In some ways we are taught conflicting information when it comes to dealing with the struggling addict in our lives.
On the one hand, we are taught to back off, to stop enabling, to let them suffer their own consequences and learn things the hard way.
On the other hand, we are taught to encourage treatment, to confront the addict, and to challenge them to change their life and to seek help. We are told that we can set limits and boundaries that will help the addict to move in the direction of treatment.
How are we to find the balance between these two things, and how are we to know when is the right time to take action and try to intervene?
If you have ever lived with an addict or an alcoholic or been close with one for a long time, you will understand that there is a certain progression with their disease.
It starts out as just fun. They discover their drug of choice and they use it and they have fun with it. They are enjoying themselves the entire time. They get a ton of value out of using their drug of choice. Good times all around.
Later on they start to experience some problems due to their using. These problems might be somewhat indirect, and therefore hard to pin down. For example, they might find it difficult to wake up in the mornings due to their addiction, so they might quit their job and claim that they wanted to find some other kind of work. In reality their addiction was preventing them from doing the job and so they quit before they could get fired.
At this point the person is not completely out of control, but they are also not fully able to resist their drug of choice, either. They have started on this slow slide into chaos where their drug of choice is making decisions for them now. They are starting to slowly arrange their life around their drug of choice. They may not be losing jobs, homes, going to jail or crashing cars yet, but they are starting to see some small effects from their drug or alcohol using patterns. Their life is slowly rearranging to that of an addict.
If you try to intervene at this (relatively early) point, you are probably not going to make much headway in getting the addict or alcoholic to take action and address their problem. You see, it’s just “not that bad yet.” And it’s really not, considering how much worse it can potentially get with addiction.
Someone on the outside of the addiction (that’s you) is looking in, seeing that it is a sure path to chaos and destruction, and we can easily see that it is only going to get worse over time. So it only makes sense for someone on the outside to urge the person to get help and to go to treatment.
But stop and think about it from the addict or alcoholic’s perspective for a moment. They are living their life as best they can, and they have found this miracle cure (in their opinion) that suddenly fixes everything that they thing is wrong with them. For shy people, their drug of choice gives them courage and fixes their personality. For angry people, their drug of choice may calm them down and make everything right in the world while they are high. For whatever reason, this person tried a drug of some sort and it really hit the sweet spot for them and it totally fixed their life.
This “wonderful discovery” of their drug of choice takes priority over everything else. The addict thinks to themselves “As long as I can keep getting my drug of choice, I will be fine, it does not matter what else is going on in my life, if I have my drug of choice, I can handle it.” Then they start rearranging their life around that mantra.
Something has snapped inside of their brain, and now they are using their drug of choice as their ultimate solution for life. It has become their answer, their method of living, their only solution. You are certainly not going to pull them away from this new discovery when things are going relatively well for them, and they are still somewhat happy.
You are also not going to be able to convince them to give up their drug of choice when things are going so-so, and they are actually starting to experience some negative consequences from their addiction.
Pretty much the only time that you can make the useful suggestion of getting help to the addict or alcoholic is when they are flat out miserable. If they are not miserable, why would they want to change at all? Why would they seek to change their whole life if they are only a tiny bit miserable? Because they have a solution for that, remember, their drug of choice fixes everything!
Until it doesn’t. At some point, their drug of choice will become less effective, and it will not really fix their state of misery, and then they will become more open to the idea of change.
Until they get to this point, anyone urging them to get help is probably just going to be a bother.
So, one of the biggest keys for this process of getting clean and sober has to do with how miserable the addict or alcoholic is.
The addict’s level of misery
It is amazing how much pain and misery the typical addict is willing to endure.
The reason this is the case is due to denial. Remember how I mentioned that, in the beginning, the addict discovers their drug of choice, and everything is just marvelous? The drug seems to fix their personality perfectly, and they are genuinely enjoying themselves and having fun with their drug of choice.
These memories become almost permanent. As their addiction evolves and morphs into chaos and misery, the addict will retain these “perfect experiences” that they had in the early days, and they will hang on to those memories and hold them in their mind as “their typical drug use outcome.”
So the addict is clouded by denial, and they believe that their typical drug use results in happiness and joy like the times that they used to have in the early days of their drug use. This is how their denial confuses their thinking. They believe that those perfect experiences that they had in the early times are always just out of reach.
They also believe that, even if they are using their drug of choice right now and they are not quite that happy, they believe that normally they DO achieve that state of perfection. Their brain is telling them that this perfect experience is normal, but right now things just are not set up perfectly. Wrong environment, the drugs are not quite right, wrong people to be around, or whatever. Their brain makes excuses as to why THIS high they are experiencing is not as perfect as that original experience from the early days.
So what happens is this:
The addict uses denial in order to hold on to that perfect experience of drug use from their early days. They hang on to that idea and every time they experience anything less than that, their denial causes them to create excuses as to why things are not as good.
Thus, the addict is able to endure all sorts of misery and chaos, even as their drug of choice becomes less and less effective over time, simply due to this denial mechanism. They make excuses for their lack of happiness at every single turn:
“I would be really high and happy and content, but I had to deal with job today, and I got really stressed out, and if I did not have to deal with a job I could just do my own thing and get high and my life would be perfect.”
“I would normally have the perfect buzz from this, but I am upset today because my relatives are in town, and they drive me nuts, and I have to deal with them later, so I cannot really fully enjoy this buzz and enjoy the moment like I used to be able to do.”
“This amount of my drug of choice used to make me ecstatic and happy, but these days I don’t normally feel that happy any more unless I combine this with some other drug, and I don’t have any of that right now.
Whatever the excuse is, the addict is comparing their experience to that original “peak experience” that they had in the beginning with their drug of choice, and noticing that they are not as happy now as they used to be.
Notice that it does not really bother them though, they just take it as a given that they are not always going to be able to achieve that perfect happiness, and so they accept their misery in some part, making excuses as to why their drug of choice cannot perfectly transport them to bliss in every situation.
Because that was the original promise that their drug of choice had made to them: that they could be instantly transported to la-la land at any time, that they could simply use their drug of choice and all would be well with the world again. This is the promise that their drug of choice originally made to them. This is the promise that created their addiction in the first place. This is what hooked them.
And now they are slowly coming to learn the truth: that their drug of choice does not work every time, and in fact they are going to find that in the long run it almost never works as originally advertised. Those good times and great memories are hard to come by, and they don’t happen every single day while chasing that next great high with their drug of choice. In fact, after several years of addiction, the addict will eventually get to a point where they are pretty much miserable ALL THE TIME.
But their denial will not let them see it. They are still clinging to that original promise that their drug made to them–that they can be instantly medicated at any time, and their mood can be transformed. Happiness in a pill! Happiness in a bottle! This was the lie that they believed in the beginning. This is the promise that led them down the path to addiction.
Their memory of the perfect buzz caused them to defend a drug of choice that was slowly no longer working so well. They had seen the evidence once, that their drug really could fix their whole world and make them truly happy. They just had to find the perfect conditions or the right combination in order to get back to that perfect buzz.
And of course, it never happens.
Meanwhile, the consequences of addiction start to pile up.
The addict takes more and more of their drug of choice in greater quantities in order to chase that perfect buzz. This effort creates more and more consequences.
Drug and alcohol addiction creates misery all on its own. Just keep taking large quantities of any drug, over and over again, and things will start to go downhill fast.
What once was “fun” will now become routine. Because you achieve that same buzz all the time, it will become the norm, and there will be no further peak experience, no higher high to achieve. Drugs and alcohol will lift you up to a point, but take you no higher. And so you will chase that same point, over and over again, until it becomes your new state of “normal.” And then you will no longer be ecstatic when you get high, you will just be you. You will just feel normal, and all the fun will be gone, and the promise that your drug of choice originally made to you will be broken.
Unfortunately, denial will prevent most people from seeing this truth for a long, long time. It takes years to realize that we are just making excuses for our addiction and for our drug, and that we are actually miserable almost all the time.
It takes guts to admit that our way was wrong, that our best ideas about how to live and how to be happy were a sham, and that we are actually miserable.
The level of misery is important because it is being weighed against something else in the mind of the addict. It is being weighed against their fear.
The balance between fear and misery
The addict is afraid.
They are afraid of being clean and sober.
Most addicts will never admit to this. That is OK. They are allowed to act brave, to be macho, to pretend that they are not scared.
But believe this: the addict is very much afraid of having to face life without their drug of choice. The idea terrifies them.
And so as their addiction progresses, as they become more and more miserable, their misery is sort of being held in check by their fear.
They may even realize at some point that they are miserable in their addiction, but they feel powerless to do anything about it. The reason that they feel powerless is because they are too scared to face life clean.
They will probably never be able to clearly articulate this, even if they understand it, because we do such a good job at covering up our true fears. So it would be rare for an addict to be able to see this problem and identify it while they are still using.
After getting clean and looking back, it becomes much easier to realize that we were balancing our misery against the fear of getting clean and sober. But no one wants to see that, or admit it, when they are still stuck in addiction.
They have a saying about change in recovery. It is something like this:
“When the misery of your condition becomes greater than the fear of change, that is when the addict will change.”
Think about that for a moment. The addict does not change when things are going well, or when they are happy.
They have this fear that dominates them about facing life clean and sober. It is a constant fear, it never goes away as their addiction grows.
So the only way that they are going to face that fear is if they become miserable enough to do it.
They have to be really, really miserable in order to say “screw it, I am scared beyond belief, but I am going to face my fear anyway.”
No addict will ever face this fear lightly. It is too great a fear. So they will need to become quite miserable before they will be willing to change.
The pro treatment message and setting boundaries
So what can you do?
You can do three things:
1) Have a pro-treatment message to the addict in your life. They may get sick of hearing it, but your message to them needs to be “inpatient treatment is the solution.”
You want them to go to rehab. At the very least, they will be clean and sober while they are in treatment, and the hope is that they learn some things about how to remain clean and sober. If they happen to be at a point of surrender, then inpatient treatment is the best choice for them.
So your basic message to them needs to become consistent, and that message is “go to rehab.”
2) Learn how to set limits and boundaries so that you are not enabling the addict in your life. There is a saying that sometimes we can “put pillows under them” when they get into trouble or experience consequences due to their addiction.
We want to make sure that we are not “putting pillows under them.” This means that when they get a drunk driving, we do NOT bail them out of jail. This means that when they experience a consequence from their addiction, we do not bend over backwards to rescue them from that consequence.
If we deny them their consequences then they will not change because of those consequences. If you deny them their misery then they will not get the motivation to face their fear, and change.
Note this does NOT mean that we have to actively increase their misery. Do NOT try to be mean or mess them up in any way. Their addiction will do that just fine on its own. Your job is to simply get out of their way and let them experience the consequences.
And, you need to set healthy boundaries for your own sanity. It is not fair to you to have to deal with the chaos of their addiction, so put a healthy distance between you and their behavior. Setting a boundary may also be part of the consequences that they need to experience in order to move closer to surrender.
3) Suggest treatment most aggressively when they are at their most miserable. You may not always know what they are feeling, but we can get a good idea based on the consequences they are experiencing. For example, if they just wrecked a car and spent a night or two in jail, that might be a good time to encourage change. On the other hand, if they seem to be happy and carefree, they are not likely to entertain the idea of surrender and inpatient rehab.
In the end we should always be encouraging a pro-treatment message, the question is simply how hard do we push and what timing do we use. You may be worried about what will happen if they go to rehab and then relapse, but there is nothing to be done about such fears anyway, and everyone has to find their own path in recovery.