I hate the word “enable.”
“He wouldn’t be in so much trouble if his parents didn’t enable him.”
“She’s an enabler.”
“I feel sorry for that family – they’re constantly enabling her.”
These are harsh words, often spoken with a slight hint of scorn. They are words of blame, words that carry a heavy load of shame. Too often we use words without thinking much about their implications, so let’s take a closer look at using the word “enable.”
To enable is to allow, facilitate, permit, make possible. To allow is to let, to permit, agree to, consent to, tolerate. To facilitate is to make easy, make possible, smooth the progress of, help, aid, assist. To permit us to authorize, sanction, give your blessing to.
I am here to speak for parents of kids who are struggling with substance use – as well as for the wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles of people who have substance use disorders. They may not all agree with what I have to say, but I suspect most will.
We do not “consent” to the pain and misery, the shame and fear, the despair of addiction. We do not seek to “aid” or “assist” addiction in its efforts to destroy our loved ones. We do not “make possible” this disease, nor do we “tolerate” its horrors.
We do not authorize addiction to walk into our homes, we do not sanction it, nor do we give it our blessing.
We simply do not know – not in the beginning – how to respond to it.
Addiction enters our lives with stealth and cunning. It disguises itself, talking back to us in ways that make our heads spin. It tortures our emotions so that we begin to believe that we are the ones at fault, causing us to doubt ourselves.
Addiction takes our hearts and twists them.
It takes our thoughts and contorts them.
It takes our souls and fills them with dread, shame, guilt and burning fear.
The word “enable” only adds to our guilt and shame, and makes us hide in fear and self-loathing from the very people who might be able to help us.
We see the people we love in trouble. At home. At school. In the office. With the law.
Because we love them, because it is our job to protect the people we love, we try to help them. We don’t know, not at first, that they are suffering from a chronic, progressive, deadly disease, and once we suspect it, we cringe from the very thought.
Because to others, addiction is not like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or asthma. The word “addiction,” like the word “enable,” is whispered.
When our family members are sick with a substance use disorder, friends don’t bring us home-cooked meals or fresh-baked cookies. We don’t open our mailboxes to find heartfelt sympathy cards. No one sends us flowers. Other parents, relatives, teachers, and friends sometimes hint oh-so-subtly that our family’s “problem” stems from ineffective or even abusive parenting. Insurance companies inform us that they don’t cover addiction treatment – or if they do, they often dictate the terms of treatment or cap the amount allowed. Counselors and health care professionals often tell us we are “overreacting.” Doctors prescribe pills to help us calm down, relieve stress, get a good night’s sleep. Sometimes the people we turn to for help look at us sideways, barely able to hide their contempt.
Perhaps contempt is too harsh a word. But that’s what it feels like. Disapproval. Condescension. Disdain.
So what are we, exactly? What words should be used to describe those of us who struggle to do battle with this disease?
Flawed. Imperfect. Struggling. In need.
In need of what? Help. Hope. Understanding. Compassion.
The irony, I suppose, is that we have compassion aplenty. We remember the old days, when we thought this could never happen to us, the days when we, too, wondered what was wrong with those families whose kids smoked marijuana, snorted coke or injected heroin. Those days when our children were young and fresh and innocent.
Once upon a time, we, too, thought that we were immune.
Now we know better.
Katherine Ketcham, Parent
Katherine Ketcham has co-authored 18 books, 11 on the subject of addiction and recovery. Her first book, "Under the Influence: A Life-Saving Guide to the Myths & Realities of Alcoholism," was released in an updated, revised version. She wrote the New York Times bestseller “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption” with William Cope Moyers and chronicled her journey with her son Ben, who recently celebrated 14 years in recovery, in “The Only Life I Could Save: A Memoir.” Ketcham pioneered treatment and recovery efforts at the Walla Walla Juvenile Justice Center in Washington State, and in 2009, she founded Trilogy Recovery Community.