Supporting recovery doesn't mean enabling it

I was asked for my opinion on a workplace situation involving someone who abuses alcohol and his supervisor.  It turned out to be pretty clear as to what was going on and it also hammered home, for me anyway, the difference between supporting someone’s recovery and enabling someone’s relapse.

I’m not big on the word, “enable.” But in the recovery world, I do think that people, inadvertently, enable the circumstances in which someone can easily relapse.  Those that do enable, typically do so from the best of intentions.  I hear myself talking about support systems and I think that when people do enable, they believe themselves supportive.

The scenario for which I was asked went like this: the dude who abuses alcohol had been caught drunk on the job and was offered the opportunity to go to rehab rather than be fired.  He chose rehab, but one condition was that if he were ever caught drunk on the job, there wouldn’t be any other chances.  He would be fired on the spot and walked out of the building.

His supervisor and he were close personal friends and the supervisor was also made aware of terms of the dude’s conditions of employment.  However, though it had only been a little over a month that the dude had completed his rehab stint, there was growing suspicion that he had started drinking again.  The question for which I was called was, “Is it probable that the supervisor is covering up for the dude who abuses alcohol?”

While the dude was in rehab, his supervisor paid the dude’s bills and took his kid wherever the kid needed to be.  But when the dude got out of rehab, the supervisor continued to do everything he did while the dude was inside.  Further, whatever work assignment the dude had to complete, the supervisor managed to either reassign the tasks, or just did the assignments for the dude.  The dude, really, had no responsibilities, thanks to his supervisor, and it was clear to me that with all that time on his hands, he probably got bored and then returned to the behaviors that for him were normal.

It was pretty clear that, yes; the supervisor was in fact covering for the dude.  I’m certain, though, that the supervisor was acting from a place of real compassion and hope and wasn’t acting maliciously, at all.  However, it would have been better if the supervisor had allowed the dude to face his reality.

The supervisor could have been supportive, without enabling the relapse, by providing his friend with limits and then following up on those limits.  The supervisor could have given him light duties that the dude could have completed and then scaffolded on that success.  The supervisor could have helped with a “to-do” list, but had the dude complete the items on the list.  In that way, the supervisor could have been a support and not become complicit in a relapse.

Really, compassion from a support system is a key ingredient to lasting recovery.  It just shouldn’t become a slope into relapse.