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Getting clean is an ‘inside job’ that enablers delay

“Enabling behavior, simply put, shields people from experiencing the full impact and consequences of their behavior.”

– What is Enabling, by Elina Kala, MA., Mental Health Professional, April 6, 2018, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation

Judge Daniel E. RamczykMany years ago, I was discussing 12-step recovery with a very wise man who told me, “Never come between an alcoholic and his last drink.”

Over the years, I have come to understand that every alcoholic or drug addict must hit that proverbial “rock bottom” before he or she can even begin to hope to recover. If I interfere with this process, then I will prolong the suffering of the addict and delay recovery, no matter how “good” my intentions may be. This well-meaning, but disastrous, interference is called enabling.

Think of it this way. An addict gets on an elevator as it begins to descend toward a premature death. The addict can get off the elevator at any time. Some addicts have a low pain threshold and get off quickly, get into recovery and get on with their lives. Some addicts have a high pain threshold and remain on the elevator through pain, incarceration, mental institutions and what appears to be a most certain early demise. But many of them, too, will step off because of unbearable pain and misery.

Pain is what motivates an addict to do for himself what no one else can do – to concede to his inner self that he is an addict, he is powerless, he needs help and he is willing to do whatever it takes to get better.

If family, friends or even complete strangers try to make addiction more bearable for the addict, he may never get to the point of self-surrender and acceptance of treatment.

What does this have to do with the courts? As a trial judge, I walk a very narrow line every day between compassion for the addict and enabling him or her.

Often, defendants who are being supervised either by Pre-Trial Services or Probation will test positive for drugs or alcohol. Because this is a violation of their conditions of release, court officers may ask me to incarcerate these individuals. Attorneys, however, will ask me to “work with” their clients and give them another chance.

Having served as a judge since 2003, I generally, but not always, can determine whether a defendant is serious about treatment for his or her addiction, or whether I am being played. Knowing the difference is crucial.

My approach generally has been to help addicts enter into treatment, such as through specialty courts, in-patient programs or intensive out-patient programs. When an addict fails to comply, sometimes the only option I have is incarceration – in other words, letting the addict experience the full impact and consequences of his or her behavior.

But the courts can only do so much.

We all know that crime is a concern in our community. We all know that substance abuse is the primary common denominator and cause for this crime. So we all have a vested interest in reducing addiction in our city, county and state.

No matter how difficult it may be, we must allow addicts to hit rock bottom so that they will begin to help themselves. Helping a family member, friend, co-worker or complete stranger avoid the certain and painful consequences of addiction is not kind. It actually assists the alcoholic to drink himself to death or the drug addict to shoot up one time too many.

Treatment is available. The addict must make the decision. Enabling impedes that process.

I once had a mother in my courtroom. Her “boy,” who was in his 50s, frequently was going to her home and threatening her with physical violence if she did not give him money for illegal narcotics. She was in tears and asked me what to do.

“Change the locks on your doors, call the police if he shows up and do not give him a cent,” I told her. ” ‘But, judge, I can’t do that, he’s my son,’ ” she replied. This was classic enabling behavior and, unfortunately, not unusual at all.

Addicts can recover and heal, but it is an “inside job” that should not be derailed by enablement.

“When this ultimate crisis comes – when there is no way out – that is the very moment when we explode from within and the totally other emerges: the sudden surfacing of a strength, a security of unknown origin, welling up from beyond reason, rational expectation and hope.”

– Emile Durkheim