So You Love an Addict, Do You?

In response to my recent article, “What Many Don’t Get About Addiction?” [7/23/14 Daily Dose of Reason] a reader asked, “So what can people that care about the addict do? And how can addicts overcome their addictions?”

My initial reply was:

So long as you ask the question that way, you might as well be asking, “What can I do to get into the head of the addict and alter his/her hierarchy of values?” Or, “How can I make him think?” You can’t make people initiate thought. If and when you ever learn how to do that — with addicts, or anyone else — then you’ll be richer than the wealthiest person alive.

I think what you’re really asking is perhaps, “What line of reasoning can I employ to persuade the addict to change his/her ways?” As I showed in the article, you cannot use reason with a person in this state. They’re in a state of neglect; either they already know it or don’t care to know it (i.e., are denying or evading). None of this is to imply that it’s hopeless. People quit all the time, often without rehab or anything else (and sometimes with something like that as a crucial component). People can quit or alter their hierarchy of values; they have to be the ones to do it.

The reader counter-questioned,

Thank you. I did get your point that one cannot reason with the person. Hence, I stand by my question, to rephrase: What is a proper/beneficial ways of behavior for those who care about the addict?


Don’t pretend you think the addict has a problem when you believe or know he/she does. You don’t have to be a crusader. You don’t have to argue. All you have to say is, “I love and respect you too much to pretend that I’m not seeing what I’m seeing. I see you undermining or even destroying yourself. I know I can’t do anything about it, and I know you don’t necessarily agree. But I wish you loved and respected yourself enough to accept the truth.”

Say that one time, or perhaps several times; or say something to that effect. And proceed as if you’ve said it. Don’t play make believe, and don’t assist the person in resolving problems directly created by the addiction. When you refuse to help out in those situations, say why. “I normally would help you out with that. But I won’t this time. If I did, I’d feel like I’m participating in — supporting, perhaps sanctioning — your problem. I’m not willing to do that.”

Expect the addict to be hurt or mad. That’s a good sign. If you love or care about someone who’s denying or evading his problem, then of course that person will object when you insist on naming that problem — and then on top of it, refusing to help that problem stay around.

The most common objection to this recommendation I hear is, “But that’s not enough. I must be able to do more.” Then we’re right back to the fallacy that you can somehow get into the mind of the other person and alter his hierarchy of values for him. It cannot be done. It’s not just that nobody has discovered a way; it’s just that it cannot be done. Accept it, and take a deep breath.

In the worst case, the person is literally on a path of physical self-destruction. Granted, these are the marginal or most extreme cases, but they do happen. I won’t expect anyone not to be sad about this, or whatever else you need to feel. It’s like watching a living death — or a slow suicide. There’s no way to sugarcoat this or gloss over it, in any way. You will probably have to remove yourself from that person’s sphere of willful self-destruction. You can mourn or grieve who the person once was, or might have been. That’s all perfectly valid and understandable. But you can no more construct a cure for that person outside of his or her consent than you can for a person with Alzheimer’s, cancer or any other horrible disease.

No, I’m not suggesting that addiction is a disease in the same sense that real diseases are. Ironically, therein lies the hope. While a person with incurable cancer or dementia is too far gone, and nothing can be done — there’s always some inkling of hope with an addict, who may turn around even at the 11th hour. Root for who that person once was, or might yet again be; but don’t kid yourself into thinking that someone that far gone with addiction is still there. It’s just not the truth.

As for what addicts can do to overcome their addictions, I have concluded that the essential element is commitment to life. Either you want to live life, or you don’t. Addiction might start out as an unhealthy but not outright evasive attempt to reduce one’s anxiety and/or put a little interest into one’s life. But when it becomes plainly evident that such a path is not working — not by the standard of living a rational, healthy and functional life — then the error turns into evasiveness, and evasiveness — once automatized — becomes denial.

To ask what such a person can do to “fix his addiction” in such a context is to demonstrate a lack of understanding of what an addict is. The addict, by definition, is in a state of refusal to listen to reason. A reasonable person looks at the addict and concludes, “That behavior isn’t reasonable. What can the addict do to treat, correct or change it?”

The premise of the question is that the addict wants to do so. That’s where you’ve gone wrong. If the addict wanted to change, you’d already see that change underway. The denial and the evasion will have stopped, and now all things are possible.

When and if the addict makes or restores a commitment to living a rationally fulfilling and totally self-responsible life — well then, many types of help can be useful, including simply self-help. But “help” is beside the point until a person wants help.

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