain in active addiction or to begin some type of active recovery.

Think about it this way—if addicts didn’t have this choice, then no one would be recovering. Millions of people are in recovery from addiction because they made the choice to stop hiding from reality by using a self-sabotaging behavior. As the loved one of an addict, you are NOT responsible for the choices the addict is making. If you feel you are contributing, then it’s your responsibility to change what you’re doing. And once you do that, you’ll feel far less guilt and a lot more self-respect.

Remember: You can’t change another person, but you can change yourself. It takes courage for you to look within and to do whatever you can to contribute to healthier ways of being the loved one of someone with an addiction.


Another reason that family and friends of addicts enable them has to do with codependency and people-pleasing, which I see as one and the same. If you are codependent, then you’re putting others’ needs ahead of your own on a fairly consistent basis. You may have convinced yourself that you’re doing this because you’re a ‘nice’ person—and please understand, I’m not suggesting you aren’t nice. But the truth is that you may have an ulterior motive for acting this way.

Let me explain…

The real reason codependent people say ‘yes’ when they really mean ‘no’—squashing down their own needs in the process—is usually because they are terrified of conflict and will do whatever it takes to avoid it, even when it means they lose their own self-respect in the process. Your need to people-please will have its roots in making sure there are no fights or disagreements—and this is because you’ve never really learned how to deal with other people’s anger or frustration or disappointment, especially when those are directed at you!

When codependents consistently do this, it can become an addictive behavior for them—and if you’re giving in to the addict you so dearly love and not setting effective boundaries, you are actually meeting your own needs, not theirs. An addict does NOT need to be allowed to get away with dangerous and disrespectful behavior. What an addict truly needs is firm, healthy boundaries with appropriate, self-respecting consequences attached to them.

And when you finally learn how to handle someone else feeling angry or disappointed with you, you will become emotionally free—which is a much healthier way to live!


In reality, addicts need their loved ones to make it as uncomfortable as possible for them to remain in their active addiction. If you have an addict in your life, this is actually the most loving thing you can do for them, because it holds them to a higher standard and encourages them to take responsibility for themselves. The more we inappropriately behave as caretakers for people who can—and should—be taking care of themselves, the less belief they’ll have in their own resiliency and capabilities. The addiction will go on and on, usually just becoming more entrenched over time because addiction is a progressive condition that needs to be halted. In other words, if you love an addict, you need to stop enabling their unhealthy life choices in order to see any meaningful change happen.

And if your addict is abusing mind-altering substances, you need to do this before he or she dies out there.

Of course, the problem is that when you, as a codependent people-pleaser, start setting boundaries and making things uncomfortable for the addict you love, you yourself will become extremely uncomfortable too. We use addictive behaviors of any kind to feel better, to remain comfortable. But as the saying goes, life begins at the end of our comfort zones and, as a loved one, you’ll need to be the change you want to see in this situation.

You’ll need to love your addict enough to say, ”I care about you so much that I’m not willing to support you in your active addiction anymore. I love you so much that it’s tearing me apart to watch you continue to hurt yourself like this—so if you really need to keep doing that, you’ll have to do it somewhere else. When you’re ready to be in some sort of active recovery, I’ll be happy to support you in that.”

Not only is this a loving act toward the addict in your life, it is also the most self-respectful stance you can take, because you will no longer allow yourself to be treated abusively.

Letting our addicted loved ones know that we care enough to want a healthier relationship with them is often enough for them to understand that we’re not trying to punish them by assertively maintaining our boundaries. It’s acceptable and appropriate for us to raise the bar and require more of them—just as we’re requiring more of ourselves.

That is definitely the best way to love the addict in your life.

If you’ve been enabling an addict—and I know that many of you are aware that you have been—please strongly consider changing some of your own dysfunctional behaviors so that you’re actually helping instead. The pay-offs of making that change could be amazing!

And remember: If not now, when?


12-Year-Olds Stabbing 12-Year-Olds: Are We Paying Attention Yet?

I read about this story early yesterday morning. And I thought about it often throughout the day, just shaking my head.

I seem to be doing that a lot lately—and I don’t like it.

But I have to admit, it took me a while before sitting down to write about this because I kept thinking to myself, “Should I write another piece that deals with the hideous violence we keep experiencing and hearing about day after day? What difference will it make if I do?”

Now, the last thing I want is to become jaded—as a therapist, I often hear stories from clients about what has happened to them, about the post-traumatic stress they deal with on a daily basis—and there are times when it makes my hair stand on end as I witness the viciousness they have endured in their lives. Sometimes that cruelty has come from their parents, sometimes from others who have been in positions of trust, sometimes from cyber-bullying that fuels their already shameful feelings about themselves. Life has not been easy for so many of us—and this is just our reality, I suppose. I do often wonder whether it really has to be this way, and how it can change. Sometimes I wonder if anything I do really helps anyone I’m trying to help. When I do see that I can contribute to the world in positive ways—that people feel even a little better after talking with me—I feel glad and grateful.

And then I read a story like this one, about two 12-year-old girls who—with deliberate premeditation—decided to repeatedly stab another 12-year-old girl they knew, with the intention of killing her.

And truly, I don’t know what to think—or even how to express my feelings about it.

Apparently, these girls were heavily influenced by a website they were into—one that I don’t even want to name here, just like I don’t want to keep naming the other killers who have betrayed us as a society in recent years, months, weeks, and days. This information is available if you want to Google it yourself—it’s not something I wish to perpetuate.

But I will say this—there is something really sick and twisted about the people who put up websites like this, and something very neglectful about parents who don’t take the time to know where their 12-year-old children are spending their time, both online and off. And yes, there are likely some mental health issues with these two girls—or maybe they are just by-products of a society that has become so full of these kinds of lurid influences that our children can so easily get their hands on.

Two 12-year-old girls wanted to kill another 12-year-old girl! Are we no longer shocked by this?

Will it just be that girl’s parents who will try—probably in vain like all the other parents whose children have been wounded and murdered—to get something done about this, to try to change something, somehow, so that no other children have to experience the misery their daughter is now going through?

I’m thankful that this girl didn’t die, but instead lived to name her attackers so that they could be brought to justice. But where is the real justice for the culture that enables these kids and contributes to them turning out like this? And even though the victim lived to tell about it—this time—I can’t even imagine what her life will be like going forward from something like this. I deeply hope she can get the ongoing help she will undoubtedly need, probably for a long time, to be able to recover from this both physically and emotionally, as fully as she possibly can.

I for one am totally enraged and sick of this ongoing violence. I wish I had answers for us about what to do about it. Maybe we need to revisit ‘freedom of expression’ on the Internet—but if I start talking about that, will I be the lone voice in the throngs of millions who will pooh-pooh what’s happened here as just a fluke, something that doesn’t happen very often?

But really, think about it. Isn’t one time too often?

It could have just as easily been your 12-year-old—daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece, friend, neighbor, student. I wonder what violent travesty we’ll be hearing about next.

Aren’t you as scared and sick of it as I am?

Yet Another Shooting Spree: Will This Madness EVER End?

I saw the news today—oh boy…

We are all shocked and outraged by Elliot Rodger’s shooting spree in Isla Vista, California—with 3 legally purchased handguns and over 400 rounds of ammunition. I can understand us being outraged—but shocked? Really??

Richard Martinez-May 26 blogTwo reasons we’re hearing so much about this shooting are: 1) the assailant’s father is the assistant director of the Hunger Games movies—unfortunately, a little celebrity seems to go a long way—and 2) the 22-year-old perpetrator was already known to have some pretty disturbing mental health issues and was well-known to police. But there he was, with legal guns and plenty of ammo. We are also being shown footage of the very irate and distraught Richard Martinez father of Chris, a boy slain by Rodger, loudly imploring, “WHEN ARE WE GOING TO END THIS MADNESS??”

I’d like an answer to that too.

How long will it take before we all truly, deeply understand that because of lax gun laws all over our planet, this could happen without any warning to anyone at any time—the next time, when we least expect it, could be you or me or someone we love. Why is it only the parents and other loved ones of those killed by this creepy ongoing asinine insanity who are coming forth and asking the right questions?

How many more times DOES this have to happen? Why do we not understand that the politicians we elect, whose often outrageous salaries WE pay for, need to be responsible for holding the bad guys accountable. And that maybe the ‘bad guys’ are not only the ones who shoot, maim, and kill innocent people, but are also the ones who refuse to stop playing political nicey-nice with organizations like the US’s NRA.

Sometimes I feel like we’re living in the Wild West all over again, all over the world. Shootings and stabbings happen all too often where I live in Vancouver, as well as other parts of Canada, too. Shortly after I heard about Rodger’s coldly premeditated murder spree on the news again tonight, I saw a commercial featuring a small child at a music recital playing the violin off-key while proud parents looked on. I started to wonder what could happen at such a gathering if someone had a gun and just simply didn’t like the way the child was playing. It boggles the mind.

Some of you might say, “Oh come on, Candace, don’t be ridiculous—that would never happen!” But who ever thought Sandy Hook would happen? Who ever thought a crazy man dressed as the Joker would open fire at a movie theatre? Or that a University of Calgary student would stab 5 other students to death, just… because… ?

Memorial-May 26 blogSo—is it really going to take someone we love being stabbed or shot, injured or killed before we truly take this seriously? Is this how we really want to live?

Can we stop wringing our hands long enough to actually develop some workable strategies about what we can collectively do about this? Or do we all just passively hope and pray that today isn’t our day to die—or to find out that someone we love just has? How much more societal enabling do we have to put up with before we figure out a way to come together and stop the insanity?

AA Agnostica: Alternative Steps for Recovery from Addiction

I’ll always be grateful to 12-Step programs. Along with some other amazing Earth Angels that came into my life just at the right time, I credit 12-Step meetings for quite literally saving my life.

Twenty-seven years ago, in the Springtime when many things begin to change and grow, I reached quite a low bottom with my drug addiction. From the time I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 1973, I began faithfully using the prescriptions given to me by my doctors: medications like Valium, Codeine, and Demerol, as well as the marijuana I chose to smoke daily to offset both the pain and the shame of dealing with an increasingly debilitating inflammatory bowel disease. Nearly 15 years later, in 1987, I was so depressed and sick that I had become suicidal.

Life was definitely not a party for this isolative, shame-based addict.

When I began going to Narcotics Anonymous, I was willing to do “whatever it takes” (to quote their literature) to become healthier. I wasn’t sure what recovery would look like for me, but it had to be better than the active addiction I’d been in for so long. A shy introvert, I gratefully met like-minded people who told me to “keep coming back”—something I’d never been invited to do in my family of origin. I made friends and went to lots of meetings in a variety of 12-Step fellowships—in fact, recovery from addiction has been my life’s work ever since.

But somehow I never felt completely at home there—as much as I deeply yearned for just that. When I look back, I think this had to do with not being able to be entirely honest about something quite important to me…

I have long been fascinated with all things spiritual. I recall reading both “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse and the Bible when I was 11 years old, while most of my peers were still playing with Barbies. But I have never considered myself to be a religious person—the Judeo-Christian concept of “God” that I’d been taught about as a child always seemed to be too small for the amazingly vast cosmos that is the Universe. And I certainly didn’t see God, whatever it was, as a masculine Him.

As a result, I found the wording of several of the 12 Steps problematic. When I raised that issue with some of my newfound friends in the program, I was told that I could have any Higher Power I wanted. I recall one person telling me my HP could even be a doorknob.

A doorknob??

12632923_sMuch of the Christian concepts and language in the 12 Steps didn’t work for me, and I remember sitting in meetings inwardly trying to change the wording when the Steps were recited—as they were in every group, at least once. And when I told someone I was doing that, inside myself, I remember being criticized and told that I had to say the Steps exactly as they were written. The shame of that scolding burned for some time in my sensitive psyche. I stopped talking about it and just tried my hardest to fit in—just like many people do in those meetings, especially as newcomers.

The real problem, as I understand it today, is the very dogma of the program that stipulates that the Steps must—to this very day in 2014—continue to be read, recited, and studied with exactly the same wording with which they were developed way back in 1935 by two financially well-off white Christian males. The needs of a vast part of our addicted population have changed dramatically since then—but we’ve basically been shamed into maintaining the 12 Steps exactly as they were originally written, complete with ‘shortcomings’ and ‘defects of character’—concepts I also had trouble with. Times have changed substantially since 1935, but the Steps haven’t.

At least, not until recently.

I’m discovering that we now have a number of wonderful alternatives, for those who are seeking something different. Some very courageous addicts in recovery have formed groups based on a variety of 12 Steps that do not follow religious language. These Steps are available on the website “AA Agnostica,” and these alternative groups have been growing in number due to the desire of many recovering addicts to be more spiritually honest in the programs they work and the language they use.

I know that many people have no problem at all with the fact that the Steps have remained the same as they were in 1935, using religious language. If the original 12 Steps are a fit for you, then there is no reason for you to change anything. But for those of you who are looking for something different, I suggest that you check out these alternatives. I wish these groups had been around while I was attending 12-Step meetings for the first 5-10 years of my recovery—and I’m very glad to know that they’re here now.

You can read more about this here: http://aaagnostica.org/alternative-12-steps/

Whichever set of Steps you choose to use, I wish all of us in active recovery another 24 hours of abstinence from our addictive behaviors, one day at a time. May God, Goddess, Creator, Great Spirit, Higher Power, Universal Force—or whatever name feels right for you—be with us always!

More Violence—Over a 22-Cent Soda Tax! Whaaat???

This morning I heard about a man who was upset about having to pay a 22-cent tax on his bottle of soda.

In a Chicago convenience store, he began to rant and rave about it before pulling a submachine gun out of his satchel. He threatened to kill everyone in the store, also telling a few customers that he was going to shoot each of them several times in the head. The whole incident was caught on the store’s surveillance cameras. Thankfully the police arrived in time to subdue him.

Later it was discovered that the gun had five live rounds of ammunition in one magazine, eight in another, and one in the chamber. It’s an absolute miracle that no one was hurt—not physically, at least—although I imagine that the emotional trauma this incident caused those who were there was mammoth.

It was because of a soda tax—this time. What do you suppose it’ll be about next time—maybe a broken shoelace? Will you be in the place where it happens next time?  Will your children? What about your spouse, your friends, your neighbour?

Ok, I know what some of you are going to say—that this was one isolated incident; that this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often and not in OUR town; that statistically violence is down and why am I worried about this anyway? Believe it or not, in my other recent blog posts about violence in schools (specifically in Pennsylvania and at the University of Calgary), I actually have had some people leave comments like that. Another guy sent me a detailed email with specific links telling me that there is no scientific proof that violence in the media contributes to the blatant and very disturbing violence we’re seeing all around us—even in convenience stores now because someone with entitlement issues happens to be disgruntled about a soda tax.

Basically the email sender was telling me that because scientists have not come up with any definitive links to what’s going on, I should stop having the (very strong) opinion that the violence we and our children are subjected to in the media, all around us every single day, is influencing the violence we’re seeing more and more of in our world—and that I should stop seeing all of this as a big deal. As a friend of mine likes to say, “There are no right answers to the wrong questions.”

And my answer to these kinds of rational lies is, “So what?”

So what if there is no scientific proof? Do we, as a general public, understand that the scientific community is often far behind when it come to our safety issues? (Do GMO’s ring a bell? What about the fact that there isn’t a cure for cancer yet?) Why do we have to take the word of a scientist—or the word of a guy who takes the word of a scientist as some kind of gospel—when we can very easily see exactly what’s happening?

How much more of this lunacy are you willing to put up with? How much longer do you want to be scared of going to buy something at 7-11, or attending a house party as a celebration of a wonderful event, or sending your children and grandchildren off to school each day? This horrible violence is bound to happen again, somewhere else, today or tomorrow, maybe in my neighborhood or yours—how can any of us think it won’t?

And we’re supposed to wait around for a scientist to make a link between violence on the street and violence in the media? Or maybe we’re waiting for ‘someone else’ to do something about all of this, so that we don’t have to get involved. How much more denial can we possibly be in?

Let’s remember that if we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. If we don’t take a united stand—NOW—in whatever ways each of us can, we will truly have no one to blame but ourselves.