Are You An Enabler? (Part 1)

I am an aware person–and–I was an enabler.

My path to becoming an enabler started out as most do, as someone trying to help, and thinking that I could. A dear friend who is also a relative came to me in trouble, having lost her job, about to lose her health insurance and unable to pay rent. An intelligent, honest and kind woman, she was not afraid of hard work and had always demonstrated a strong moral character. She desperately wanted to work and was trying diligently to find employment. When she first asked me for financial help, a short- term loan, it was a no-brainer. She’d never had trouble paying her bills, and there was no reason to think that she wouldn’t get herself out of this recent financial pickle. And so, without much thought, I wrote her a check…

Eight years later, she was still in that pickle only that pickle had morphed itself into a malignant sub-machine gun. For eight years she came to me for money on an increasingly frequent basis, with increasingly dire potential consequences, and with an increasing sense of entitlement. For the most part she paid me back although sometimes not for a long time, and sometimes after I had already loaned her more on top of what she already owed me.

Complicating the matter, she wasn’t just a relative and friend, she was also deeply involved in my children’s lives; she loved my children…and was also someone I loved, and still love. I didn’t want her to suffer as she was suffering or be tormented by the relentless fear and desperation she felt.

Also, I was in a position where I had a good job and some money in the bank; she had neither. I could help, which in my mind meant that I should help. She was in pain and also family after all.

Year after year she continued to ask me for money. But no matter how much I “helped,” her financial situation got worse. She was also growing more despondent and angry, more aggressive in her behavior towards me. She spent money that she didn’t have, assuming that I would cover her. Despite many frank and difficult conversations, nothing changed. Finally, despite great ambivalence, I told her that I could not continue to play this role in her life. I didn’t want us to resent each other. Difficult as it was, I laid down an official “no more” declaration.

Although I sounded clear outwardly, inside I was anything but. I felt terrible about the decision to stop “helping,” selfish, un-loving, and incapable of deep compassion. In light of my longtime Buddhist practice, I felt like a spiritual fraud.

She was on her knees, begging literally, and also threatening terrible things, if I didn’t rescue her. She looked like an animal with its leg in a trap, helpless and terrified, and enraged—at me. Looking at her face, white with terror, furious with desperation and humiliation, still I held my ground. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but some part of me knew I had to do it.

The result was that she acted out her threats and I believe, punished me for attempting to stop the cycle. She stopped taking care of her life, on every front, and ended up homeless (except if I would have her) and ill, without health care, and without any community. I spoke with relatives and former friends, but no one was willing/able to help her.

As I experienced it, she was now my third child, my charge. In truth, I still loved her, and wanted her to find her way back to independence, to enjoy her life. Nonetheless, I also knew that I had been bullied into saving her, despite my decision to stop, but it would not happen again.

Two years later, back on her feet at least minimally, having never paid me back the large amount of money she now owed me, she asked again. “Just to cover her for a short time” was how she put it, as if it were a small and casual affair, with no history. The tone of the request was perhaps even more shocking than the request itself. But this time when I said “no” I was certain I would not waver. What followed however, I could never have imagined.

This friend and relative, whom I thought I had been (lovingly) taking care of for years, ferociously attacked me verbally and emotionally. She abused me with her words and anger, accused me of wanting to destroy her, of being a terrible and sadistic person, the antithesis of family. And, she blamed me, fiercely, for the impending consequences she would suffer as a result of my not fixing her life. As she saw it, I was not only to blame for what would happen to her but actually intended for her destruction. I had abandoned her, and my abandonment was the cause of the horrible pain she was enduring. Finally, she assured me that I would go down with her when she fell, that she would make sure of it.

It was nearly impossible to process—violent rage and hatred from a person that I believed I had been “helping” for nearly a decade, someone that I loved and that I believed loved me!

She continued to bully me emotionally for months, to make me know and feel her suffering. She made life extraordinarily stressful not just for me, but also for my children. Her fury was terrifying and seemingly bottomless. Occasionally, between rages, she would approach me with kindness, express deep gratitude for all that I had done for her, and acknowledge my generosity. Still, no matter her approach, wrath and hatred or gratitude and responsibility, I painstakingly continued to say “no.”

I had become an enabler. Realizing this truth was like waking up from a terrible dream. With my role named, I was suddenly able to change. What was it that allowed me to know myself as an enabler, finally, after years of co-creating this disastrous situation—all with the best of intentions?

Copyright 2015 Nancy Colier

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