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My half century as a pastor and counselor taught me a few things about how people function, and what can be done to help them over life’s trouble spots. While I was able to assist numbers of parish friends and others, I admit to batting almost zero when it came to alcoholics and those with other serious compulsive problems. Nothing I had to offer made any difference. For years I gave it my best shot until I realized my support only seemed to further hinder those trying to escape from habits that had trapped them. Perhaps my support just got in the way.

But there were remedies far beyond my abilities, and I turned those I had failed over to Alcoholics Anonymous with its twelve-step program. Having recommended that people with compulsive issues contact this organization, I needed to get out of the way as my friends struggled with their diseases. I recognized that it was hard work for each of them, involving a discipline many felt impossible. It took an admission that they were helpless against something that was destroying their lives, families, friends and jobs. It required countless meetings, perhaps even daily gatherings with others facing similar problems.

My role was not quite over. I still had to deal with the enablers — and almost all of the deeply troubled had them. The enablers were usually passionate friends or family members who could not turn away from their addicted partners. If the distressed were alcoholics, the enabler would get them one last bottle — and then one or a hundred more. There were even cooks who tried to ease the pain of an overeater by preparing one delicious fat-laden meal after another. One woman planned dinner for the moment her husband got home from work less he might start drinking. There were secretaries or co-workers who felt compelled to try and ease their employer’s pain by running one more errand or giving in to one more demand. Seeing the agony of someone close, they responded to continual passionate pleas for just one more of whatever was demanded. I concluded that these enablers were just as obsessed and just as sick as those whose distress they thought they could relieve.

It was the enablers who most often prevented their friends from seeking help from AA or one of the other twelve-step groups. If I still had a role to play, it was asking groups of enablers — and they usually came in groups of relatives and friends, if they had considered some sort of tough-love intervention. That would develop by getting their troubled friend in a room with every one of his or her enablers, and one after another withdrawing all support. If that came across as a demand, so be it, because that is just what it was. While I might make the original suggestion, in many cases I considered backing away — or perhaps I might even have been one of the enablers who needed to stay involved. To be successful all the enablers had to be part of the intervention, leaving no escape hatch. The only alternative was for him/her to seek help in a twelve-step program. While fraught with negative possibilities, my guess is that intervention was the only solution that finally worked.

Let me put this issue in a larger context. Say someone who is very powerful has become obsessed with his own arrogance, and this is the drug that not only controls his life but the lives of those around him. Say this egomaniac heads a very large organization composed of scores of loyal others. And suppose these subalterns are reluctant to say or do anything that would contradict this powerful person? I suggest that they are enablers, and their leader whose obsession with his power would never be healed until there was an intervention! To be blunt about it, unless the leaders of the Republican Party take on this task, I do not see that there is any way out for our troubled nation.

Charles Bayer

Charles Bayer is a somewhat retired theological professor and congregational pastor. 

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