Have you ever noticed that stories of alcoholism in mainstream media often point the finger at the friends and family of the drinker and accuse them of enabling or co-dependence? It seems simple and obvious in these stories that the people surrounding the alcoholic willfully enabled the addict. There is often a lot of dramatic, judgmental finger-pointing that allows everyone watching or reading to feel buffered by a sense of superiority. These reality show-style representations of something that is deeply tragic and dark, allow you to sit in your armchair and feel safe because you are not that bad. You are not as weak as the addict. You are not as unenlightened as their friends and family.
Co-dependence, or enabling someone who has a self-destructive relationship with alcohol, or allowing yourself to be enabled to drink when you know you can’t safely, are all complex issues that we often oversimplify. When I stopped drinking five years ago, I needed to understand the truth of where enabling comes from in order not to be triggered by it while trying to stay sober.
I think enabling comes from love.
That sounds bizarre I know, but I think that enabling comes from love in a world where we see drinking as the ultimate, acceptable adult indulgence. Enabling and co-dependence come from love and a lack of understanding of how serious, deadly, and deeply personal alcohol addiction is. It comes from a misinformed culture that stigmatizes alcoholism as something that can be seen or defined by people looking at someone else’s surface rather than only something that can be truly understood by an individual who looks deeply within themselves. I think that enabling and co-dependence come from misinformation about what it means to need to stay sober and why that choice should be respected and even celebrated. It comes from misinformation in a culture that doesn’t look at the spectrum of alcohol abuse but rather, points to the rock bottom alcoholic as the one who has to stop while the rest of us are not that bad.
At five years openly sober I have friends and family who still unwittingly try to enable me to drink. They don’t mean to hurt me. They want the best for me. But to them, the best thing for me is being able to drink when I want to and stop when I want to, and they really don’t understand that I can’t. The best thing for me would be what they perceive as balance rather than abstinence.
In understanding enabling, co-dependence and drinking culture, I’ve found it helps to look at how we perceive smoking.
When I quit smoking there was no way that any of my friends or family would offer me a cigarette.
NEVER ! Not ONE!
We all know now that cigarettes are addictive and they’re deadly and even though I do know people who smoke moderately, just one or two a day, we have been taught for the past 30 years or so to see ANY amount of smoking as deadly.
But our attitudes about smoking are very different than they were 50 years ago. Smoking used to be every bit as normalized as daily drinking is now. In the 1970s, in primary school, we made little clay ashtrays with thumbprints to hold the cigarette, as mother’s day presents. We wouldn’t have encouraged our mother’s to smoke but it was just accepted that many of them did and we shouldn’t judge them for it. But by making these ashtrays at school we were not simply not judging we were encouraging. Enabling.
Accepting and even encouraging smoking was just a normal part of life even decades after we knew that smoking was addictive and the addiction killed. In the ’70s and even well into the ’80s crystal ashtrays were an easy and obvious wedding gift. To some extent, we thought that adults needed to smoke. Especially sophisticated adults who had high-pressure lives.
Our attitudes about smoking are completely different now. After I quit smoking I didn’t need to worry about anyone encouraging or enabling me to smoke. As a culture we’ve accepted that nicotine kills, that smoking actually creates stress in the smoker rather than relieving it, and smokers are considered addicts and pitied. Pity does not inspire the romantic images that feed enabling. We now congratulate those who quit smoking. It is a badge of honor to have smoked, become addicted, and then fought your way through quitting to become a non-smoker!
We are no longer confused about nicotine and it’s power to addict, but our attitudes about stopping drinking reflect a deep confusion about how alcohol affects us as a drug.
Like many people who stop drinking I was ashamed that I had to. My first year sober I was anonymous about my need to stop drinking. Adding the public stigma of alcoholism to the shame I already felt would have made it impossible for me to focus on the hope and self-respect which I needed to stay sober.
I had been a grey area drinker or what is traditionally defined as a high functioning alcoholic. The depth of my alcohol abuse was not something that my friends and family had seen. But even after I came out sober publicly and proudly in my second year alcohol-free, I have friends and family who still unwittingly try to enable me to drink. They don’t mean to destabilize or hurt me. They want the best for me. But to them, the best thing for me is being able to drink when I want to and stop when I want to, and they really don’t understand that I can’t.
I think enabling comes from love.
How many times a day do you see images like the one above? Wine is love. Wine is life. Wine is essential. Wine is Benign. In a culture where it is the drinker not the drink that is blamed for addiction. In a culture where we stigmatize those who are sober as alcoholics who suffer from a disease of the brain. It’s hard for some of my friends not to feel like maybe I overreacted about my addiction to alcohol. It makes no sense to them that I am the thing they have learned to believe is an alcoholic. It seems to them that I should be all better now. Five years sober. All dried out.
“ You’re still not drinking… STILL?”
The thing that I’ve learned about enabling and co-dependence after years of openly saying, Thank You No I Don’t Drink, is that unless it’s commercial or media enabling which is based on profit and greed, it comes from a place of genuine love. So many of us fall into patterns of enabling or co-dependence in our relationships. Even when you know that you need to stop and maybe your partner needs to stop it is so easy to get caught in the loop of treating each other to a drink when it is well deserved or necessary. We trust and love and hope that no one we care for is really that bad.
In my relationship, for many years, I would say to my partner after a binge “That’s it I’m done don’t EVER pick up a bottle of wine for me on the way home from work again “ and then three days later I’d ask him to look the other way when I opened my second bottle for the night…. I’m not that bad… it’s ok...
What I have learned in five years of holding on to sober, is that in a world where alcohol is the only drug that people will question you for not using, in a world where getting drunk is so normalized that we laugh about it, brag about it, and see it as appropriate stress relief, the only person who can tell if you’ve lost your off switch in a deadly way is you. Only you. It’s deeply personal. Once you KNOW that you close your own mind to enabling.
NO ONE CAN MAKE YOU DRINK …. unless it’s you.
It’s a choice.
Today I chose NOT to drink No Matter What because life is just so much better with my senses about me.
If you’re looking for support to stop drinking or stay sober come hang out with us for a while and we’ll think it through together . We are BOOM Rethink the Drink, a Private, Anonymous, Community Forum, open to anyone hoping to take a break from drinking.
Once inside the community if you’d like to start talking it through you may find these questions and answers interesting
It’s O.K. NOT to Drink !
I If you’d
T Told me
S several months ago I’d
O Only want to go & stop drinking &
K Kill my alcohol voice I’d
N Never have believed you
O Only now it’s
T True because I want
T To be a non drinker
O Obviously my opinion has changed!
D Drinking is a boring & depressing
R Rinse repeat cycle
I In fact I found out it’s dangerous as
N No amount of alcohol is safe & it
K Kills people every day
Life is a glorious journey.
Putting down the drink to live it fully is just the beginning.
How do you go Sober?
B Be accountable Talk to Us We Understand
A Avoid alcohol like the plague Ideas Here
L Let yourself enjoy regular sober treats Ideas Here
A Allow yourself to cry when needed Ideas Here
N Nourish your body with good food Ideas Here
C Create happy & fun memories Ideas Here
E Enjoy the precious moments in your day Ideas Here
W Work hard to get what you want Ideas Here
O Organise things for less stress Ideas Here
R Realise you can’t control it all Ideas Here
K Keep going & prepare for success Ideas Here
S Sleep enough for body & mind rest Sleep Solutions