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Trying to help an addict can be one of the most difficult and frustrating experiences of anyone’s life, especially if the addict has been using for a long time.
The truth is that helping an addict is almost impossible when they’re not ready.
So many of my sponsees are scared of sponsoring. They think they’ll mess it up. They think they’ll make mistakes. I always ask them the same thing:
“When you were ready to get sober, could anything stop you?”
The answer is always no.
“When you weren’t ready, could anything have made you get sober?”
Again, the answer is always no.
Everything depends on the addict. Everything depends on how much they’re willing to do.
Before we get into specific strategies to help an addict (there aren’t many), first we should talk about what it means to be an addict.
Doing Drugs Doesn’t Make Someone an Addict
You can use and drink heavily and not be an addict, and there are more than a few situations where you’ll see this happening.
For example, there are plenty of people out there who use or drink because of trauma in their life. There are lots of people who get hooked on drugs because they’re stuck in bad circumstances. There are people who use drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of their mental illnesses—depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD. There are people who use and drink because of physical pain.
There are people who just like getting messed up because everyone else is doing it. There are people who are immature and party until some big life event comes along. There are people who are in bad environments or who have bad friends who push them to use and drink.
All these people have the ability to stop or moderate if their circumstances change. Maybe the physical pain goes away. Maybe they move to a different city. Maybe they get married or get pregnant. Maybe they get their depression meds in order.
The difference between someone like that and an addict (someone like me) is that I’ve tried all these things.
And I get high anyway.
I get thrown in jail. I still keep drinking. I lose a girlfriend. I keep getting high. I lose job after job after job. I keep getting high.
An addict can’t stop or moderate because of a change in circumstances. An addict suffers from a disease, and the longer we study addiction, the more we see that this is true.
But just like poverty isn’t just a result of systemic issues or just a result of personal responsibility, addiction isn’t all genetics—the addict has some responsibility too.
A real addict has a choice. Will they seek help or not? Will they admit that they have a problem or not?
Having a disease doesn’t mean you get to act however you want and pretend it doesn’t exist.
How do we help someone like that?
There’s two ways.
1. Tough Love—Helping an Addict Who Doesn’t Want to Stop
While there are many paths to sobriety, there are only two ways to help an addict—tough love is one of them.
What that means is not enabling the addict. Not giving the addict money when they ask. Holding them accountable if they lie. Calling the cops if they steal from you. Not letting them into your car or house if they have drugs. Cutting off all contact if they refuse to go to rehab.
Obviously there are variations on this strategy. You might have several interventions before you try to get them to go to rehab. You might not kick them out of the house the moment they relapse. You might not take their car away right away.
The difficulty with all of these tough love strategies is that it’s hard to know when the addict is going to break and finally admit that they need help.
And that’s what they need to do. They have to break. An addict who doesn’t want to stop is virtually impossible to help by being nice.
Instead, they have to experience consequences. They have to get to a point where things get back enough that they want to seek help.
If they’re not willing to admit that they can’t stop or moderate, if they try all those methods of getting sober—moving to another state, taking meds for depression, getting surgery for their pain—and they still don’t work, if the only real answer here is to go to rehab and find a pathway to sobriety, then the enabling has to stop.
They have to be held accountable. If they aren’t, they have ammunition when someone asks if they can control their lives while still using and drinking.
The difficulty is figuring out where to draw the line. Should you really call the cops and saddle them with a criminal record for the rest of their lives? Should you not give them another chance to go to rehab when they’re living on the streets? Is it really a good idea to tell someone who is deeply depressed that they’re on their own because they don’t want to admit they need to go to rehab?
This is a decision everyone has to make. If you’re the friend of an addict, maybe you tell them you can’t talk to them anymore, or maybe you stick around and try your best.
It’s your call.
But what about the addict who really does want to stop?
2. A Gentle Hand for the Addict Who’s Trying
This is an entirely different issue. The addict who wants help, in my opinion, should be helped.
I can tell you that I’ve worked with many men whom I firmly believe would have struggled a lot more to get sober if I’d been a hardass and fired them. I’ve worked with guys who relapse over and over, only to finally get it.
I can tell you that if my parents had given up on me that I’d probably be dead. I definitely took some convincing the second time around, but I was so grateful when I got into treatment.
I was terrified to keep using. I knew that no one could save me, that I was going to die soon and that I didn’t want to die. I knew that I needed help, and I thank my higher power every day that they had the gentleness to not give up on me.
This is also a difficult line to walk. You have to figure out where you’re crossing the line between enabling and helping, and that’s not easy to figure out.
Everyone has to figure it out themselves. There’s no easy answer to all this.
If you need help, send me a message. It’s hard getting through this stuff on your own.
I’m happy to talk.