When Does Not-Enabling an Addict Go Too Far?

Drugs cause grief

Many parents who have a newly discovered drug addict in the family usually find comfort in support groups. It’s extremely helpful for families to come together to support each other through one of the most difficult situations a person can face as a parent. However, one of the common practices of these groups need to be more fully understood and used appropriately.

A common saying is “never enable an addict.”

Put simply, not enabling an addict means not doing anything that would allow them to continue their destructive, contra-survival behavior. This means not giving them a place to stay, rest or get a shower. It means not giving the addict money for any purpose and not making allowance for them. Making allowance for them can result in their death.

“Kick them out!”

“Put them on the street!”

“Make them feel the consequences of their actions…”

“Let them hit rock bottom...”

These phrases are heard throughout these support groups without an explanation of the difference between “enabling” an addict and “helping” an addict.

There is a HUGE difference!

Miriam Webster defines the word “enable” as:


- To make someone or something able to do or to be something

- To make something possible, practical or easy

Miriam Webster defines the word “help” as:


- to do something that makes it easier for someone to do a job, to deal with a problem, etc.: to aid or assist someone

- to make something less severe: to make something more pleasant or easier to deal with

Basically, enabling an addict is giving them what they want so they can continue using drugs without consequences. Helping an addict is giving them what they REALLY want, which is to be happy, successful and free.

Families can take the concept of “don’t enable an addict” to the point of not helping them to find the right treatment center or the right help, because in their minds, to do so would be enabling them. The results can be catastrophic.  

Not Enabling Vs. Not Helping 

Here’s Billy. Billy is a heroin addict. He lies, he steals and he manipulates his parents to get what he wants. Billy lives at home, rent-free, eats their food and generally takes advantage of them and uses drugs in their house. Billy refuses to get treatment because he can stop using “whenever he wants.” Instead of allowing Billy to continue this behavior, his parents decide to “not enable him” and kick him out of the house, stop giving him money and cut off all support, allowing him to hit “rock-bottom.”

The idea of “rock-bottom” is allowing an addict to go through so much pain, misery and consequences that they make a firm decision to quit drugs and abandon that lifestyle. The idea of not enabling the addict becomes the main line of defense for families dealing with a loved one who is using drugs and, at times, the concept becomes convoluted. Not enabling the addict starts to equal not helping the addict, causing more damage than can be imagined.

At times, families can take “not enabling” to the next level, where it becomes an unwillingness to help. Parents can become unwilling to help the addict out of a bad situation, despite their being willing to seek treatment and change their lives.

A working definition of “not helping” is:

“an unwillingness to support pro-survival choices or actions.”

Some schools of thought believe families, once scorned by the addict, should turn their backs, allow them to experience the suffering that accompanies their choices and then find a free rehab to get their lives together. This is a romantic notion, but it’s highly unrealistic. 

You Get What You Pay For

Not helping an addict enter into a good treatment center because of a “non-enabling” point of view does nothing to serve either the drug user nor the family. Free treatment, as the only viable solution is, well, free treatment. It’s typically state-funded, psychiatric-based treatment that will put your loved one on strong medications and a replacement drug for the one they were taking.

They will either keep the addict in-house for up to 7 days before kicking them back to the street, untreated and reeling from the effects of the medication or, in some cases, put them into a “work camp” where they will be forced into manual labor as a means of “paying” for their treatment. These methods do nothing to handle the underlying causes of their addiction and leave them as helpless as they were the day they entered the program.

A Workable Solution

Good treatment at a reputable, non-profit rehabilitation program does have an out-of-pocket cost that only covers the cost of delivering the program. Good rehabilitation centers will be more interested in helping your loved one versus making a profit on your loved one’s addiction. While some families believe paying for their loved one to go to treatment is just another form of enabling, it’s not.

Helping is being supportive of pro-survival choices or actions. You can’t force someone into being a willing participant at a treatment center. If an addict is unwilling to seek treatment, by all means, cut them off, don’t give them a place to stay or a “safety net.” Definitely don’t give them a single dime. However, paying for an addict, begging to go to a decent rehab center to help themselves is NOT enabling.

It’s quite the opposite.

If you or a loved one is struggling with a drug problem, call us now!


Jason Good

Jason has been working in the field of addiction and recovery for over 11 years. Having been an addict himself he brings real-word experience to the table when helping addicts and their families, while also offering a first-person perspective to the current drug crisis. Jason is passionate about educating the public about what’s currently going on in our society, and thankfully, offers practical solutions. Jason is also the co-host of The Addiction Podcast—Point of No Return. You can follow Jason on Google+, Twitter, or connect with him on LinkedIn.