Enabling: Misunderstood Love

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According to Merriam-Webster Online the word enable means, “to provide with the means or opportunity; to make possible, practical or easy”; in short enable means to help.

So when did this term, enable begin to have very negative connotations? Today, if you heard that someone was enabling someone else, would you think they were helping that person? Probably not, as the term enable has been hijacked by the alcohol and drug treatment industry to refer to someone; usually a parent, spouse, close friend or relative of a substance user who provides money, housing, food and/or shelter to the substance user despite their continuing usage. If you enable someone most addiction professionals and treatment programs believe you are an integral part of their problem. In essence, the substance user’s behavior is not their fault, it is actually yours.

Let’s look at the dichotomy; the drug treatment industry tells us that the substance user is sick with an incurable, progressive, brain disease; yet if you provide help that you feel is appropriate and necessary to keep this person alive, you are seen as an integral component of their sickness. So what does the treatment industry ask you to do? They tell you that you can’t help this person and instead should break all contact with them, employ “tough love” tactics (the terminology has been discarded but the tactics remain… a rose by any other name…), or do a confrontational intervention wherein the entire family, extended family and/or friends confront the substance user about their ‘illness’ along with an interventionist and force him/her into a drug rehab facility. How many other diseases that you know of are treated with these tactics? None! Many people will compare diabetes with ‘addiction’, yet can you imagine treating a diabetic who decides they want to eat a donut with the same callousness and cruelty? Well, of course you wouldn’t. The vast difference between the disease of diabetes and substance use problems is a topic for another day, but suffice it to say, there are no similarities; people cannot wake up and decide they won’t have diabetes today, but they can wake up and decide not to have a drink or drug!

The term enabling as used by the drug treatment industry is a travesty, and further it is harmful to the very people who are trying so desperately to help their loved one with a potentially fatal behavioral problem. I propose that enabling is actually misunderstood love. Imagine, watching your 22 year old daughter destroy her life using alcohol and pills. Everyone has advice on what you should do, but inside you are terrified. You feel that if you make the wrong decision, she might die; and you know you couldn’t live with yourself thinking it was your fault! After all, everyone has told you that you enable her and her behavior is a direct result of your enabling!

But is it, really? The answer may surprise you. Remember my blog from last week; you can lead a horse to water… The answer is so simple, yet lost on the majority of treatment professionals and those struggling to help someone with the problem. Substance users continue to use substances because they want to use substances. This decision is made internally and has nothing whatsoever to do with the behaviors of those around them. Think about it, if they concerned themselves with what their loved ones thought and did, many of them would stop, but they don’t. Their decision is made simply because it is what they want for themselves at that moment in time.

Many parents have employed tough love tactics, have forced their child into rehab, have cut them off financially and those substance users change their lives at the exact same rates as those whose parents have continued to financially support them and provide them with food, shelter and life’s necessities. There is no difference at all in outcomes. Yet, parents and loved ones agonize over these decisions.

The truth is there are much more effective means to help your loved one and steer them toward wanting to make a lifestyle change while keeping in mind that what you do or don’t do has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not your loved one continues to use substances. This choice is personal to them and will only change when they want to change it. You don’t need a label and you don’t need blame, you need a solution.