Words matter. Words not only have meaning but they can elicit emotion, mood, memories, confidence or uncertainty. Words can also cause confusion when there is a lack of agreement about what the word means or whether or not it conjures up a positive or a negative image in our minds. I am taking issue with how the word enabling is used to describe behaviors of those of us who are the family and friends of persons suffering from addiction. I have witnessed a lot of disagreement about what is and what is not ‘enabling,’ in part, because the verb to enable is, by definition, positive. If you look it up, you will find definitions like ‘to make possible or easy.’ Examples of enabling will go something like ‘his donation enabled the university to build a new athletic facility,’ or ‘the scholarship enabled the student to complete her education.’ Synonyms for the word enable include empower, facilitate, invest, help, prepare, and make possible. How can any of these synonyms be interpreted as a negative? And therein lies the problem.
People seem confused when they are told that enabling is undesirable. So while the rest of the world views enabling as a good thing, the world of addiction treatment views it as a bad thing. When coping with addiction, loved ones are told that enabling means bailing someone out, denying them natural consequences, making excuses for them, covering up for the addict and sometimes even participating in illegal behaviors in order to shield the addict from legal consequences. In other words, there is no mention of empowering or facilitating.
In my view, the more precise description of what families do is engage in unsuccessful rescuing behaviors. The word rescue is defined as saving someone from danger or distress. Examples of rescue include things like ‘the fireman rescued the child from a burning house.’ While rescuing is also seen as something positive, unlike enabling, it implies that something bad is about to happen and happen soon. Rescuing, by its very nature, requires someone to be a victim of something ( a fire, a flood, an accident). We ‘enablers’ tend to see the addict as a victim. We often view them as helpless and we treat them as though they were helpless. We sense a looming danger and respond with unnecessary urgency. We are not thinking about causing something positive to happen; we are responding as though something really bad is going to happen. And we are convinced that, barring our intervention, it will happen sooner rather than later! There is nothing wrong with rescuing someone from a burning house. There is something wrong with rescuing someone when the house isn’t on fire. And there is something wrong with rushing into the burning house when there is no one in the house to be rescued. But that is what we do. We try to rescue someone who does not wish to be rescued from a danger that only we see. In fact, we spend a lot of time making up and playing out rescue scenarios in our heads. Our conversations are loaded with ‘what ifs.’ What if she doesn’t have insurance? What if he doesn’t have a place to stay? What if he gets mugged on his way to buy drugs? Hey, maybe I should drive him to pick up his drugs so that he will at least be safe in that drug infested neighborhood!
So here is my question: why do we do it? What makes us anticipate every misstep and plot and plan how we will circumvent all undesirable or dangerous situations? If we honestly assess our own history of rescuing behaviors, we might see a pattern that probably began long before our loved one started using drugs. Rescuing has its own rewards. Many professions attract people who are drawn to rescuing others (medicine, nursing, social work, fire fighting, etc.) I have heard these professions referred to as “helping professions.” Rescuing personalities can be found in relationships with an intimate partner, friends, colleagues, parents, children and siblings. Psychologists label people who display rescuing behaviors in relationships as having the ‘white knight syndrome.’ Mary C Lamia’s published an article in Psychology Today called ‘ Rescuing yourself from your need to rescue others.’ I found it very enlightening.
Here are some key points that I believe apply to those of us who enable/rescue the addicts in our lives. Lamia notes that people who rescue others generally have a consistent pattern in their rescue behavior. They will go from one relationship to the next playing the hero to someone they perceive as needing to be rescued. She says the repeated pattern on the part of the rescuer is an effort to repair a damaged sense of self that probably began in early childhood. She points out that, with time, the rescuer becomes disappointed in and critical of the person they are attempting to rescue. The rescuer generally ends up feeling powerless. Sound familiar? I can certainly see that pattern in my own rescuing attempts. Lamia doesn’t mention anger but, in my case, the critical me was definitely a version of the angry me.
If I look at my own family history, I wanted more than anything to be rescued from the suffering of my childhood. But no one ever materialized to rescue me. The damaging consequence to my sense of self was the agonizing fear that perhaps I didn’t deserve to be rescued. Perhaps I didn’t matter. For me, engaging in rescuing behaviors is about gaining control where I once had no control. It’s also about being in a unique position to try and orchestrate the outcome I longed for while growing up. It’s about seeing myself as a heroine rather than an undeserving victim.
Rescuing differs from enabling in one other important sense; it is dramatic. If nothing else, my childhood was dramatic. There is usually little that is dramatic in enabling; people don’t rush to witness an enabling event but they will come out in hoards for a rescue event. Families attending support groups perk up when someone begins to tell a dramatic story of their latest family saga. And rather than focus on how we intend to take care of ourselves, the group dynamic can quickly disintegrate into an interrogation of the person telling the story along with a plethora of unsolicited advice.
So the next time I am in a support group and someone starts talking about what their spouse or teenager did last weekend, I will try to focus on the person telling the story rather than the story. I will hold back on questions related to the story; I don’t need to feed into the drama. If I ask a question, I will ask a question about the story teller such as: “what are you doing to take care of yourself?” I will try to be aware of my own response to the story. Do I find myself kind of drawn to the drama? Is my mind racing with all kinds of ‘helpful’ suggestions? Am I looking for my white horse? Because if I am, I guarantee that I am not enabling recovery.