Today I’m writing to the loved ones of addicts and alcoholics who may have heard an incomplete message about your role. The message goes something like this: “I am completely powerless to help the addict I love, and the only thing I can do is stay out of the way until he or she ‘hits bottom.'”
It’s absolutely true that in trying to help we can unwittingly enable an addict or shield him from the very consequences that might spark a change. Wisdom is required, for sure. Al-Anon exists in large part for this reason — we can’t change another person. We can only change ourselves.
But none of this means we should do nothing while a loved one spirals ever further toward tragedy or death.
This topic is very personal to me. My oldest son Noah began a scary descent into alcoholism and drug abuse in his teens that continued into his 20s. When he was 21, a worried friend of his alerted us that Noah was drinking himself to death — literally.
We scrabbled together a small family intervention and got Noah into a three-month treatment program. He loved sobriety and was excited about the future. Then, on his first night out of rehab, he drank. He couldn’t explain why, and he didn’t get sober for another five years.
But here’s the thing. Despite the seeming failure of that intervention, I honestly don’t know if Noah would be alive today had we not acted. Who can say what seeds of hope were planted during his stay in treatment? Or whether, when he finally hit a horrible bottom years later, his memory of that time wasn’t part of the reason he reached for help instead of a gun?
If your loved one is in serious trouble with addiction, you may want to consider an intervention, too. An intervention happens when family and friends of an addict create a plan to lovingly but firmly confront an addict and urge him or her to get into treatment. Some families enlist professional help, while others go it alone. (See link below for a helpful article on this topic.)
Of course, many interventions fail. The addict refuses to accept help. Or, as with Noah, the help doesn’t seem to stick.
So why bother going to all that trouble and expense? Here are seven reasons why an intervention might be worth the risk.
1. Addiction is a progressive disease that only gets worse if left untreated and is often fatal. Especially with kids and young adults whose brains are still developing, a delayed response diminishes the chance for a full recovery. Waiting for a teen to “hit bottom” can be like waiting for stage II cancer to get to stage IV before starting treatment.
2. Interventions are often necessary to save lives because a hallmark of addiction is denial and resistance. Why would we let a clear symptom of a dangerous disease keep us from trying to get help for the sufferer?
3. Some addicts and alcoholics have to get sober for a while in order to realize they actually want to be sober. That’s why rehab or even jail can turn a person’s life around. The fog of insanity lifts enough that they can willingly reach for recovery.
4. Turning points don’t have to arrive on the heels of great devastation or loss. Paradoxically, they can also be chosen. In recovery we say, “The bottom is where you decide to get off the elevator,” and, “The bottom happens when you stop digging.”
5. Despair, shame, and mortification alone won’t bring most addicts to the point of change. Often, these painful emotions merely fuel the cycle of self-hatred and self-sabotage, reinforcing an addict’s fear that they don’t deserve to recover. A loving intervention can be a powerful message in this context.
6. For most of us, a low point does not become a turning point unless hope is part of the picture. With no view to a better life and nothing to lose, an addict can bump along a series of should-be bottoms for years. A strategic intervention by loved ones can point the way to a life that’s worth staying sober for.
7. Without intervention, many addicts simply won’t hit bottom until they’re six feet under — or have put someone else there. I often look around the room at all the years of sobriety represented in a recovery meeting and try to imagine what carnage the world has been spared.
Regardless of outcome, stepping in to urge treatment and set boundaries is a way of showing an addict just how far they’ve fallen at the same time that you’re showing them how deeply you love them. Being part of such an event can be a profound, even sacred experience. If it doesn’t change the addict, it might change you.
I realize that I’ve only touched the surface of a complicated issue, but I hope this list will spark some thinking. If you know someone who loves an addict, please pass this message along.
(Here’s a helpful post from another HuffPost blogger about what’s involved in an intervention.)