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The Enabling System

by Larry Fritzlan | Helpful information for families in recovery, August 20, 2008

The addict or alcoholic, someone who is dependent on chemicals, typically lives in an “enabling system.” Addicts are surrounded by individuals, relationships, behaviors, beliefs, structures, traditions and values that support the ongoing use of substances.

The addict and the enablers are typically unaware of the extent to which this enabling system exists. These supporting individuals are generally using various psychological mechanisms (such as denial, minimization, rationalization, and projection) to avoid looking at the reality that their loved one is suffering from Substance Dependence, a potentially fatal brain disease.

It has usually taken many years (sometimes decades, and even generations) for the family to get to this point, and it will take some time for a family to get back to healthy functioning. But it is possible for a family in recovery to achieve an even higher level of wellness than existed prior to treatment. Sadly, too many people are unwilling to open to recovering their essential, healthy selves. 

However, when it comes to children we simply don’t have a choice – it is irresponsible to allow a child to fail to develop. It is the responsibility of parents and of society at large to provide the basics to children in order that they can thrive as adults. When children step into their adult lives, they must be ready to function and to sustain the values that will allow them to take care of themselves, to develop satisfying, successful lives and in turn to create healthy families.

Regular drug or alcohol use creates a delightful chemical Disneyland in the brain of the user. The challenges of successful transition into adulthood are avoided in favor of this chemically induced pleasure. Since the addict has no desire to leave the chemical wonderland, it is up to the enablers to do their work. The most effective path to recovery is to address this enabling system and then to disassemble it and rebuild it in a healthy way. The initial work is to focus on the enablers, not on the happily medicated addict. To say it another way, the enablers, the parents, must initiate the changes necessary to cause the addict to choose to change his or her behaviors. 

In the case of minors, the parents simply make the decision to mandate effective treatment. For children over 18, the parents make the decision to offer treatment and to no longer support a lifestyle that does not include a comprehensive treatment program. The solution is simple. However, it is not easy, and usually requires professional guidance to disassemble the complex, mostly unconscious, and very firmly constructed family enabling system. 

Is treatment successful? In my experience it is nearly one hundred percent successful if there are two healthy parents who follow the advice of professional family therapists who specialize in drug and alcohol treatment. Otherwise, we run the risk of a child succumbing to this fatal brain disease and never becoming a functional adult.

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