A Necessary Part of Loving

This guest blog is written by Ward Ewing, an Episcopal priest, retired president of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and past chair of the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Involved as a non-alcoholic friend of A.A. for over forty years, Ward is deeply committed to assist the alcoholic and those who love them, to support the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, and to raise awareness of church leaders about the disease of addiction and the new life found in recovery.  As a friend of the Fellowship he uses the Twelve Steps of A.A. as his primary spiritual program.  Ward and Kathy met at the first International Conference for Atheists, Agnostics, and Free Thinkers in A.A., where he was a keynote speaker.  He wrote this in response to the article “Words of Blame; Words of Shame” found in her blog (https://katherineketchambooks.com/blog/2017/10/6/enable).

When a husband calls his wife’s employer to say she is ill and unable to come to work today, if the illness is the flu, we recognize that as the normal, caring support that is part of a loving relationship.  When he talks with her about the need to take better care of herself, we also recognize that as normal and caring.  When he cleans up the vomit, if the illness is the flu, we understand that is a necessary part of loving.  

But if the disease is alcoholism or addiction, we call his actions “enabling.”

I do not use the word “enable” to describe actions that are the normal, caring, loving part of a relationship.  True: alcoholism and addiction are different from the flu; the addicted person participates in his or her addiction.  True: alcoholism and addiction are different and require different loving responses.  True: the responses appropriate for the flu do little or nothing to intervene in the progression of the disease of alcoholism.  

The word “enable” implies culpability; I do not wish to blame someone who is struggling to love another who is ill.  As the disease progresses, those who care become caught in denial and hopeful thinking, involved in multiple conflicts, filled with fear and anger, and despair of hope for a solution.  Adding blame to that mix is not helpful.  True: there is a need to change, but that change is built on caring for the alcoholic and the family.  What is needed is to honor the love that is present and then build a new loving response that is more assertive in requiring appropriate actions from the addict including, if necessary, “detaching with love.”

I use “enable” when I refer to my early years as a minister before I became knowledgeable about alcoholism.  I helped many people cope with the hardships caused by drinking, but I never suggested they deal with the reality of their or their spouses drinking.  I use “enable” to describe other professionals who, in ignorance, expect advice to produce results with an alcoholic.  Professionals – doctors, lawyers, judges, social workers, counselors, clergy, administrators – to be competent need to know about addiction and develop actions for dealing with alcoholics and addicts that are appropriate to their profession.  Otherwise they are enablers.  Operating out of a need to be helpful, they rescue the alcoholic from the immediate crisis, relieve him or her of the tension, and give worthless advice about not drinking so much.  I use the word “enable” for professionals because to be competent they should know better.  

We professionals can be helpful if we know the symptoms of alcoholism and addiction and learn how to give difficult and at times painful counsel instead of worthless advice.  For me that means working with a friend in A.A. and meeting with the family member who is open to change.