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Addiction & Treatment

Enabling and Tough Love

In keeping with the idea of mislabeling relationships, we must consider the next 2 myths of the recovery society: the "enabler" and the concept of "tough love. " Let's begin with the enabler theory. Enabler is defined as "one that enables another to achieve an end; especially:  one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior (as substance abuse) by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior. "

The idea of enabling a substance user implies that one individual has some level of control over another's actions and behaviors; that one individual by their own actions is partly responsible or is to blame for the substance use habit of another. The implication is that a person, let's say a mom with a son who uses heroin, wants their son to be happier — in this case by providing resources and affection while her son continues to use heavily — and that somehow by providing resources and affection contributes to the son's destructive habit. But does it? Is it assured that by cutting off resources to the son (the opposite of enabling called "tough love") that the son will stop using?

The BRI researchers spent many years witnessing both sides of these issues — enabling and tough love. They saw moms, dads, employers, etc. , cut off funding and emotional support because they were told by addiction professionals and therapists alike that this would force their user to "hit bottom" and make a reduction in their use more likely. Some parents took this advice and kicked their kids out of their houses, cut off funds, etc. , and then hoped for the best. The results were mixed. Many unfortunately saw their kids descend further into heavy use as they moved away from the enabler's resources. Others watched their children change for the better because it was too difficult for the user to continue their use without the financial and logistical resources provided by their parents. In these particular cases, other more productive alternative choices to using substances seemed the better route for the user. So in some cases, providing this "tough love" seemed to improve the situation, while in others it didn't. Some even died from overdose or other collateral damage of the substance use lifestyle. So there seemed no sensible hard and fast rule, nor any reliable pattern to look at and say that enabling was bad or that it was good, or that tough love does or does not make sense.

As the years passed and the BRI researchers listened to the "enablers'" thousands of personal accounts, some clarity began to emerge. It took many years, but the awareness of the existence of personal autonomy became a vital piece of information that would shed light on how effective (or ineffective) enabling and tough love tactics really were.

Only individuals can create lifestyle changes in themselves. That's autonomy in a practical nutshell. Autonomy makes enabling a mythical problem and tough love a mythical solution to a non-existent problem. When the dust settles, the only person we can change is ourselves; the only one to blame for the user's use is the user. In other words, try as she might, a mom has little influence in making a son not want to use heroin by employing tough love tactics, or making him want to continue his use by providing comfort and resources as the enabling theory states. There are 2 reasons for this impotence.

First, the separation of minds as represented by autonomy is the first hurdle that is impossible to bridge when attempting to force change on another human being. Secondly, making things harder for the son does not always initiate positive change. Rather, in some scenarios it has the opposite effect, with the son feeling deprived of the valuable things he wants and may need to live comfortably. Consequently, the one known avenue of happiness he knows best (heroin) becomes an even more attractive option. This is not to say that taking away resources from someone who squanders them as they descend into heavy use is necessarily bad or wrong or inherently ineffective either. In some cases, it is just what is needed to build a foundation for positive change. With that said, the "enabler" will never really know which tactic will work at the onset because the user's autonomy makes their thoughts, wants and desires private, and no one but the user will ever know what is going to provide the happiness they crave. So in the last analysis, both enabling and tough love are tactics of coercion that are based on guesswork of what the enabler or person levying tough love thinks might force change.

The theory of enabling blames the mother for the son's continued use if she continues her financial and emotional support, and thus, places the responsibility for the son's decisions about use on the mother's decision not to bite the bullet and cut off resources. Little emphasis is placed on the FACT that the son is solely responsible for his actions, thoughts, desires, drives and appetite for heroin. The idea that the mother's decisions are to blame for the son's drug appetite, or that her decision to withhold resources is the source of the son abstaining or reducing his use is fictional. We are dealing with a son's appetite for happiness through drugs competing with a mother's hope for her son to no longer want drugs. And neither view is right or wrong.

Labeling the mom as an enabler gives her power she does not and cannot ever possess! For example, if the mom makes excuses for her son's poor performance at work (because he was high) this fact alone does not interfere with her son's autonomous ability to change these behaviors at work. Those are his decisions. He can take the excuse his mother provides, use it to his drug-taking advantage and continue to use, or he can choose something different at any moment in time. Both options exist because free will exists as does his ability to choose for himself. That is the real crime in the enabling charade — that somehow a mom's decisions for her son makes the son somehow unable to choose for himself. If that were true, autonomy would not exist, nor would the son ever be able to outgrow his appetite for drugs. He would always be in need of direction and coercion by his mother on all things.

The addiction professionals cannot have it both ways: they cannot say that on the one hand the son needs to man-up and become responsible and get sober, and on the other hand say that the mom's actions are so powerful that she is to blame for his continuing addiction. This tactic; of connecting mom's choices to "enable" her son's continuing use, ignores personal autonomy. It literally is saying that one human is the puppet of the other. But we know this is not the case, because we know the son uses for his own reasons, and the mother wants him to stop for her own reasons.

BRI researchers began to look at the reality of autonomy and the idea that in most cases they observed mom's wishes for her son to stop using were not shared by the son. This may seem obvious, but to our culture it seems a total mystery. Based on the fact that the son's heroin appetite was driven by his personal desires, and that "tough love" coercion gave such unreliable results, BRI researchers began presenting ways for each party to move forward. This was accomplished by abandoning the tough love and enabling labels, and emphasizing the power of autonomy and individual free will, and the drive for greater happiness, which would eventually become the "Positive Drive Principle" in 2015. The researchers focused on the individuals' wants and needs, rather than focusing on trying to have each party please each other by insincerely acquiescing to the other party's wants and demands. Autonomy was given its rightful place in the process — front and center!

The mother was presented with the idea that she was able to control her life, her wants, her desires for her satisfaction and happiness. If she was tired of her son wasting her time, her money, and her emotional well being, she could always limit his effect by making some hard decisions to create space between her and him. Whether or not this would have a positive effect on him seemed to be a 50/50 proposition. But one thing was assured, when she made the decision for HERSELF, she could find some peace within HERSELF. This works in the other direction as well. If the mother felt it best to live with the illusion that she could keep her son safe at home (while he continued to use) and wanted to continue to support him, she made this decision for HERSELF. She might have believed in the illusion that she was safeguarding him, and that illusion, in some cases, brought the mother happiness. Sometimes the cruel reality of overdose at home would shatter this illusion, but many parents picked this option so they could feel they were better parents. The point, and it's a big one, is the only person who has the power to change is the individual, himself or herself, and our influence in changing other's habits is actually nonexistent. Baldwin researchers discovered that all decisions at their core were designed to bring happiness to the SELF first, and then possibly may have resulted in happiness in the other party. With the illusion of control through coercion (in both enabling and tough love) now no longer being encouraged and supported, both parties were able to do what they wanted, how they wanted, and for the reasons they wanted, all for themselves and out in the open with honesty. What looked like selfishness initially was actually promoting a process that reflected reality, encouraged independence and mutual respect, and did so regardless of the choice to use or not to use.

As for the meaning of enable, Merriam-Webster got it right on its first definition "one that enables another to achieve an end..." However, the second definition by Merriam-Webster "one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior (as substance abuse) by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior" is simply wrong.

This second definition may have been the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous or fashioned out of the judgmental needs of drug and alcohol treatment professionals, in the late 1970s or perhaps the 1980s. Only those with a specific self-interest would make a 500 year old word that is fundamentally positive, "one that enables another to achieve..." into a word that is so negative: "...enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior..." Again, BRI researchers concluded that no one ever "...enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior..." Everyone who engages in self-destructive behavior is behaving self-destructively because they, themselves, are choosing their own self-destructive behavior. The word "enabler" when used to mean enabling another to persist in self-destructive behavior is wrong for two reasons. First, it is wrong to imply enablers have any responsibility for the behaviors of their drug or alcohol user counterparts. Second, it is wrong because it provides drug and/or alcohol users with an excuse to transfer, in part or in whole, the responsibility for drug and alcohol users' objectionable behavior to someone other than themselves. Despite contemporary thinking on the subject, no one continues to use alcohol or any other drug because they are enabled by someone else. All drug and alcohol users use for one reason, and one reason only; it makes them relatively happy (even if it is only a momentary happiness).

Furthermore, there are far, far more drug and alcohol users that continue to use drugs and alcohol quite without the aid of "enablers. " Over the years, the vast majority of drug and alcohol users interviewed by BRI researchers did not have "enablers. " Some were prostitutes. Some lived in the street and collected bottles and cans to sell the next morning to get their bottle. Many were responsible adults and adolescents that were already independent individuals without a need or want for the excuse making that was typical of the enabler relationship. The vast majority of drug and alcohol users are people who have no need for enablers, i.e. they choose their drug and alcohol behaviors. They feel no obligation to explain their behaviors, and they know what they have to do to continue their behaviors, and they do it.

BRI's researchers, for more than two decades, have listened and empathized with hundreds of drug and alcohol users' family members and friends who agonized over their own behaviors because Alcoholics Anonymous and drug and alcohol treatment professionals labeled their behaviors as that of an "enabler. " Was this labeling done to help the family member or friend? Most certainly not! This label, "enabler," was created to increase attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous' Al-anon meetings which is a source of revenue for Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. , and the label "enabler" was adopted and promoted by the drug and alcohol treatment industry because it created a new class of people for the industry to treat (the Family Program), thereby increasing the industry's revenues. Alcoholics Anonymous and the drug and alcohol treatment industry are populated by people that have, at one time or another, used drugs and/or alcohol to their detriment. As if these users haven't done enough to create misery and chaos in the lives of those around them and those who love them. Once these users become involved with Alcoholics Anonymous and/or the drug and alcohol treatment industry, these reformed users label the very people who helped them survive with the negative label, "enabler. "

"Tough Love," too, is an outgrowth of drug and alcohol treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous. "Tough love" is defined as "love or concern that is expressed in a strict way especially to make someone behave responsibly..." As we explained earlier, tough love is a strict way to force someone to behave according to what someone else has determined to be responsible. While this negatively implied definition fits the usage by Alcoholics Anonymous and drug and alcohol treatment professionals, it is certainly possible that this definition is the antithesis of its actual meaning. Consider that the word tough has several meanings, one of them being "strong enough to survive difficult times. " Tough love, then, means a love that is "strong enough to survive difficult times. " Now, that sounds very loving, but that is not the central tenet. Inasmuch as, "tough" is merely an adjective used to modify the subject noun "love," it is love that is the central tenet.

What, then, is love? If we look again at the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "love" is "a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person" and further, it is an "attraction that includes sexual desire" and "the strong affection felt by people who have a romantic relationship. " BRI researchers agree with the idea that love can be "a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person. " As for the idea that sexual (romantic) desires can be a cognitive element of love is to misunderstand the very existence of love. Consider that sexual (romantic) desires are separate and distinct emotions apart from love. Many times when two people are in love with each other, they are also sexually attracted to each other, such as couples engaged to be married. On the other hand, there are relationships that are based on sexual attraction and that are devoid of love, as it is with one-night stands, i.e. casual sex. Thus, sexual attraction is not necessarily a component of love. The word love conjures up other words, like adore, smitten and devotion.

Over the years the feeling of love has been trivialized by loving things. People say: I love my car; I love my house; I love fishing; I love golf, I love music, I love my job and so on. Consider a mother holding and feeding her three month old at two AM. As she looks at her baby, her heart stirs, and she and baby, for a brief moment, become one, again, cocooned in the mother's love. Is this like loving a car? Does this have anything to do with sex? And, what about the father that makes his weekly trek to visit his 18 year old who is in jail for drug possession? As the visiting hour draws to a close he kisses and hugs his child, not wanting to ever let go. Then, as he makes his way home, leaky tear ducts overwhelm him, as he remembers a time when he could fix whatever went wrong, but now he can't even fix his own broken heart. Is that like loving golf? Then there is the couple married for fifty-eight years with the husband in an intensive care bed. His wife leans over him and whispers, "Don't die on me now. "  He rallies, "Don't be frightened, my darling — it's ok. I have to leave now so I can go on loving you throughout all eternity." Is that like loving music?

Clearly love is not about things, activities or sex — it is only about human existence. And, because love is about human existence, it must never be trivialized. After all, love, in its purest form, is the Alpha and Omega of human happiness. A person who is loved or loves is happy. It is impossible to separate one from the other. Except for tough love that is being strong enough to survive the certain ups and downs of life, the phrase "tough love" as used by Alcoholics Anonymous and the drug and alcohol treatment professionals is not just wrong, it's oxymoronic.

Further, the arguments against Alcoholics Anonymous' and the drug and alcohol treatment professionals' "tough love" has been around for a few thousand years. Paul the Apostle, a hopeless romantic and philosopher, wrote:Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. " "Tough love" as used by Alcoholics Anonymous and drug and alcohol treatment professionals is, in fact, the antithesis of what love is and must be. After studying thousands of drug and alcohol users and their families for more than two decades, few ever benefited from "tough love" as advocated by Alcoholics Anonymous and the drug and alcohol treatment industry.
Tough love is manipulation based on the idea that one being can control another under the guise of love.

Consider that family members, for love, frequently come to the aid of their drug or alcohol user to protect the user from the consequences of his or her behavior. A well meaning friend of the family, who is a drug and alcohol counselor, tells the family members that they, the family members, are contributing to their drug and alcohol user's continued use. The counselor tells the family members that they are enabling their drug and alcohol user; the family members and friends have become "enablers. " The family members and friends understand the accusation, but decide to stay the course. Surprisingly, approximately 30% of substance users or more stop using on their own; many simply "outgrow" their drug and/or alcohol habit. However, the most likely outcome is the user continues to use and continues to demand a disproportionate share of the family's resources. In this case the family simply grows accustomed to the user's behavior, and the family members live out their lives with the family's drug and/or alcohol user using.

But suppose the user dies from an overdose, a hotshot or cirrhosis? Perhaps the family members are at peace with their decision to maintain a loving, caring relationship with their user, never causing conflict about the user's pursuit of happiness. Or, perhaps the family members remember the ominous warning from years before that the family members were enabling their user to continue using. Some or all of the family members may remain secure in their decision not to interfere in their loved one's choice to live life as a user, but some or all may reflect on the advice of their counselor friend from years before and become overwhelmed with guilt, thinking "If only we had listened and acted on the advice, maybe our beloved user would still be with us. And maybe instead of enabling, we should have been disabling, i.e. as a family doing everything possible to try to force our loved one to stop. " Attempting to disable a user's using is Alcoholics Anonymous' and the drug and alcohol treatment professions' technique of "tough love. "

In a different scenario, this same family, out of love, always comes to the aid of their drug or alcohol user, protecting the user from consequences of the his or her behavior. A well meaning friend of the family, who is a drug and alcohol counselor, tells the family members that they, the family members, are contributing to their drug and alcohol user's continued use. The counselor tells the family that they are enabling their drug and alcohol user and advises them that the user needs tough love. The family members understand the advice and decide that tough love for their user will solve their user's drug and/or alcohol use problem. The way this tough love tactic works is the family members agree to slowly (sometimes not so slowly) and methodically withdraw resources, and eventually affection, from the user until the user stops using. Or stated another way, until the user behaves the way the family has decided is appropriate. Keep in mind that there are no credible studies substantiating that this technique works.

At any rate, the family begins their venture into the unavoidable conflicts of tough love. The theory of tough love that is deprivation changes behavior. Usually, loved ones and/or friends begin by depriving users of financial help. Other deprivations include: transportation, housing, food, clothing, creature comforts, social interaction, and eventually love. The family members and friends explain to the user that they are depriving the user of these things "out of love," but from the user's perspective, it sure doesn't feel like love. Users recognize it for what it actually is: punishment for the user's behavior that is contrary to what family and friends consider appropriate. As deprivations increase, the bonds with the user's family and friends decrease, i.e. the user grows farther and farther away from those who used to be close to the user, so the user seeks out new and less judgmental relationships. As ties to family and friends erode, it might become less likely that the user will stop using and the user's life might then be shortened by accident, disease or suicide. Most certainly, using drugs and alcohol has consequences, but amplifying and adding to these consequences by family and friends does not always push the user in the direction that was intended. With that said, continuing to feed the user with resources does not always guarantee good results either. Again, it's a 50/50 proposition. No one can really give advice here especially not a third party.

So what's the answer? Honesty! No one knows what's in your mind and heart but you, and no one really knows the emotional connection between the mind and the heart, but as humans we have all felt the effects. Then again, maybe it's not the heart; maybe it is something around the heart. Consider some of the common words we use to describe certain emotions: heartbroken, heartache, lighthearted, heartfelt and so on. While these feelings of the heart report on our emotional wellbeing, these feelings in our core often indicate whether our thoughts are right or wrong for us. For example, we may say, "That just doesn't feel right," or "I'm not comfortable with that. " All emotions and feelings are conversations with our heart. Our heart (or the core of our being) is our repository for honesty and truth. So when we are trying to decide what is an appropriate way to help our alcohol and/or drug user, whom we love, it is best not to take advice from others, but listen to our own hearts. Whatever choices you, personally, are comfortable with are just as effective (maybe more so) than anything the treatment professionals, Alcoholics Anonymous or any other outside parties have to offer, including such nonsense as not enabling and practicing tough-love.

Be honest with your loved one. Say what is in your heart. If you chose to supply your drug and/or alcohol user with financial help, then do so. But do so cheerfully because you know in your mind and heart it is really what you chose to do. Conversely, if it upsets you to give your drug and/or alcohol user money, then don't do it. The key is to be honest. For example, don't tell your drug and/or alcohol user that you just don't have the money to give when you know in your heart that you could give the money. You might tell your drug and/or alcohol user that you do not want to give him/her money because it is just contributing to his/her demise. Whatever you do, make certain it is what you are freely choosing to do and if you are not freely choosing to do it, then don't do it.

Also, if the decision to continue providing resources isn't working, it is okay to try something different. Try out the idea of withholding resources if you think it can influence change. The point is, you can change tactics and see what works for you and for them. Ultimately, you are just trying things to see what sticks. Also, don't feel guilty should you decide to withhold resources. If you do that and that decision makes your life better, and you have tried everything else, and those options haven't worked, well then it makes sense to try something new. The point is, as a loved one you are not required to stay in a state of collateral damage by continuing to stay involved with an active user. You have a right to a peaceful life without the craziness of a substance user's issues.

Don't lose site of the fact that this person, your drug and/or alcohol user, is your family member, perhaps a son or a daughter, husband or wife, mother or father, a grandparent or maybe a close personal friend. Don't allow some third party, like a counselor, therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist and the like, to tell you how you should interact with your family and friends. Do what you think is best for you and then your loved one.