Excuses and Enabling

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Enabling behavior is born out of our instinct for love.   It’s only natural to want to help someone we love, but when it comes to certain problems — helping is like throwing a match on a pool of gas.


I have been thinking about this a lot lately.  Addiction runs in my family.  It runs in my husband’s family as well.  While my own father’s drinking problem did not begin until after I was out of the house and married, I was still profoundly affected by his alcoholism.  My late father in law was also an alcoholic.  Our mothers constantly made up excuses for them.  None of us believed the excuses, but our politeness required us to play along.  We enabled the enablers.

It got bad.  Both of our father’s hit their all-time high (or low, depending on how you look at it) when our daughter Grace was in the hospital.  Imagine a drunken grandpa carrying a rocking chair through a large university hospital and arguing with a nurse at the door of the neonatal intensive care unit when he was not allowed to present it to his new granddaughter.  The stress of our dying daughter pushed both of our fathers to the edge.  Our mothers, instead of keeping them away from our already horrible situation, plastered smiles on their faces, rolled their eyes, made excuses, and pretended that our fathers were not sloshed.

Of course, I have forgiven my dad.  That was years ago, and Dad is gone now, too.  He died on the anniversary of little Grace’s death.  I often think of them together now.  I was able to forgive my dad, because he recovered.  He made amends.  He allowed me to vent.  During my dad’s six-weeks of inpatient treatment, almost 20 years ago now, I confronted him about the many ways his drinking had harmed me.  I had refused to attended family therapy with he and my mother.  I had divorced myself from their problems.  I was pregnant and taking care of two little boys at the time.  I wanted/needed to concentrate on my own family, not my parents’ continuing issues.  I didn’t participate in their counselling sessions.  Instead, I wrote my dad a letter and gave it to his therapist.  The therapist didn’t think my dad would recover.  His words:  “Your dad is full of bullshit.  He thinks that he’s more intelligent than everyone here.  He thinks he can bullshit his way through recovery, get back out, and go back to hiding his problem.”  As I have gone through my dad’s belongings, I have expected to find that letter.  So far, though, it has not surfaced.

Thankfully, that therapist was wrong.  My dad did recover.  He helped many, many others find their way to sobriety, too.   One of the happiest-saddest-most profound-most comforting moments of my life was at my dad’s funeral.  As I stood at the head of his casket greeting those who had come to pay their respects, one person after another whispered in my ear, “I knew your dad from Tuesday nights.”  Some of them knew him from his Thursday night meetings.  Some of them showed me their AA coins discreetly as they passed by.  They loved him.  Some said, “Your dad saved my life.”  T and I were moved and overwhelmed as the back two pews of the church filled up with my father’s AA family.   In the midst of my grief, I was so very proud of my dad.  His pain, his addiction, and his recovery had profoundly and positively affected so many people.  I was proud to be proud of my dad.

As for T’s father.  He never recovered.  He has been dead now for over a decade.  I don’t think T has ever forgiven him.  There is much about T’s father that I don’t know.  It was bad.  I do know that much, but it’s something that T won’t discuss.  Even though T was hurt and damaged by his experience of growing up with an alcoholic father, what he took away from those experiences was how NOT to behave.

We are products of our environment.  I am part addict and part enabler.  I have struggled with both sides of my personality.  I have skated too close to the edge of behavior that was not healthy.  I have excused the behavior of others, even when there was no forgivable excuse.  At the root of it all is ENABLING.

When we behave in a way that we know is not healthy, we excuse ourselves.  We enable ourselves.  When we allow those in our lives to “get away” with bad, hurtful, or self-destructive behavior, we are not helping them.  We are hurt them.   We are hurting ourselves.

What if we all called a spade, a spade?  What if T and I had said, “Dad, you’re drunk.  Leave.  Our daughter is dying.  This is inexcusable.”  What would the results of those words have been?

That incident in the hospital so many years ago is my first real memory of being an enabler. I knew that I was hurting myself.  I knew I was perpetuating a lie.  I knew that I was saying, “Oh, it’s OK.  Go ahead and act like an ass.  Go ahead and hurt me.  I’ll pretend not to notice.”  Did I really think I was “being polite” to no confront my father, mother, and in-laws?  I’m not sure how we all justified that hiding their alcoholism was more important than making special the last moments spent with our dying daughter.  It’s sad and sick to think about.  That is what enabling is:  Sad and Sick.

While that incident was my first memory of enabling, it taught me nothing.  My enabling manifested itself in many shapes and many forms in the following years.  Worse than addiction, which is selfish and self-serving, enabling empties us of ourselves.  Enabling takes pieces, bit by bit, until we lose pieces of our own value.

Yes, this is a heavy subject tonight, but I am not feeling heavy as I write this.  Instead, I am feeling a weight lift.  This is a GOOD step.  Identifying a problem is the only way to begin addressing it!  I have a new filter, or I am going to learn to use a new filter.  Is this person being considerate?  Are they acting in my best interest?  Am I ignoring warning signs and red flags?  Tonight, I am feeling invigorated and optimistic.