recognising the difference between enabling and supporting someone with PTSD or mental illness

Recognising the Difference Between Enabling and Supporting Someone with PTSD

I had a lot to think about last Saturday. And I also had a lot of time to think, since my Saturday began at 1:41am. That was when I first woke up and realised my husband was missing.

His side of the bed was untouched. His car was gone.

I don’t know if I can do this anymore, was the third thought I had.

I barely dozed through the long dark hours of the early morning. I tried to read. I tried to write. I even tried to cry. I felt physically sick, and I knew it had nothing to do with the gastro bug my daughter had just recovered from.

He stumbled through the door sometime around 4:30am. But still I couldn’t sleep. And I knew it had nothing to do with the peculiar sounds of intoxication downstairs.

Predictably, the kids were out of bed by 7 o’clock that morning. Unpredictably, they found their father in a heavily drunken slumber on the lounge room floor.

Mummy, why is Daddy sleeping on the floor in his clothes?

I wanted to talk. I wanted some kind of explanation. Or maybe, selfishly, I just wanted an apology. But even after waiting a morning that dragged on for a year, he could still only brush me off with a mumble.

Can’t you see I’m still drunk? 

With relief, my words finally flowed onto the page. And my thoughts took me on a roller coaster. The ride eventually ended when I realised my choices came down to one simple question – are my actions supporting him, or are they enabling him?

I have come to realise that, although many of my actions are focused on keeping the family unit together and stable for the children, most of my actions are being solely directed by a deep-set fear I’ve been holding onto. The fear of letting my husband fall. I can see now that my emotional drain and utter exhaustion is borne from the strain of constantly holding him up.

The past still haunts me. It probably always will. But by absolving him of responsibility and consequence, I am essentially giving him the green light to stay on his not-so-merry path of avoidance and self-medication.

Today, it stops. Today is when I let go of my fear and throw away his safety net.

I will be here to love, here to motivate, and here to support. But I can no longer hold him up. That is something he needs to take full control of, or he’ll never beat this.



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  1. Powerful words, Lea. I am fortunate in that my husband’s addictions with PTDS are nicotine and work. But you are correct, we mustn’t enable unacceptable behavior. Stay strong. You inspire me.

    • Thank you Sarah. We know we mustn’t enable, but it can be so hard to distinguish between supporting and enabling. Take care along your own journey.

    • Betsy, this is something I’ve also been struggling with for a long time. I think I’m slowly beginning to get my head around the concept of what is truly supportive and what actions may be enabling – maybe I should write a piece about it to get all those thoughts straightened out! Stay tuned.

      • Please do! I am new to this world as my husband and I have only been together a year now. I am learning every day but still feel so lost and wonder what I did wrong so much of the time.

        • And I’m still learning six years on! This topic of supporting versus enabling is a very confusing area, and one that many people are also struggling with. I’ll share more of my views in a post soon.

  2. It is so hard to distinguish between enabling and Supporting. With the never ending roller coaster that is PTSD, I wonder if the behaviours we carry out in the down times are enablers, while the same behaviours in the good times are supporters? Or vice versa? Its so confusing but we all do what we can to keep the ride as smooth as possible.
    Love your work Lea.

    • So true, Beth, it’s very hard to distinguish between the two most of the time. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of clear answers out there about what either might look like in different situations.

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  4. Yes I also struggle with the difference however I believe my husbands thought of “support” is much different than many of yours. He says I don’t support him, but then I ask what kind of support is he looking for and he says he wants a clean house to be his “safe place”. He wants no dishes in the sink etc. Our home is not dirty by any means, yes it gets messy like every other home because we live here. But if that is all he wants from his wife, is to be a maid, I think that is unfair and wrong. 98% of the time the wall around him is so thick that I can’t get through. He won’t talk about how he is feeling, how therapy is going etc and really cares less in how myself or our daughter is doing.

    • Thanks for your comment Cheryl. I think each person’s idea of support is always going to be different. PTSD is an anxiety disorder, and in an effort to help alleviate that anxiety, a person will strive to find control in their life over particular areas that have always been important to them. So maybe your husband feels much calmer when his surroundings at home are all in order, though it’s unfair to pressure you into maintaining this standard. Hopefully, with therapy, he’ll begin to break down those walls and let you in a little bit so you can support him in other ways and rebuild the family relationships. Take care.

  5. Wow! What you write is exactly what I live, feel, love, deal with! I thoughtI was the only one! I to came to the point of am I enabling him or supporting him! But how to not enable him is still a mystery!

  6. I just told this to the Father of my child as well, I cannot hold ship for the both of us anymore… Your words could be my own.. .. He has PTSD. He is an alcoholic. He is also the father of my youngest daughter. He is a Veteran of the US Army- spent 8 years of his life serving our country, and spent time in Iraq.. I can tell you your words have inspired me to stand up and tell him that he MUST make the changes he needs.. He hated his part time job..I knew this, I understand, it was a shitty job! This time I told him to fix it… I refused to print any more job applications ( he would fill them out partially and leave them around the house, probably he never intended to turn them in.) Such a waste of my time, my effort.. After two years of staying home with our youngest (often drinking as much as he could manage to buy- turning in cans, bottles, etc) he has found himself a 40 hour a week job and started it Monday! This is a culmination of many factors, not just me telling him to fix his own damn problems, but it has finally happened! Praying he can hold it down, and not only that, thrive at it..
    Your words also inspired me to reach out to my family and my friends. His friends too. I could not carry his weight anymore..I was literally breaking. He SOMEHOW convinced our family doctor into prescribing him chantix, and it was okay, until it was time to stop using it.. The 2 weeks prior to last were an absolute nightmare… Chantix can cause increased intoxication, anger, agitation, and of course suicidal thoughts, even after people stop using it!! I can attest to the truth of that.. For several weeks it has still caused problems when he drinks.. so bad I packed up my children one night and left to stay at my Mom’s. I talked to my Mom, about the help/enabling aspect of this, and reached out to my sisters (against his will, he feels embarrassed) .. but it helped lift some of the burden.. I also reached out to the Veterans Crisis Hotline during that time.. so thank you for speaking on how it is absolutely OKAY for people to reach out for help…

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for you words.. Honestly, they have made a difference in my life! I was preparing to leave him. I was planning where we would go. I was preparing myself mentally, and financially, and in my heart.. I completely understand how you are feeling..

    Take care and do what you need for you and your children… (HUGS)

    • Johanna, thank you for finding the strength to share your story. I’m so pleased to hear that you have made such a fantastic effort in drawing the line between enabling and supporting. But also for finally being able to speak up and speak out – for your own sake. It was definitely the turning point for me. And it inspired me to not only write my stories down, but to begin sharing them. I hope your partner appreciates all you have done for him, and continue to do. Take care, of yourself first before others.

  7. I struggling with this enable vs support every day, still don’t know the difference to be honest but we will keep trying. xx

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