How to help an addict

I remember walking into a 12-step treatment facility for the first time, as an intern, and being asked by one of the patients, “Are you in recovery?” The question was invasive, to me, as I wasn’t there for treatment, but to teach a reflective journaling class.

“Well,” I said. “I’m not here to discuss my relationship with drugs and alcohol. I’m here to teach.”

He looked at me with disdain. My words not only didn’t resonate, but also instantly turned him against me. “You should leave, then. Only addicts can help addicts.”

I hadn’t heard that statement before that day; to me, it sounded like saying that only one of the 3 blind mice can help the other 2 find their way home. But in the years that have followed, I have heard that mantra echoed literally hundreds of times. It seems that 12-steppers really do believe that only addicts (and alcoholics) can help other addicts. But only is that statement not true, it is also borderline insane (as I hold to the definition of insane as, a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction).

Addiction is as much a force as it is a disease. A force is strength or energy as an attribute of physical action or movement. The force of Addiction will grow as long as it has material from which it can derive fuel. What is that material? Well, it’s anything that creates negative emotions like anger, shame, and/or fear. That’s why when people ask me, “What can I do to help my loved one who’s addicted?” I tell them, “Make yourself as healthy as you can; that way, you can model health and from that model perhaps your loved one will learn and desire health.”

For example, I recently heard of a conversation that sums up what I mean. It went like this:

A daughter, who is addicted to heroin, sent her mother a text that said, “Have you forgotten about me?” Apparently, her mother hadn’t called or texted her because it the times before, all the daughter did was point out her mother’s shortcomings. Her mother had gotten angry during the last exchange and simply felt horrible. From my perspective, the comments the daughter made were manipulations geared toward extorting money from the mother.

However, during the weeks that had passed, the mother had done some soul-searching and found that there were some things she needed to change. One of those things was to regain her sense of faith. To that end, she started attending church services on a regular basis. In addition, she was making strides at her job and even cut way back on her drinking. So, when she received the “Have you forgotten about me?” text, she answered, “No, I haven’t forgotten about you – it’s just that I don’t want to argue with you anymore. I love you, but right now I have to try to improve my own life. I need to get healthy; I pray for you, every day, and if you ever want to talk without asking me for money, I’m here for you.”

I offer this exchange as an example of truly helping an addict because it accomplishes three important things. First, it sets a boundary between the use of manipulative language and the mother’s response. That is, the daughter started with an attempt at eliciting guilt. When an addict is “in cycle,” he or she uses any and all forms of emotional manipulation to score his or her drug. Because parents tend to make mistakes, guilt is an ever present source of manipulation material. However, the mother did not take the bait. Instead, she discussed her love for the daughter and explained that she wasn’t going to fuel her own issues with anger that resulted from fighting with the daughter. Second, in discussing her return to her faith, she demonstrated to her daughter that it’s always possible to change life for the better. And third, by explaining that she will be there for the daughter whenever her daughter wants to have a real conversation that won’t involve manipulation. These three things did more to help the daughter than any begging or pleading because it cut off material that fuels the daughter’s addiction at its source. Eliminating fuel for addiction robs it of its capability to grow; also, Addiction’s dark forces cannot grow if people around the addict choose health and light.

As the years have gone by, I do think that community support is helpful as long as it is recovering addicts helping other recovering addicts. But we all can help addicts by striving to become the best version of ourselves that we can. Begging an addict to change is useless. Changing your own life for the better does because it provides a roadmap through which an addict can find a way out of the darkness.