A pattern that often forms within a family system that has an addict is the desire to do for someone things that they could, and should be doing themselves; this pattern is called enable-ISM. Simply, enabling creates an atmosphere in which the alcoholic can comfortably continue their unacceptable behavior without any interference from the family. Enable-ISM can better be understood as the, I, SELF, ME syndrome.
Allow me to bring in an analogy here. When the human body receives an injury other parts of the body begin to naturally compensate, however if continued for a long period of time the whole body will eventually collapse in failure. A personal example from my life is when my son had surgery on his shoulder after playing years of baseball. His doctor explained to us that his muscles worked independently for years but were now unable to work for themselves. While this was the body’s way of assisting his injured area, after time his body’s continual “compensation” caused more harm than good. As a result of the prolonged compensation the muscles that naturally assisted eventually themselves begin to fail resulting in a complete collapse of the body! The same is true of addiction within the family system. I have found in my twenty six years of counseling both addict and their family that the addict's “muscle” is injured and in need of rehab. Unfortunately, the “injured” addict often does not receive rehab for their injured muscle in the early stages of the injury due to the tendency of families to “overcompensate” in support of the injured muscle.
In most situations, enable-ISM is practiced not for the benefit of the addict but the benefit of the family. Being an enabler makes the family feels better about themselves, much to the demise of the addict. This “I, Self, Me” behavior is a matter of the family overcompensating and attempting to fix the problem using faulty coping behaviors. These behaviors or practices are based on denial, control, and a feeling that if they do not control the situation it will all collapse. Usually by the time I become involved, the situation is already out of control and the family’s enabling behaviors are part of the problem not the solution.
Acceptance is the key to the problem. The family relays their Enable-ism and denial in order to minimize the seriousness of the illness that is affecting their loved one. The addicted person who does not want to accept that they are truly sick as a result of their Addiction-ism, denies and minimizes the seriousness of the illness. I believe that recovery works best when the family identifies that the problem of Addiction-ISM usually goes hand in hand with the problem of Enable-ISM.
The next step after acknowledging that role enable-ISM played in their disease of addiction-ISM is acknowledging that addiction will be overcome by the addicted, not the enabler. As a counselor I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had with families that have come to the place of acceptance of the problem while still refusing to acknowledge that it is the addict’s responsibility to acknowledge the serious nature of the illness for themselves. The muscle is THEIR muscle, not your muscle.
Denial, a part of the ISM, is seen as a major coping mechanism in both the addicted person and in the enable-ism behaviors of the family. Many of those who work in the mental health field have described denial as our “emotional immune system.” In times of great stress or trauma, the human can use a healthy form of denial to cope during the crisis. The problem becomes when denial is used as our primary coping tool. Or as the “go to” that automatically takes over in times of a great need for relief, such as the need to use drugs and alcohol. In the case of the family member it is the need to feel in control of the addict’s behaviors. The better we understand the need for an over developed denial system, the better we will be able overcome our need to control others. The following is a partial list of some of the most popular denial patterns from Terrance Gorski’s book Denial Patterns: Avoidance: “I will talk about anything but… “Minimizing: “My Problems aren’t bad!”Rationalizing: “I have good reasons!”Blaming: “It’s not my fault!”Comparing: “Showing others are worse” Compliance: “I will act as if!”Manipulating: “I admit I have a problem…but!”Flight into Health: “Feeling better now - I’m cured!”Recovery by Fear: I am scared sober!” Strategic Hopelessness: “Nothing works in my life!”
This only a partial list. And, there are many different combinations that allow these denial patterns to work together for those who have lived with addiction and have used these denial patterns many, many times. These belligerent denial patterns are all part of a kind of survival that becomes the only truth the addict and their family can rely on. This lie of belligerent denial must be reinforced over and over again to keep any form of a “normal” lifestyle in motion. The family system becomes very dependent on this denial, so much so, that they truly feel their world would collapse without it. We who work in the field of addiction understand the important of treating denial, we start looking at denial from the first contact to discharge. The problem with denial is that it is like trying to find the roots of a very out of control bougainvillea tree. Enable-ism cannot remain intact without denial and you cannot recover from enable-ism without dealing with denial in the family system.
Now that we have identified denial as coping mechanism we now need to look at how the family needs to resist the urge to overcompensate. What is meant by overcompensate the tendency to swing the other way and learn just enough about recovery to want to control their recovery. True recovery will not be experienced when overcompensating is present. In recovery, families and loved ones should come alongside the addicted, not try to control the addict! Release and resist that temptation for the sake of the full recovery of the one you love. The addict needs space to develop balanced along with a sense of self, apart from alcohol and family; that is healthy for the entire family system! For this balanced to be achieved the addicted person needs the space to stretch, exercise, and move without interference from the family body just beginning to realize the –ISM they too possess. So many families struggle the most with this step because there has been many years of over-reassuring in times of failure or stress and arranging, controlling all their child’s free time as well as their activities over the years. These well devolved patterns become the driving force behind enable-ism. When the newly recovering person is not allowed the space to stretch they began to atrophy, which will lead to a re-injuring or quite frankly; a relapse! The addict has to take the initiative and bear the majority of the responsibility to help them perceive the seriousness of their addiction and the same is true about the recovery. Written in the “AA book” is a letter from a noted physician of the day he wrote that; “Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol/drugs.” He further stated and I will paraphrase here, the sensation is so elusive that even through it causes pain in their life, they cannot after a time tell the difference between the truths and lies. The using life becomes the normal way to live! So, it stands that it will take time as well as trial and error to recovery from their illness. As stated before in the article, the muscle is THEIR muscle, not your muscle.
It is important to point out here that “you did not cause it, nor can you heal it and you definitely cannot control the rate of the injured person’s recovery.” After a time of self-reflection, resulting in a period of recovery, there will be many opportunities for the family to come together and share with each other all the new insights that have happened to each other as they have taken the time to focus on their healing. What appeared to be so hard to do will appear relatively simple when the family accepts that, ultimately, it is the “injured’s” responsibility for the maintenance of their recovery from addiction, and in turn, it is the family’s responsibility for the maintenance of their recovery from enable-ism.
Once the addicted person leaves the safety of rehab and moves either to sober living, back home or a college dorm, the family needs to understand that during the all-important first year of recovery, enable-ism with its patterns of denial and its problem of overcompensating can cause the family system to seek an unhealthy balance. This places them in the role of rescuer during sometimes difficult “life on life terms” situations that will come up in recovery. All need to use the time productively and allow the newly recovering person their time for self-reflection. It will then free up the time needed for the family to reflect on their new role in the family system as well.
In closing, when the family can reach a place (even in part) of accepting that the illness of addiction-should not be met with enable-ISM, then the road to full-person recovery truly begins. Families: my advice is to compensate with encouragement rather than overcompensate with control. The tough yet necessary realization that happens in recovery is coming to the conclusion that Enable-ism is part of the problem, not the solution!