Many people have emailed me over the years and asked:
“How can I convince a friend or family member to undergo addiction treatment, and get the help that they need to recover?”
Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this, and I have personally been on both sides of the problem in my own journey. At one time I was struggling to get clean and sober myself, and now that I am sober I have tried to convince many others who are struggling to get the help that they need. So I have gained quite a bit of perspective on the problem through all of these experiences, though I am not sure that this really gives me any special insight or anything. All it really does is allow me to see just how difficult this problem can be to try to deal with.
That said, if you have someone in your life who is struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism, there are still some things that you can do and consider that might make a difference. Keep in mind though that ultimately we can never directly change another person, so all of our efforts are going to be somewhat indirect. We do the best that we can but then we have to leave the results up to our higher power.
The first thing that you should do when you deal with someone who is addicted is to protect yourself and your emotional balance. This is more important than you first believe because in the beginning you are probably only thinking of trying to help them in any way that you can. What you may not realize is that their addiction could have a serious impact on your own life if you do not take the right precaution in order to protect yourself. What I am really talking about here is your level of emotional involvement in the situation. You have to be healthy enough to draw a line and say “OK, I have offered my help, I have done what I can, now I need to take a step back and remove myself from the chaos.” This is easy in theory but difficult to do in practice. We will talk more about how to implement this sort of approach below. But first, we need to take a look at how much energy you should be putting into the situation to begin with based on the addict’s level of denial.
Judging their level of denial so as not to waste all of your energy
Some people use drugs and alcohol for their entire life and then die drunk. This is possible in some cases and so we need to be realistic about how much we are trying to help someone. Think about the fact that some people will simply never come around, never surrender, never stop using drugs or alcohol–EVER. If you are dealing with such a case and you happen to put all sorts of effort and emotional energy into helping this person, then what was it all for? Your effort was entirely wasted because they never had any intention of changing their life. They continued to drink or use drugs right up until they passed away.
This is why I say that you need to protect yourself as your first order of business. Your most important goal is to protect yourself from the chaos and misery of addiction and alcoholism. Even though you are not the one who is addicted, if you spend too much time and energy trying to help someone and getting dragged into their drama then you are being negatively impacted.
Any struggling addict or alcoholic who continues to self medicate with their drug of choice is in denial. They are in denial because they believe that the only way that they can deal with life and be happy is to self medicate with their drug of choice. Even if they admit that they have a huge problem with drugs or alcohol it doesn’t matter; they are still in denial if they refuse to go get help. Their denial is based only on their actions and not on what they actually say.
So if they are in denial and you are trying to help them then you are probably wasting your time. They will not accept your help because they believe some variation of the following:
1) They don’t believe that they need professional help.
2) They don’t believe that they would be happy if they got clean and sober anyway, so why bother.
3) They don’t believe it is possible for them to live a sober life.
4) They don’t have any faith that they could remain clean and sober.
5) They have something against recovery models, such as AA or NA, or they are heavily against the whole “higher power” concept, etc.
Whatever their excuse is, they have their reasons and they are stuck in denial and they may not want to hear your pleas for them to get help.
Of course there are different levels of denial. They may be stuck in very deep denial and not be anywhere near the point of surrender. Or they may be at the other end of the spectrum where they are still in denial but they have been through all sorts of consequences lately and they are pretty much fed up with their life and they are ready to throw in the towel. It is this state of being that you want to catch someone at if you are trying to get them into rehab.
Realize that no one is about to go to rehab if they are still having fun. No one is going to go to treatment if they still have one or two times each week where their addiction provides real fun for them. They have to be far more miserable than that before they are ready to surrender.
When someone finally breaks through denial it is because their drug of choice is no longer working for them that well, it stops doing what they want it to do, it stops being the fun party that it used to be. And the first day that this happens is not good enough–they will still be in denial at that point. When I finally surrendered and agreed to get professional help, I realized that it had not been fun for a long time. See the difference? I had to be thoroughly miserable before I was willing to get help for myself. The drugs and the drinking had stopped being fun a long time ago.
So if you are trying to convince someone to get professional help, you may want to take a step back for a moment and ask yourself:
“How deep in denial is this person? How close are they to throwing in the towel out of desperation and misery?”
Because they are not about to suddenly see your logic about getting sober and living a better life. You are not going to pierce through their denial with an argument based on logic. And really you are not going to be able to sway them with an emotional argument either. Their breakthrough will come in the form of surrender based on the fact that they are completely miserable in their addiction and they realize that it is never going to get any better.
Setting a healthy boundary in working with the person and trying to help them
What does it mean to set healthy boundaries for people who are slowly self destructing in addiction?
It is not an easy thing to do, especially if they are someone who is normally close to you. The problem is that you have to allow them to find their own misery, to stumble through the chaos and to become more and more miserable in their addiction.
Think about this for a moment:
You cannot convince them with logic OR emotion to get clean and sober. Neither of those approaches will work. So you need a different approach that is much less direct (unfortunately).
That approach that is less direct is based on things that you can do differently in your own life. One thing that you can do is to stop enabling the other person.
When you enable someone, you reduce their short term pain in exchange for some more long term pain. What does that mean? It means that you take them to the store today so that they can buy the booze that they need, but obviously this is not doing them any favors in the long run. Sure, it helps them out today in the short run (they are begging you to take them to the store), but in the end you are only enabling them in their addiction. You are actually part of the problem.
The “cure” for this is to deny them this short term help–which we are defining as being “enabling.”
If they ask you for help then you should step away from that and realize that it is not bringing them any closer to surrender.
Ask yourself: “Is this going to help them move closer to surrender? Or is it going to make them even more comfortable in their addiction?”
We want them to get uncomfortable. We want them to become more miserable based on their addiction. No, you do NOT have to do anything specific to try to make the person miserable. They will do that on their own. You just have to stop helping them.
Now the problem may arise in your mind: “What is true help versus enabling?”
The answer is pretty simple, and it all comes down to professional treatment services:
If the addict or alcoholic wants to get help by going to treatment or rehab, then you help them.
If the want anything else from you, you deny them that help.
In addition to this, you must communicate this clearly to the addict or the alcoholic in your life. Tell them something like:
“Look, I am not going to help you any more, with pretty much anything at all, unless you tell me you want to go to rehab. If that is the case then I will help you get into rehab, I will get on the phone for you, I will drive you to a treatment center. But I will not help you with anything else, I will not give you money, I will not listen to your tale of woe, I will not even really be a major part of your life until you choose to get help. I am stepping away from all of your chaos in order to protect myself and my own sanity.”
This is what it means to set a healthy boundary. You are clearly deciding what you will, and will not do, in order to help the addict or alcoholic in your life. Then you are clearly communicating that to the person so that they know where you stand.
If everyone in the addict’s life did this, then the theory is that the addict would move closer to surrender a lot quicker, and thus get the help that they need.
Even if this theory is false, it does’t matter–and you should still use this technique. Why? To protect your own emotional balance and mental health. It is not fair for anyone to have to deal with addiction or alcoholism. The process outlined above is essentially how you practice detachment. You step away from the chaos and the misery of addiction while offering to help the person only if they agree to get professional help. Anything else on the part of the addict is manipulation. Either they want to get serious help (go to rehab) or they are trying to manipulate you. So you have to say “no” to everything except for the idea that they might surrender one day and want to get serious help (which you agree to help them with). Keep in mind that some addicts and alcoholics never reach the point of surrender, so if you do not use this approach and set a healthy boundary then you are just going to drain yourself emotionally for the rest of the addict’s life.
Why they will probably not respond well to either logic or emotion
The addict or alcoholic who is stuck deep in denial will not respond to logic or emotion. This is because they are pretty much miserable and they believe that they only way that they can have even a tiny sliver of happiness in their life is with their drug of choice. So your suggestion that they go to rehab and embrace total abstinence is like a huge slap in the face to them. The addict really believes that the only path in life for them is one where they continue to self medicate. They cannot see any other way to live and be happy. They don’t believe that they would ever be happy in sobriety. This is why they will not respond well to arguments based on logic or emotion. None of that stuff works because they are trapped in their own world of misery, and the only thing that can help them (they believe) is their drug of choice.
Therefore the solution is to use an indirect approach and allow them to find their own point of surrender. They will surrender when they get miserable enough. Their point of surrender is based on the idea that eventually they will get overwhelmed with enough misery in their life. Addicts and alcoholics who have surrendered will say it like this: “I just got sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I finally surrendered and asked for help.” It was not a breakthrough in logic–it was not that they suddenly realized that they could get sober and then be happier. It was not a breakthrough in emotion either. Rather what happened is that the person was finally overwhelmed with enough misery and chaos in their life, and they suddenly got a glimpse into the future (this is the moment of clarity) in which they see that they are stuck in an endless cycle, and that they are never going to really be happy in the future if they keep chasing happiness with their drug of choice. It is not that they see an opportunity to be happy, it is rather that they realize that they are on a path of perpetual misery.
Therefore your job as an outsider who is trying to help this person is to never deny them their misery. You don’t have to try to make them unhappy–that is not your role. Your job is to simply stop enabling them and never deny them of the misery that they create for themselves. Don’t rescue them from their misery. Simply step back and allow them to experience the negative consequences that they create on their own.
They are not going to have a revelation while talking to you about how they should go get help. What will happen is that they will be alone, and miserable, and they will come to the realization that they are on a path of misery. This is how they will surrender eventually–when they are face to face with their own problems, with their own misery, with their own self.
If you are constantly fighting or arguing with the addict then it just gives them an out. It gives them a way to put the finger on someone else. You need to deliberately take that option away from them. This will force them to look at themselves at some point, to realize that their problems are of their own making.
This happened to me in my own journey when my friends and family were on vacation at one point. I was forced to realize that I was the problem, that my unhappiness was not their fault (because they were gone on vacation, I could not point the finger of blame on them suddenly) and so I had to look at myself. I had to say to myself “Is this not what I wanted, to be alone with my drug of choice, and yet here I am miserable and unhappy?” I had convinced myself that these other people in my life were the source of my unhappiness. But when they all stepped away from me, I had to realize the truth, and take a look at myself. I could not avoid doing this.
And this is what will happen to the addict or alcoholic in your life if everyone involved practices the principles outlined in this article. Unfortunately everyone has to be in on it or the addict will have a way to avoid looking at themselves. It is only after everyone in their life stops enabling them that they will be forced to realize that their problems really are based on their addiction, and that there is nothing in that future but more misery and chaos.
What about an intervention?
Probably not worth it in most cases, though that is certainly debatable.
My biggest problem with a formal intervention is that it does not really have anything to do with surrender.
The success or failure of a struggling addict is not really based on the professional help that they receive–instead it is only based on their level of surrender. There is a difference. This looks confusing from the outside though because people who surrender fully are willing to go get professional help.
The problem is that someone who has NOT surrendered may still agree to go to treatment (I did exactly that at least twice). In that case they will not stay clean and sober, but instead will simply go to rehab for a short time and then relapse.
The intervention may force someone into treatment but it does not ever force a person to fully surrender, and that is what the truly important thing is.
That said, if someone is already at the breaking point, an intervention may push them to take action. But in that case I believe they would have agreed to take action without a full scale intervention as well.