I Hate the Word ‘Enable’: Getting Blamed & Shamed When You Have a Child with an Addiction

blame and shame over addiction

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.”

They 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.

Enable means to allow, facilitate, permit, make possible. Allow means to let, to permit, agree to, consent to, tolerate. Facilitate means to make easy, make possible, smooth the progress of, help, aid, assist. Permit means to authorize, sanction, give your blessing to.

Enough already.

I am here to speak for parents of kids who are struggling with drugs – 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 destruction and 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 fight back.

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, encouraging us to cover up, to protect and defend, to run screaming with our hair on fire to the hills.

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 addiction is not like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or asthma. 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. 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.

Talk to Another Parent Who Gets It

When you seem to be receiving blame and shame from every angle, it would be a welcome respite to talk to another parent who has been there. Our Parent Coaching program pairs a parent with another who has struggled with their child’s substance use, too.

Talk - Have a Conversation

Katherine Ketcham has co-authored 17 books, 10 on the subject of addiction and recovery, including the New York Times bestseller “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption,” with William Cope Moyers. Her latest book is “The Only Life I Could Save: A Memoir.”

Ketcham has led treatment and recovery efforts at the Walla Walla Juvenile Justice Center in Washington State, and in 2009, she founded Trilogy Recovery Community.

15 Responses

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    katherine van Wormer

    June 27, 2018 at 5:34 PM

    I have hated the word enabler as used in a negative way since I first heard it as an alcoholism counselor against a dear, sweet grandmother who dressed the grandchildren for school. Enabler in social work means helper, but now it’s taken on these connotations and used to blame family members. I write about this and codependence as another wrongly used work in Addiction Treatment: A Strengths Perspective. Thanks for your article.

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    Judith S.

    June 27, 2018 at 1:58 PM

    I totally understand, and have compassion.

    However, working in child welfare, it has been very painful seeing parents of grown children do what I must call enable-

    Paying their grown kids’ rent for seven years, while hoping they become independent…

    Bringing grown kids alcohol while also hoping they can get sober…while the grandchildren are abused and neglected. For years.

    Permitting grown children to live in their rental (and destroy it) while knowing the adult children were running a meth lab with the children there (eventually grandkids removed (rescued) by the state protective services, and home condemned)..

    These three examples of different families, after workers, attorneys, therapists counseled the grandparents – they were aware that what they were doing was not helpful…

    Enable is not a nice word. But sometimes it fits. Should we call it Look-the-other-way Syndrome? Massive denial? I don’t know.

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      Kathy Ketcham

      June 29, 2018 at 10:17 AM

      Hi Judith S.,
      Thanks for your comment on my article. I appreciate your sensitivity to the word “enabling.” I do want to make clear that as parents, grandparents, and siblings, we do not “look away,” nor are we in massive denial. We know there is a problem, we live in fear, we despair, we try in all kinds of ways to help but addiction, in the words of Bill W., is “cunning and baffling.” I believe the correct term, if there is one, is “over-protective.” As parents it is instinctive, one might even say it is in our DNA, to protect our children. As they grow up from newborn to infant to toddler to teenager, we do everything we can to protect them from harm. When drug use and addiction enter our lives, we continue to protect to the point of over-protecting, because that is what we know, what we have always done, and what we believe we must do to help the people we love. It takes time, often many months or years, to unlearn the protective response. I call this process “anti-DNA.” We learn, with the help of caring professionals like you and the compassion and nonjudgmental help of our family members and friends, to combat our instinctive response and do what is most difficult, perhaps the most difficult thing in the whole world — let our loved ones fail, let them fall, knowing that they will learn the most important lessons from the pain they experience. We cannot protect them from the pain addiction causes but we can offer them unconditional love and the faith that they can make it into recovery. We are always there, with our love and a helping hand, when they reach out. But in the meantime, we must take care of ourselves, regain our strength and courage, emerge from despair and fear, and find support in the company of others who have similar stories to tell. In the company of others we learn that letting go, as I write in my book “The Only Life I Could Save,” is not abandonment — it is the knowledge that if your child or husband or wife or sister or brother continues down the addiction road, you cannot go with them, for it will destroy you both. But if they choose the pathway of recovery, you will walk with them to the ends of the earth. And you will never, ever, no matter what path they choose, lose faith that they have it within them to choose life.

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    June 27, 2018 at 11:53 AM

    My name is Larry I am a 65 year old husband Father grand father and great great grand father .Been struggling with prescription drugs for Almost 20 yeasts.Now I am on suboxone the .married for Almost 45years with no retirement except social security and working part time living in a trailer by myself.What can I do to get off suboxone before it’s too late and loose my family?

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      Josie Feliz

      June 28, 2018 at 10:40 AM

      Thanks for your message Larry. We have forwarded your message to one of our helpline specialists who can help better answer your question, and she will be reaching out to you shortly. Please do not hesitate to call our helpline at 855-DRUGFREE in the future. Thank you. -The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids

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    June 27, 2018 at 11:47 AM

    I cannot agree with you more. I’ve been in a friendship with a person for over 15 years, most of which I’ve been the enabler. I hate myself, even he occasionally would blame ME for the situation. At first there were lies, the money was for medical treatments, etc.
    My friends, nothing. “Just get rid of him, throw him on the street”, etc. I’m on my own now, still supporting him (he was clean (opiates)) for a few months but has slipped. No one gets it, no one gets ME. I can’t take the crying, the pain, so I’m always there. I’ve already gone bankrupt and have spent my 401k.
    And it’s all MY fault.

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      Richard Mann

      June 28, 2018 at 8:58 PM

      Hi Diane,

      Before saying that I am not a specialist of drugfree.org., who disagrees with the premise of the featured story, I would do one of 2 things — or both. Go to an Al-Anon meeting first – by yourself. You’ll find you’re not alone. You may even make some very valuable friends. The second suggestion is to lay down the law. Find a treatment resource, (preferably a Therapeutic Community, like Amity Foundation) tell him you love him, but it’s him you love – not the other ‘thing,’ and offer him a choice; Life with you, clean and sober, or life without you. Decide on a specific time frame. Starting tomorrow, he should attend Twelve Step meetings DAILY until he’s placed for treatment. He’ll likely resist. Make it non-negotiable.

      Enabling one’s child is avoidable by recognizing specific red flags. Kids are sneaky, but by knowing the red flags and establishing one’s authority and the kid’s boundaries, it’s easier than the kind of enabling one experiences with a spouse or lover. There really is no ‘authority figure’ in most cases. Plus, there’s the bond of intimacy that causes a certain myopia. There’s also the intimidation factor.

      There’s no room for blame, shame, or guilt. You must solve a problem. Emotions get in the way of clear-headedness. I know … it’s not easy. But you’ve no choice. As to supporting him, any money you part with should go to treatment. No ‘candy,’ if you get what I mean. And money should be doled out minimally, and accounted for. If he lives on mayo sandwiches, so be it.

      Finally, stop beating yourself up. Some of us refer to these episodes as ‘pity parties.’ Don’t act the victim. Act the adult. Don’t give an inch.

      You can do this.

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        July 11, 2018 at 1:29 PM

        Richard — thank you. He and I have been having long talks (which sometime end in screaming) but I think I’ve convinced him to try a treatment center again. He knows my money is gone, and in a strange irony, his old connections….have pretty much dried up. Baby steps…

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    Susan Luther

    June 27, 2018 at 11:40 AM

    Thank you so much for this article. I am going through this right now feeling that I am an enabler.

    I will be looking into support.

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      The Partnership

      June 27, 2018 at 3:54 PM

      Hi Susan,

      Our Helpline is a good place to start if you’d like to talk to someone about what you’re going through. Feel free to connect with us in whichever manner you choose: https://drugfree.org/helpline

      – Sarah

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