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Living with someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, who is morbidly obese or suffers from an eating disorder, who is a compulsive hoarder, gambler, or shopper, or who has some other serious behavior problem is in some ways worse than having the problem yourself. The addicted person at least gets the temporary satisfaction from indulging in their compulsion, while the family members get no relief. The addiction is an escape. Family members are forced to clean up the mess.
This can be even more difficult for conscientious Christians. While some people choose to walk away from the addicted, a Christian feels an obligation to remain faithful. And what is worse, the addicted are masters at manipulation. They use every trick in the book to continue on their self-destructive course. They lie, cheat, steal, break promises, and betray those trying to help them. If family members refuse to give in to their unreasonable demands, the addicted often retaliates with unjust accusations; “You don’t love me,” “You aren’t being Christian,” “You aren’t an obedient wife,” “You are a mean parent.”
Family members of the addicted are all too often trapped into the role of enabler. The mother of an obese child doesn’t want to make her child unhappy, so she serves up food he likes. The wife of an alcoholic allows him to drive drunk because she doesn’t want to get into a fight. Parents protect children caught with drugs and in the process prevent them from facing the consequences of their behavior.
Enablers allow the addicted to continue indulging in addictive behavior while avoiding the effects of their actions.
Those who deal with the various forms of addiction know that in order to change, the addicted need to “hit bottom,” to recognize that their lives have become unmanageable and they need help from a power greater than themselves. Enablers protect the addicted from the consequences of their actions and thus prevent them from hitting bottom.
Enablers are often so caught up in the problems of the addicted that they fail to see the negative effects of their own actions. They need as much help to change their behavior as does the addicted. Fortunately, there are a number of groups -- such as ALANON, a group for families and friends of alcoholics -- that provide such help.
If you are living with a person who is addicted to drugs, alcohol, food, compulsive shopping, gambling, or hoarding, has an eating disorder, or serious mental problem, you need help.
First, pray, not just that the alcoholic will drink a little less, or the drug addict will not be caught, but for a total healing. Pray that you will find the right group, program, or therapist to help you stop enabling. Unfortunately, not everyone understands how to combine Christian faithfulness with tough love. Pray that you will come to realize that your behavior has become irrational and you need help.
Second, get help. If you are going to stop enabling, you need support. Watching the addicted hit bottom is painful and the temptation to rush in and rescue them is very powerful. You need to surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth and keep telling you until you believe it. You need people who understand what you are going through and won’t judge.
Third, put into practice what you learn. If you slip back into enabling, begin again. After years of being manipulated, it is hard to stand up to the addicted. It is hard to just say no. Remember real love is tough love.
The serenity prayer should be your guide.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Eventually you will come to accept that you can’t change the addicted, you can only put them in God’s hands and He loves them more than you do. You can’t even really change yourself; you can only surrender and let God change you. When you have acquired this wisdom, you will find serenity no matter your situation.
Dale O’Leary is an internationally recognized lecturer and author of “The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality.”