Ask Paul at the RSIC: Enabling substance abuse creates a ‘cycle of hurt’ |

Ask Paul at the RSIC: Enabling substance abuse creates a ‘cycle of hurt’

By Paul Snyder | Special to First Nation's Focus
It’s important to understand the consequences of what enabling can do for those battling substance abuse.
Photo: Getty Images

Many times I hear from parents who are concerned about a loved one’s drinking alcohol or using other substances. I hear, “My son, spouse, nephew, or other family member has been out drinking again. He just won’t stop.”

I ask the parents how the loved one’s drinking or substance use has affected them and their family. They usually tell me sad and scary stories about how the person acted while under the influence.

I ask them how they felt and how they reacted to their loved one’s using behavior. Then I begin to hear about an enabling behavior. I hear examples like “he called at 2 a.m. and I picked him up and brought him home,” or, “he came home drunk, I put him to bed, made him breakfast in the morning, and gave him money because he was broke.”

The “Red Road to Wellbriety” refers to these parents as “enablers” and the substance user as the “identified patient.”

The cycle of hurt

The Elders call this a “cycle of hurt.” The identified patient is in a cycle of hurt caused by substance use, and the family members have joined in the cycle of hurt because they want to help him or her.

The enabler can usually tell me what the cycle of hurt looks like for the loved one — the progression of the substance use and amount of time the identified patient has devoted to either using the substance or recovering from its effects.

The enabler can recognize how the identified patient’s tolerance for the substance has grown. The enabler can see everything regarding the identified patient clearly, but can’t see anything about their personal behavior.

For example, the enabler’s tolerance has also grown, but they usually can’t see it. A family member may say she “really gave it to him” the first time the identified patient came home drunk. She yelled at him and grounded him for a week. He was so sorry and he even cried and said he’d never do it again.

Unfortunately, he did go out drinking again, even though he said he wouldn’t. Over time, the enabler begins to accept the identified patient’s behaviors, and normalize them. Now the enabler’s tolerance has grown.

What used to be considered intolerable behavior has become expected to the point that the enabler allows the person to go out drinking for days and will always take him in, feed him and even give him money! The enabler can only move toward change when he or she recognizes the behavior is actually helping the person continue to use substances.

The cycle of healing

In order to change, we look to the Elders’ wisdom and the Medicine Wheel “cycle of healing.” The Medicine Wheel shows us we always walk into the circle of healing as an individual (East).

After individual healing, our family (South) can heal, then our community (West) can heal, then our nation (North) can heal. The Medicine Wheel also helps us by showing us a “path to healing.”

We are told in order to change we first recognize (East) the problem, then we acknowledge (South) the problem, then forgive (West) what the problem has caused, and then change (North) our behaviors.

The “Red Road to Wellbriety” says, “In groups that support family and friends of alcoholics and addicts, you will learn that the alcoholic or addict is not the problem you need to work on. You need to work on yourself.”

To start working on one’s self, the enabler has to recognize they have no power or control over the substance user’s behaviors. They are, however, the most powerful person in their own world and are in complete control of all of their response to situations. This recognition of true, and honest power clears the path for creating a healthy family support system.

The enabler and family will also have many emotions that need to be addressed because of the identified patient’s behaviors while under the influence of substances. They usually have fear, anger, frustration, guilt and shame, to name a few.

The idea is to deal with these emotions, let them go, heal and be free of these burdens. Many times the enabler and family will see that by taking on the negative emotional burdens caused by the identified patient’s substance use, they are actually hurt more than the person using the substances!

Keep in mind the substance user doesn’t want to intentionally hurt the enabler or the family. A force of dependency that is very strong is controlling him. If people get hurt, that is an unintended consequence to him. The craving or urge for him to drink alcohol or use substances is very strong.

His compulsion to use or drink drives him to act against his core beliefs and values. He seems to turn away from his family, friends, and community without a second thought. This is called substance use dependency.

Recognizing the signs

Education on codependency and recognizing a dysfunctional family system is also beneficial for the enabler and family. The Red Road defines family roles and says that everyone in the family takes on certain roles to adjust to the person who is using substances to make the family appear normal.

The “Red Road to Wellbriety” asks if people can recognize any of these characters in the family:

  • The Alcoholic/Chemically Dependent is the identified patient. This person has the substance use problem.
  • The Enabler is a person who prevents the identified patient from experiencing the consequences of his addictive behavior unintentionally helping the person to continue using substances.
  • The Family Hero tries to make the family look good in the community by achieving success in school, work or other activities. The hero overachieves to make the family proud.
  • The Scapegoat diverts attention from the family’s problems by constantly getting into trouble. He provides distraction from the family or community’s disharmony.
  • The Lost Child tries not to make waves, becomes remote and invisible.
  • The Clown lessens tension in the community by being funny or cute as a distraction and to avoid conflict.
  • The Placator tries to reduce conflict by smoothing things over.

If a person recognizes any of these characters and/or behaviors in their family, it’s OK. Remember, the first step in changing is to recognize the problem. Now the family together can decide if they want to stay the way they are, or change. If they want to change, they can define what success looks like individually as well as a family.

There are many healthy roads and goals to take in life. When a person is being true to his core beliefs and values, not hurting anyone including himself, and is following the Red Road with a focus on health, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, he is on the path to health and happiness.

“Ask Paul” is a health column by Paul Snyder, MA, LADC-S, a Substance Use Counselor at the Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center. It publishes each month in The Camp News, the monthly newsletter for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony community. Have a question for Paul? Email him at