Enable en·able | \ i-ˈnā-bəl \
Definition of enable - verb
1a: to provide with the means or opportunity (training that enables people to earn a living)
b: to make possible, practical, or easy (a deal that would enable passage of a new law)
c: to cause to operate (software that enables the keyboard)
Synonyms: allow, empower, let, permit
Sounds like a good thing, right? Supportive, forward-moving, and something that opens up possibilities. So, today’s Question (Almost) Everything question is how and why has “enabling” become a word that carries such negative connotations?
How is it that enabling has become such an ugly word, used to judge and shame family members of people with substance use disorder? This label is one that has caused too many people to agonize unnecessarily, primarily for fear of what others would think of them. Families have come to believe that any form of helping, even if it’s not a problem for them and even if what they are doing is supporting their loved one to move toward health or recovery, is enabling.
They worry and whisper in embarrassment, “I know I shouldn’t be doing this. I know I’m enabling. We’re making it too easy.” Even when the person struggling is facing very real natural consequences, like legal issues, loss of connection with other loved ones, loss of a job, family members somehow think they need to ensure they don’t make things “too easy.”
Helping is not enabling. Love is not enabling. Empathy is not enabling. Harm reduction is not enabling. Creating an environment of love and connection where a person has a chance at developing a foundation upon which to heal, grow, and find their way is not enabling.
Why we need to stop calling people “enablers?”
First of all, it's a label that lumps people into a category with preconceived notions that others have of them. When we use this word we add to the stigma and shame families already feel. This may lead them to further isolate and not get the help that they themselves need. It may cause them to go to the opposite extreme and completely cut off their loved one.
I have done that at times with my own son, in part because of the internal battle that led me to worry about what I should or shouldn't do, what was "right," what was "too much." Certainly the narrative that I bought into was part of what led me to believe that we had done all we could... which is why my son has been homeless too many times. I wish I had known better. I wish I had known that there was more that we could do to walk alongside him without abandoning our hearts and ourselves. I am grateful that we have a chance to do things differently now.
As Pam Lanhart, Director of Thrive Family Recovery Resources, shares, "We have to treat substance use like we would any other disease or disorder. If your child had cancer or other health issues, you wouldn’t just do nothing and not assist them when you can. A person would never be shamed or ostracized if they drove their loved one, say to the cancer clinic. Or if their daughter or son was ill and they loved them and gave them a bath and washed their back." No one would call that person an enabler because these are things people do for those they love and care about.
When people fear being “enabling,” they hold back from honoring their own values, their own heart, and their own instincts. They worry more about what others think than finding the path that makes sense for them, one moment at a time. They come to believe that acting in a caring way toward their loved one who struggles with substance use is wrong, and they may pull back, or push away their loved one.
And, in fact, the research shows that you can indeed effectively help someone struggling with substances. Family influence is a primary reason that people seek treatment. Family involvement and support is a key factor in recovery. We need to stop pushing families away from their loved ones.
Let's take back this term...
We in the recovery community want to enable life. We want to enable love. We want to enable connection and communication that creates a safe environment for recovery, while also establishing healthy boundaries and expectations. We want to enable recovery.
Let’s please stop using this word "enabling" in its current common shaming and judgmental tone and reclaim it for what it actually is - empowering and supporting. Let’s stop discouraging people from showing up for their loved one. Let's lose the closely related dangerous notion that a person has to hit rock bottom, which can too easily lead to death. What's often been called "enabling" may just help save a life. Let’s educate and empower people to find ways to help that may be more effective than what they’ve tried in the past. Let’s give them permission to try, to learn, to grow. Let’s support them to find a way to openly show their love and care for people they quite naturally care so deeply about.
For another perspective on this, I invite you to read Hearts at Work Family Recovery founder, Joanne Richards' post, "I'm enabling? Yes, yes I am!" And, another article about this: "I Have the Word "Enable:" Getting Shamed and Blamed when You Have a Child with Addiction."
If "enabler" is a term you've worried about, been assigned by others, or taken on yourself, what would it be like to take a step back and consider what this means to you? Can you take an honest assessment of your involvement and determine whether what you're doing is helpful and healthy, for all involved? Are you willing to find a way that works for your family, honoring who you are and where each of you is in this moment? Don't try to figure it out alone. If you're struggling, reach out and get help. There are groups like Thrive, counselors, and family coaches who can help you to find your way. It does not have to look like anyone else's way.
What would it be like to say, "I'm enabling my family to walk through this together from a place of love. I am getting support for myself and taking care of myself as I also love and care for my person. It's not an "either/or" proposition. We know we can't do this for them, but we will do what we can to support them to stay alive, to find hope, to have a chance at a better life. We are in this together." Here's a little music to support you on this long and winding road! MomPower Playlist
If you’d like to learn more about programs which understand the value of involved family members who are willing to learn how to engage in a loving and supportive way, or the research that supports family involvement in recovery, please check out Invitation to Change and CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Therapy). Online meetings based on the Invitation to Change and CRAFT models are offered through Thrive Family Recovery Resources.
I didn't plan for it to go this way, but I am seeing how this post ties in with earlier #AtoZChallenge - Question (Almost) Everything posts... Answers (Lie Within), Change, and How Do You Define Yourself? Tomorrow's post could also be applied to this exploration of Enabling.
Thoughts? Questions? Please share and let's grow together in our understanding as we work to shift a deeply ingrained cultural narrative.