Seeing Your Own Addiction Or The Addiction Within Those Around You As A Downward Spiral & How To Support Others Without Enabling Them


Addiction is often described as a downward spiral. What this means is that over any significant period of time the life of the individual will deteriorate.

In the beginning, the individual may find that the benefits of using alcohol or drugs outweigh the disadvantages, but over time, this situation reverses. The longer the person remains addicted the more they will end up losing, and if they are unable to end the behaviour, it will eventually kill them.


How People Become Trapped in the Downward Spiral of Addiction

If people understood at the beginning where their behaviour was leading, it is doubtful that anyone would ever become addicted to alcohol or drugs.

When the person first begins using mind-altering chemicals, it can feel like a magical time and without properly thinking about the future, they enjoy those initial moments with the false impression that they’ll be able to live that way forever without developing any negative consequences associated with an addiction.

The individual may find that these substances provide feelings of confidence and temporary happiness. By using alcohol and drugs, the individual is able to escape their normal everyday problems. The fact that the person seems to be benefiting from these mind-altering chemicals means that they keep on taking them.

Over time though, they develop a tolerance (they need to take more to get the same effect). As the person’s intake increases, so does the problems associated with their behaviours, but rather than discouraging the substance use, the person uses these problems as an excuse to drink or use drugs even more than before.

Things continue to deteriorate until the person either becomes boxed into a corner and their only way out is by changing their ways of thinking and any physical dependency issues that they may have developed during this time or they loose their battle with addiction until their situation is fatal.

Unfortunately, the rates of death from addictions or substance misuse is constantly increasing. This is why it’s vital to get help and support at the earliest possible point before they develop life changing or life ending consequences.


The Jellinek Curve

According to Jellinek, people addicted to alcohol tend to pass through four progressive sequences. These include the “pre-alcoholism” phase, the “prodromal” phase, the “crucial” stage and finally, the “chronic” phase.

According to the Jellinek Curve, the road to recovery starts with an “honest desire for help.” Early in the rehab process, a person will learn that addiction is a treatable disease. They’ll also begin the crucial task of quitting the substance.

As they progress uphill, they’ll meet others who’ve recovered from addiction and are living “normal and happy” lives. Eventually, when the foggy thinking that accompanies drug and alcohol abuse subsides, healthy thinking will return.

The individual will perform an honest self-assessment of their life and of their own character. In Alcoholics Anonymous, a 12-step program for overcoming alcoholism, this is Step 4. This sort of inner reflection is not easy, but confronting your failures and shortcomings is a necessary step if you want to break out of old, unhealthy patterns and embrace a new life.

As the individual moves from rehabilitation into recovery, more positive physical and emotional changes typically emerge. The individual’s self-esteem will return, or even begin to form, and they’ll begin to appreciate their new way of life. They’ll develop new circles of friends who are stable and supportive and develop new interests.

Eventually, their desire to escape through drugs and alcohol will diminish and they’ll find contentment in sobriety.

While the recovery curve goes uphill, people can and do slip backward. It’s important, though, to remember that addiction is a chronic disease and relapse does not mean failure. If someone does experience a relapse, it is often just a temporary setback and doesn’t mean the recovery process has failed.

As for the Jellinek Curve, the chart is not an exact depiction of everyone’s experience. Rather, it’s more of a guideline to help people who are struggling with addiction and recovery. The visual arc of Jellinek’s Curve is a powerful educational tool that can help people better understand the disease they’re fighting and recognise that recovery is possible.

You can learn more about the Jellinek Curve in a previous article on this very topic here.


Symptoms Of The Downward Spiral Of Addiction

Downward Spiral For Those Who Use Opioids/Prescribed Medications

The symptoms of this downward spiral of addiction or substance misuse can include, but isn’t limited to:

  • The individual needs to drink more or use more drugs (including legally prescribed ones) in order to get the same effect, as they would have previously obtained from a lower dose/amount. This is known as developing tolerance and it is one of the signs of physical addiction & dependence.
  • The person becomes less able to take care of their work, family and/or social commitments and responsibilities due to intoxication and the after effects of this, as well as the act of seeking funds to buy or source more substances to repeat the cycle of sourcing substances and using the substances over and over again.
  • The individual begins to perform badly in work or education and their career. Their lifelong opportunities may be in jeopardy as a result of their substance use.
  • The person develops increasing financial problems due to their drug and/or alcohol use. If they lose their job, education, training, family, children or freedom among others, then this will only exacerbate their situation. It is at this stage that the person may turn to desperate means to get their hands on money in order to keep feeding their habit or to hide it from others.
  • Alcohol and drugs have a toxic effect on the body and this means that it causes damage to the body and brain. As the person uses more and more of these substances, the damage inflicted will increase. The individual will be at risk of serious conditions such as alcoholic liver disease, wet brain (alcoholic dementia), blood clots, pulmonary embolisms, circulatory damage, limb loss, strokes, seizures or ultimately, death. If the person is not able to stop the addiction process in time it will eventually kill them.
  • The individual will have increasing problems with their friends and loved ones. They may become physically or verbally abusive, lie, cheat, steal, blackmail or miss key events or achievements, and this makes life impossible for those around them. The close friends and family usually suffer a great deal because of the addiction, and children tend to be damaged the most. Eventually these relationships can break down completely and the person becomes estranged from their friends and loved ones. Things can deteriorate so badly that even if the person later gains freedom from their addiction, they may not be able to salvage some of these relationships.
  • One of the most troubling aspects of the downward spiral is that the person’s mental health deteriorates. They feel out of control and their self-esteem will keep sinking lower and lower. The person is also highly likely to develop low self-efficacy in regards to ending the addiction – this means that they no longer believe that it is possible for them to break away from the behaviour. Once the person becomes hopeless, it means that their suffering really starts to sink its metaphorical teeth into their skin and bite down hard.
  • The individual will usually lose interest in their physical appearance, personal hygiene and grooming. This further alienates them from those who are around them.

Denial Or Ignorance Of Their Downward Spiral

It is common for people who are caught in the downward spiral of addiction to deny the situation. They may claim that they have good days as well as bad days, but this is a misunderstanding of what the downward spiral is about.

It can be a fairly subtle phenomena and the individual will have ups as well as downs, but if they honestly appraise their situation they will see that over any significant period of time the bad days will be increasing and the good days decreasing.

Just because the individual manages to go dry or clean for a few weeks or months does not mean that they have avoided the downward spiral – nor does the fact that they can sometimes seem to have some control over their substance use.

Addicts are masters at deception, passing blame onto someone or something else. They are also experts at justifying their unjustifiable behaviours. We looked at this before in a previous article and how to manage/overcome it. You can read the article here.


High Functioning Users/Drinkers

High functioning substance users are simply those individuals who outwardly appear to be doing well in life and manage to keep their secret hidden from public view.

Everyone goes through this phase on their addiction journey initially. It’s simply that their life hasn’t fallen apart enough yet to the extent that their life hasn’t had enough negative implications for them to want to make changes.

They may have good jobs, wear nice clothes, have a healthy bank account, have a loving family and be highly respected in the community, but this individual has a dark secret.

They are able to hide it from the public, but their drinking or drug use is out of control. It can be easy for these people to believe that they will escape the downward spiral of addiction as many of us initially believed “we wouldn’t be like the others and we could simply have enough control to not become addicted like others do.

So long as they continue to put on a good show for friends, family and public, they may believe that they are safe. The problem is that with this individual, the deterioration will be mostly happening internally.

Over time, the individual will have to work harder and harder to maintain their show of normality and this will eat them up inside. Eventually the person will reach a stage where they can no longer hide the truth and their deterioration can occur fast now.

To outsiders it will appear as if the person’s life has just suddenly fallen apart, but the truth is that this is something that has been going on for many months and often, even years, however they were able to hide it from others.


How To Help Others Who You May Have Just Found Out Are Addicted To Substances?

Having a healthy and supportive relationship with others is a really important support network that the addict will need to rely on at one point or another.

Being supportive and enabling them can seem like the same thing, but they are actually the polar opposites.

What is the difference between helping and enabling?1 There are many opinions and viewpoints on this, some of which can be found on the pages linked below, but here is a simple description:

Helping: Is doing something for someone that they are not capable of doing themselves.

Enabling: Is doing something for the addict that they could and should be doing for themselves. Simply, enabling creates an atmosphere in which the addict or alcoholic can comfortably continue their unacceptable behaviour.


How Do I Know If I’m Enabling An Addict?

The following signs can help you recognise when a pattern of enabling behaviour may have developed:

1. Ignoring Or Tolerating Problematic Behaviours

Even if you personally disagree with a loved one’s behaviour, you might ignore it for any number of reasons.

If you believe your loved one is looking for attention, you might hope ignoring the behaviour will remove their incentive to continue.

You might avoid talking about it because you’re afraid of acknowledging the problem. You or your loved one may not have accepted there’s a problem. You might even be afraid of what your loved one will say or do if you challenge the behavior.

Example Of This Behaviour

Say your partner struggles with alcohol misuse. They say they haven’t been drinking, but you find a receipt in their trouser pocket in the bathroom dirty clothes bin for a liquor store one night. The next night you find a receipt for a bar in your neighborhood. Instead of asking them about the receipts, you decide not to press the issue.

2. Providing Financial Assistance

There’s often no harm in helping out a loved one financially from time to time if your personal finances allow for it. But if they tend to use money recklessly, impulsively, or on things that could cause harm, regularly giving them money can enable this behaviour.

Financially enabling a loved one can have particularly damaging consequences if they struggle with drug or alcohol misuse.

Example Of This Behaviour

Your adult child struggles to manage their money and never has enough to pay their rent. Helping them out each month won’t teach them how to manage their money. Instead, they may become more dependent on you. 

3. Covering For Them Or Making Excuses

When worried about the consequences of a loved one’s actions, it’s only natural to want to help them out by protecting them from those consequences. 

It’s tempting to make excuses for your loved one to other family members or friends when you worry other people will judge them harshly or negatively. But this won’t help your loved one change.

Example Of This Behaviour

You might call your partner’s work to say they’re sick when they’re hungover or blackout drunk. Or you may call your child’s school with an excuse when they haven’t completed a term project or studied for an important exam. 

Your actions may seem to help in the moment: They keep your partner from facing a reprimand or even losing their job (and source of income). They prevent your child from experiencing academic consequences that could affect their future.

But your actions can give your loved one the message that there’s nothing wrong with their behaviour — that you’ll keep covering for them.

4. Taking On More Than Your Share Of Responsibilities

You might be enabling a loved one if you find yourself frequently picking up their slack: doing household chores, looking after their children, or taking care of essential daily activities they leave undone. 

There’s a difference between supporting someone and enabling them. Someone struggling with depression may have a hard time getting out of bed each day. Temporary support can help them make it through a difficult time and empower them to seek help. You can’t enable depression since it’s not a behaviour.

But if your help allows your loved one to have an easier time continuing a problematic pattern of behaviour, you may be enabling them.

Example Of This Behaviour

You might let your teen avoid chores so they can “have time to be a kid.” But a young adult who doesn’t know how to do laundry or wash dishes will have a hard time on their own. It’s important to strike a balance.

5. Avoiding The Issue

Whether your loved one continues to drink or use to the point of blacking out or regularly takes money out of your wallet, your first instinct might be to confront them. You want the behavior to stop.

But after thinking about it, you may begin to worry about their reaction. You might decide it’s better just to ignore the behaviour or hide your money.

It’s often frightening to think about bringing up serious issues like addiction once you’ve realised there’s a problem. This can be particularly challenging if you already tend to find arguments or conflict difficult.

But avoiding discussion prevents you from bringing attention to the problem and helping your loved one address it in a healthy, positive way. 

Example Of This Behaviour

Your loved one tends to drink way too much when you go out to a restaurant. Instead of talking about the issue, you start suggesting places that don’t serve alcohol.

6. Brushing Things Off

People dealing with addiction or other patterns of problematic behaviours often say or do hurtful or abusive things. They might insult you, belittle you, break or steal your belongings or physically harm you.

You might tell yourself this behaviour isn’t so bad or convince yourself they wouldn’t do those things if not for addiction.

But the reason for the behaviour doesn’t really matter. If the behaviour causes harm, it causes harm. Minimising the issue implies to your loved one that they can continue to treat you similarly with no consequences.

By pretending what they do doesn’t affect you, you give the message they aren’t doing anything problematic. 

Example Of This Behaviour

Your partner frequently ridicules you in public. Because they also struggle with alcohol or drug addiction, you tell yourself it’s the drug or alcohol talking and they don’t really mean it.

Even though it’s starting to affect your emotional well-being, you even tell yourself it’s not abuse because they’re not really themselves when they’ve been using or drinking.

7. Denying The Problem

It can be hard to admit a loved one needs help. They could say they’ve only tried drugs once or twice but don’t use them regularly. They might also ask if you think they have a problem. You reassure them you aren’t concerned, that they don’t drink that much, or otherwise deny there’s an issue.

You may choose to believe them or agree without really believing them. You might even insist to other family or friends that everything’s fine while struggling to accept this version of truth for yourself.

But by not acknowledging the problem, you can encourage it, even if you really want it to stop. Denying the issue can create challenges for you and your loved one. 

It isolates you both, for one. It also makes it harder for your loved one to ask for help, even if they know they need help to change. 

Example Of This Behaviour

Your partner has slowly started using or drinking more and more as stresses and responsibilities at their job have increased. You remember when they drank or used very little, so you tell yourself they don’t have a problem. They can quit at any time.

8. Sacrificing Or Struggling To Recognise Your Own Needs

Missing out on things you want or need for yourself because you’re so involved with taking care of a loved one can also be a sign you’re enabling that person.

Do you struggle financially after giving your loved one money? Do you lack time for your work, self-care or other relationships since you’re doing more at home?

Sometimes we want to make sacrifices for the people we care about. This doesn’t always mean you’re enabling someone. The reason you’re letting your needs go unmet matters. 

It’s certainly important to take care of yourself first, especially when taking care of a sick loved one, but you may not mind missing out on some of your typical activities for several days or a few weeks.

But if you’re consistently struggling to get things done or feel worn down by your attempts to take care of a loved one, it may help to consider your reasons for helping and the effect they’re having on your loved one. Does your sacrifice allow their behaviour to continue?

Example Of This Behaviour

Your teen spends hours each night playing video games instead of taking care of their responsibilities. You fill your evenings with their laundry, cleaning and other chores to ensure they’ll have something to wear and a clean shower to use in the morning.

But you also work full time and need the evenings to care for yourself. You’ve let this slip by the wayside. You figure it’s just a fact of life.

9. Not Following Through On Pre-Arranged Consequences If Rules Are Broken

If you state a consequence, it’s important to follow through. Not following through lets your loved one know nothing will happen when they keep doing the same thing. This can make it more likely they’ll continue to behave in the same way and keep taking advantage of your help.

Example Of This Behaviour

There may come a time in your relationship when you’ve had enough. You might say, “If you spend this money on anything other than rent, I’m not going to give you any more money.”

Or, “I can’t stay in this relationship if you don’t get professional help.”

You might also say, “I’m only paying my share of the rent this month, so if you can’t pay yours, you’ll need to find somewhere else to live.” 

But you don’t follow through, so your loved one continues doing what they’re doing and learns these are empty threats.

10. Not Maintaining Your Stated Boundaries

Healthy boundaries are important in any relationship. Some boundaries you might express to a loved one experiencing addiction, abuse, or another concern might include:

  • “I don’t want to be around you when you’re shouting, so I’ll only listen when you talk calmly.”
  • “I don’t feel comfortable having sex if you’ve been drinking or using.”
  • “I don’t want to hang out when you’ve been doing drugs, so please don’t come over when you’re high.”

If you or your loved one crosses a boundary you’ve expressed and there are no consequences, they might keep crossing that boundary.

Example Of This Behaviour

If your loved one starts shouting during a discussion and you continue the discussion instead of walking away, they may get the message that the problematic behaviour isn’t that big of a deal to you. They may also feel that you’ll easily give in on other boundaries, too.

11. Feeling Resentment

When a pattern of enabling characterises a relationship, it’s fairly common for resentment or feelings of anger and disappointment, to develop.

Your resentment may be directed more toward your loved one, toward the situation, both or even yourself. You might feel hurt and angry about spending so much time trying to help someone who doesn’t seem to appreciate you. You may feel obligated to continue helping even when you don’t want to.

Resentment can damage your emotional well-being, but it can also help you realise the situation may not be healthy.

Example Of This Behaviour

Say your sister continues to leave her kids with you when she goes out. She says she has a job, but you know she’s lying. You agree to babysit because you want the kids to be safe, but your babysitting enables her to keep going out.

Over time you become angrier and more frustrated with her and with yourself for not being able to say no. This resentment slowly creeps into your interactions with her kids.


Things To Remember

You can read the PDF by drug abuse.gov to learn about the things to avoid when talking to addicts by clicking here.


How To Stop Enabling A Friend Or Loved One

Do any of the above signs seem similar to patterns that have developed in your relationship with a loved one? These suggestions can help you learn how to empower your loved one instead.

You can also read our comprehensive article on this very topic by clicking here.

Bring Attention To Issues As Soon As They Arise

Don’t leave things to fester. Make it clear you’re aware of substance misuse or other behaviour instead of ignoring or brushing these actions off. Offer compassion, but make it clear those behaviours aren’t OK.

Confronting your loved one can help them realise you don’t support the behaviour while also letting them know you’re willing to help them work toward change.

Encourage Them To Get Help

They may not agree to enter treatment right away, so you might have to mention it several times. Working with your own therapist can help you explore positive ways to bring up treatments that are right for your situation. 

Set Your Boundaries & Uphold Them

Tell your loved one you want to keep helping them, but not in ways that enable their behaviour. For example, you might offer rides to appointments but say no to giving money for petrol, bills, rent or anything else.

Remember It’s OK To Say No!

This may be hard at first, especially if your loved one gets angry with you. But saying no is often essential for recovery. Remain calm, but be firm. Make consequences for crossed boundaries clear. 

Try Therapies, Groups & Fellowship Meetings For Yourself

Therapists often work with people who find themselves enabling loved ones to help them address these patterns and offer support in more helpful and positive ways.

These can include counselling, hypnotherapy, auricular acupuncture, groups for friends and family or fellowship meetings such as Naranon (for friends and family of drug addicts) or Alanon (for friends and loved ones of those addicted to alcohol). You can find contact information for them any many, many others on our help and support page here.

We also have a comprehensive article, specifically designed to help you best support and help addicts. You can read it here.

Avoid Using Substances Around Them

It may sound like common sense, but it’s important to avoid drinking alcohol or using drugs around them when they’re trying to get clean or sober rather than “rubbing it in their face”.

If your loved one is dealing with a drug or alcohol addiction, removing drugs and alcohol from your home can help keep it out of easy reach. You may not have trouble limiting your drinks, but consider having them with a friend instead.


Something To Think About

Enabling someone doesn’t mean you agree with their behaviour. You might simply try to help your loved one out because you’re worried about them or afraid their actions might hurt them, you or other family members.

But it’s important to recognise this pattern of behaviour and begin addressing it. Enabling can have serious consequences for your relationship and your loved one’s chances for recovery.

It’s difficult to work through addiction or drug or alcohol misuse alone. And if the problem is never discussed, they may be less likely to reach out for help.

If you think your actions might enable your loved one, consider talking to a therapist. In therapy, you can start identifying enabling behaviours and get support as you learn to help your loved one in healthier ways.

Published by Drink ’n’ Drugs

Providing useful, relevant, up to date information and support for those suffering from active addiction or those who are in recovery.

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