Can you literally kill someone with kindness? Can you harm a person by giving them money, food, shelter, gifts or affection? The alcohol and drug treatment industry, 12 step programs, and addiction professionals all say yes, you can. They call this “killing with kindness” enabling. Last week’s blog focused on the term enabling as defined by the drug treatment industry, and introduced you to the idea that labeling those loved ones who continue to provide food, shelter, support and love to a substance user is wrong. And further, this labeling may actually be harmful to all persons involved. Today I am going to focus on discrediting the counterintuitive idea that you can actually kill someone with your kindness and generosity.

What if I told you that I once had a drinking problem; and by the standards that exist today within the treatment industry I would have been considered an “alcoholic,” and actually still would be today (remember, to them alcoholism is an incurable disease) even though it has been more than 20 years since I last drank alcohol? And then I told you that last year for Christmas, someone who didn’t know me 21 years ago, gave me a bottle of very good wine. If I drank the wine and “fell off the wagon” whose fault would that be, mine or the person who gave me this thoughtful gift? Would it matter whether or not my friend knew of my previous drinking problem more than two decades earlier?

The only right answer to this question is, it would be my choice to drink the alcohol or not. I didn’t drink the alcohol, nor did I experience cravings or urges, nor was I uncomfortable, actually I was very thankful for the gift and then simply re-gifted it to a friend I knew would enjoy it. And that is not the first time since committing to a sober lifestyle that I have been given alcohol as a gift, and each time I pass this very kind gift on to people that I know would enjoy it. While I know this is not the same as the term enabling, it does make a similar point. Whether or not I make the decision tomorrow to drink alcohol is solely my decision. If my employer lays me off, or my spouse cheats, or my son gets arrested, and I drink, the responsibility for that choice and the consequences of that choice are all mine. I own them. So just as the negative, thoughtless, or well intentioned, yet misguided, thoughtfulness of others has no bearing on my choice to drink or use drugs; neither does the continued help of my family and friends if I am struggling with a substance use problem.

Oftentimes parents will call and ask, “What can we do? We keep bailing our son out of jail, paying his bills and taking him in when he says he wants help, but he only lasts a few days or weeks and then he’s off and running again. We don’t want him to die but we don’t know what else to do!” The answer is not as complicated as one may think. What makes it complicated is the intent of the help that is given. Most people believe they are helping their loved one for their loved one, and that is not entirely true; they are actually providing that help for themselves. When we encounter situations over which we have no control whatsoever, it is human nature to do everything within our power to exert some influence or control over that situation. Each parent bails their child out of jail, hires attorneys, takes them in one more time, and pays their bills, etc., because they are hoping that this time will be the time their child (usually an adult child) will finally change. While a precious few do change simply because they want to as a natural progression of the maturing process, many do not leaving the parents bitter, worn out and quickly losing all hope.

Then there are those parents who do make the difficult decision to cut their child off. They say, “You are an adult, if this is the way you choose to live your life, you are on your own. I’m done.” The risks of your child ending up in jail or dying are roughly the same as for the parents listed above; but the risks of your child living, maturing out of their behavior problems, getting their life together and carrying a lifelong resentment that you were not there when they needed you the most are much greater.

Most parents fall somewhere in the middle; using their money, love and kindness as a means of trying to manipulate their child into behaving better. They may kick them on out one day telling them never to return, and then inevitably a few days or weeks later, their child comes home needier than ever, claiming they really want help and the parents being frightened and hopeful that this time will be different; happily oblige stating, but this time you must behave. The (adult) child understands this to be manipulation and thus a power struggle is created that can last a lifetime. Adult children well into their 30s, 40s and 50s, and even 60s continue to act like troubled adolescents, while the parents continue to treat them like troubled adolescents. In this scenario no one wins; and no one changes.

Parents ask me, “…but how do we know which time is the time they are serious? How do we when they really want to change?” The answer is so simple, yet elusive; it is when they stop making demands on you; dictating what help they expect from you. Someone who is ready to change their life will be humble and gracious for whatever help you are willing to provide, and they will become open to your suggestions. Humility is when they begin to take responsibility for themselves, their choices and actions. They will be truly open to any and all help you give and they will show their immense gratitude through their attitude, actions and the way they treat you and those around them. A person cannot be grateful and hurtful at the same time.

When your adult child struggling with a drinking or drug problem calls you in the middle of the night to bail them out of jail, or calls you to tell you they are a month behind on the rent and haven’t paid their utility bill in months, should you help them? Only you can answer that question, keeping in mind that you cannot kill anyone with kindness. Your decision should not be based on what you think your son or daughter might do, your decision should be based on what you want to do. It should be based on what would make you most comfortable and happy. It should be based on what you know will help you sleep more soundly at night. Because the only person you can control is you.