Feeding the Man-Eating Tiger and Making It Grow

I am not an enabler. It is a decision I have made in my life, and not my natural inclination. I think I first consciously made this decision in college. Drugs, alcohol…. rampant, especially with Radio, Television and Motion Pictures majors (also know as RTVMP, or Rumptyvump, department now defunct). I remember coming home from class one day my first year and my suitemate was sitting in a rocking chair, rocking and babbling, zoned out of her mind. It was sad. I made sure she was OK, then shut my door. I didn’t think giving her extra attention was helpful. And really, I didn’t think there was anything I could do.

I saw another friend, one of the most delightful and brilliant people I knew, go downhill before my very eyes. He came to college a pot smoker, but while he was there added additional substances. He lost his vision, lost his drive, his magnetic personality dissipated, his eyes lost their sparkle, he became out of shape and his hygiene suffered, and his brain disengaged. He thought he was fine. He thought all was under control and he didn’t have a problem. At first I tried to ignore. Underneath he was still the friend I loved. He was still fun, and thoughtful (most of the time) and one of my favorite people to hang out with. While I knew about the drugs, it wasn’t because he told me.  He didn’t use around me and tried to shield me from what was going on. Still, I could see the outward effects.

I needed an apartment to stay in my senior year and he needed a roommate. I nearly moved in. Common sense eventually prevailed. I realized I would become a mother hen, trying to protect him from himself and the consequences of his actions.  I also realized I would not like that version of me. See, I am a fixer…I like to rush to the rescue of others, requested or not. If someone is not ready to really be helped, it is useless and frustrating. I know that now. Then it was still up in the air.

I knew he could manipulate me, knew I would try to manipulate him, knew it would probably become an obsession for me. It was not a way I wanted to live life at 20. Or now. I moved in with another friend. This was probably a defining moment in my life. It was so difficult for many reasons. I felt a bit of guilt….and regret. Maybe I could help him. Maybe if I was there daily, he wouldn’t use. Maybe I could help him get help. But no….you can’t change an addict.  He had to do that himself. At this time in my life I hadn’t completely learned you can’t change other people. I hadn’t completely learned when I try to do this, I become someone I don’t want to be. But that process was beginning….I had an inkling.

It’s not just drugs and alcohol. Those are just easy examples. Enabling any bad behavior feeds it. It makes it grow. You smooth over temper tantrums. You give in to the demands of a manipulator. You tell someone with a weight problem they are not fat and add another portion to their plate. You believe those who say their bad behavior is your fault. You believe people who say their bad behavior is the fault of others. You give money to someone with money problems. You lie to cover for someone in your life so people don’t see the reality of them. You buy your child the toy they are screaming for in WalMart. You support someone who will not work, You support an abuser. You don’t counter the lie of a liar. You tell someone it is OK not live up to their responsibilities. You think you are helping or that you are doing it out if love, but you’re not being kind. You’re feeding the man-eating tiger.

Love is not helping someone become less than they should be. Love is not telling people their bad behavior is OK or normal. Love is not holding out your hand and helping them go down a path of destruction or trying to ignore it when you see them make that turn. Love is not failing to confront the thing that is destroying them. 

But love is also not harping on their behavior and making it the only thing you see when you look at that person. We need to somehow keep the love going, without feeding the negative behavior. Shame has a place in our lives…..sometimes it is what drives us to change….but we need to make sure we don’t become shamers. There are enough of those in the world and I haven’t noticed them to be particularly positive influences.

Sometimes love is walking away and letting someone face the consequences of their own actions. Sometimes it is removing certain kinds of support. Sometimes it is praying that there will be consequences instead of praying they will have none. Sometimes it is letting the legal system work. Sometimes it is establishing limits. Sometimes it is having a direct confrontation. Sometimes it is pointing them into the direction of treatment. Sometimes it is an ultimatum. Sometimes it is just loving them and putting your arms around them, and whispering in their ear all the things they are instead of all the things they are not. Sometimes it is erecting boundaries and making sure these boundaries are firm and respected.

There is a difference between supportive love and enabling. Supportive love makes a person stronger, better. It builds them up. Enabling allows them to continue to be weak. It holds them back or tears them down. Look at your relationships. Are the people around you growing or floundering? Ultimately the responsibility for either falls on them (make no mistake about that), but you have a choice to make. How will your relationship impact them?

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