Monday, March 28, 2011

In Which I Ask: Would You Want Help?

After my most recent post, I received a lot of emails, and some very insightful comments, about what the rules are (or should be) for knowing when, if and how to help someone who is struggling with addiction.

I haven't been able to stop thinking about this topic for days.   I've rolled scenarios over and over in my mind, wondering if there is a common thread, a way to help people know what to do when faced with a situation with a stranger or friend who clearly needs help.    I'm not going to touch on what to do when a loved one is struggling.   That is a discussion for another time, and different guidelines apply (in my opinion).

To summarize, in my last post I described a woman I saw in line at a convenience store at 9:15am buying a gallon of cheap white wine.  She was shaking, obviously struggling (but not visibly drunk) and as I went to my car I saw her crying into her hands with the brown bag containing the wine sitting in her lap.    I didn't reach out to help her, although the thought crossed my mind.    I have been sending a lot of prayers her way since.

Many of you wanted to know why?  Why didn't I reach out?   (These questions were asked out of genuine curiosity, and not in a confrontational way.)   People sent emails outlining situations they have been in themselves, and wondering when, or if, they should offer to help.   Or at least point out the problem.

I started thinking about denial, about how hard it is to crack through the wall of lies and rationalizations we use to hang on to behavior that we know, somewhere deep inside, is becoming corrosive in our lives.

It's not just alcohol or drugs that invade our sense of balance and peace.  Many, many people have some thing they cling to that they want to keep hidden from the world, and many times they keep it hidden from themselves as well ... also known as denial.   People use food, shopping, gambling, marital affairs and other self-destructive behaviors as a trapdoor out of reality.  

For many people - women in particular - the problem is food, or issues around food.   Perhaps you struggle with anorexia or bulimia, or you are a secret eater, binging on food at night when nobody is looking.    Food, like alcohol or drugs, provides the illusion of relief from reality, pulls you out of yourself, at least temporarily.   But after the binge, or purge, you are left only with disappointment and self-loathing, thinking: I've done it again.   In this sense, it is very similar to drug or alcohol abuse.

Or perhaps the opposite is true:  you deprive yourself of food to maintain the illusion of control over your life, or to strive for that unachievable perfect body.

Food issues are the best example to use when we're talking about how - or if - to reach out and help someone, because it's something more people can relate to.  If you're struggling with food issues, how would you feel if someone approached you, without being asked, and offered to help?   Like alcohol and drugs, food problems can become obvious to the outside world.   You gain weight (or with anorexia you become alarmingly thin).   If a stranger approached you in a store, as you stood in line with armfuls of snacks, and asked you if you were okay, or handed you a card for Overeaters Anonymous, how would that make you feel?   If a friend kindly asked you if you were okay, because she noticed you were gaining (or losing) too much weight, how would you react?

Would you feel grateful for the kindness of that stranger (or friend)?  Would it crack through your denial, making you finally see what you have been trying not to see:  that your weight (up or down) has become a problem?

Would you feel anger, humiliation and resentment?   Would it drive you deeper into hiding?   Would you think about addressing your food problems head on, or would you simply take more precautions to keep it secret?

Would it prompt you to get help?

I ask these questions with genuine curiosity.   I don't ask them facetiously, or with a sense of what the actual answer is; I'm trying to paint a picture more people can relate to.    I really want to know:   how would it make you feel?

This analogy falls apart on one important level; you can't eat too many tacos and then get into your car and kill yourself or someone else.    When someone is obviously drunk or high and getting behind the wheel of a car, more immediate action is called for.   

But what about the slower degradation of your health, your sense of self-worth, of peace?   

Where is the line?

As I look back over the past three and a half years of recovery, I can't think of a single example of a time I reached out to someone who didn't ask for the help that has been successful.    Because alcohol abuse is more common than people realize, I see examples of people - some of them friends - that I know are in danger of losing themselves to addiction.   The problem is that they don't see it yet.   It is very, very hard to make someone see something in themselves that they have spent years trying not to see.   

Even when people are asking for help many times what they really want is for the bad consequences of their behavior stop, some secret shortcut to being able to keep drinking without the destructiveness.   The same thing applies to food addictions.   Just look at all the "magic cures" for obesity out there:  eat all you want and lose weight!   

Real change only starts to happen when the person surrenders to their problem and understands the destructive behavior (eating, drinking, drugs, starving, gambling, compulsive shopping, etc.) has to stop for any kind of recovery to begin.

So what can you do?    It doesn't feel like much, but you can be ready if and when the time comes and the person wants help.   You can listen without judgment, and act with love.  You can offer your undying support if the person agrees to get help, and you can retract your support if they don't get help.     You can get them talking, help them put a voice to their truth, and listen without reproach.

I want to know what you think.   How would you respond to the scenario I described above?   Have you been in a similar situation with a stranger or friend?  What did you do?   How did it work out? 

This is such an important discussion to have, and the more we share the more we will all learn.

You can comment anonymously, if you'd like.  But please let me know what you think.


  1. I was confronted as a teen by a close friend about my bulimia. In fact, one day after lunch, he stood up and did not allow me to sneak off to the bathroom as I usually did. I was not even aware of the fact that my friends knew what was going on until he took a stand. He told me how his much older sister had similar problems at this age, and had wished for someone to help her then, many years later. He was going to do what he thought was right in the moment, so I wouldn't wish for the same later in life, even if it meant losing a friendship.

    He was my motivation to start working on my problem, and get the help I needed. I have not had a bulimic episode in nearly two decades. And while our friendship did take a ten year hiatus, we are again close friends, and will continue to be so.

  2. Great analogy Ellie. I have so many thoughts running through my mind (and am looking forward to your post about how and whether or not to intervene with a loved one). Being someone who does have some issues with food although not to the extreme of bulimia or anorexia. I am someone who has let myself go, has gained weight, does not feel healthy or happy with myself yet can't seem to stop. I am not morbidly obese so if someone confronted me I would probably be horrified and resentful to any person who confronted me about it...offered me a card to the nearest gym or overeaters anonymous or the like. But I would love for someone to say "let's walk together, take a class together, meet at the gym together" and then bug me to do it. Be my buddy, be my conscious, get me started, hold my hand. If there where a way to do that with someone who drinks, without coming out directly and saying "I've noticed your problem and might need some help" then that is what I would think is the thing to do. If you could bring them to a meeting, support group, meet with other friends who talk openly about it and perhaps coax them out of their shell, get them started in the right direction with love and support but without accusation or the fear of judgement...that I think would be helpful and appreciated and good.

  3. I think if it came from a place of "I've been there, I know what it's like" instead of "you have a problem" it would be ok.

    I don't have a drinking problem, but in my 20's I was bulimic and cut myself. Had someone said "you have a problem and need help" I'd have shunned them. When my friends in college said they knew I was throwing up, I simply found another bathroom to use.
    Had someone quietly handed me a card (or left it somewhere I could find it) that said "I've Been There" with some information about where to get help, or a website, and then not mentioned it again that would have been helpful. I probably would have at least looked at the information and filed the card away for the future.

  4. I actually went over your scenario many times in my head, and could not think of a way you could offer help in that specific situation without it possibly backfiring. The woman was probably already feeling humiliated and defensive, she may not believe she has a problem, she may have OTHER problems in her life that are compounding or complicating the alcohol problem (and also providing a convenient distraction/scapegoat)...

    Had she reached out to you in some way I might feel differently. Had she been in an immediate crisis (getting in the car drunk, for example) I might feel differently. If she were a close friend or family member I might feel differently. But the situation, the way you relayed it? I'd probably have done exactly what you did--offered a small sign of support/empathy and then moved on, wishing I didn't have to feel so helpless.

  5. If a stranger approached you in a store, as you stood in line with armfuls of snacks, and asked you if you were okay, or handed you a card for Overeaters Anonymous, how would that make you feel?

    I would feel horrible and I would think it was inappropriate. I may be struggling with my weight, I may have taken off 50 lbs already, and I may be buying those snacks' for my son's birthday party. Or, I may be overweight due to a thyroid issue, a disability, or other health related problem that has nothing to do with the snacks that I am buying. I think with the stranger scenario there are too many assumptions and too much opportunity to be hurtful rather than helpful.

    If a friend kindly asked you if you were okay, because she noticed you were gaining (or losing) too much weight, how would you react?

    If a friend asked, I think my reaction would depend on whether I was ready or not. I would expect friends to have more context than a stranger, so they would know whether there were significant changes in me and would, I hope, be able to broach it delicately. I might brush it off or get upset (if I wasn't ready) or I might take them up on the offer (if I had just been waiting for someone to say "I support you" or "I'm here for you").

  6. Great insights, everyone. Thank you.

    To the first Anonymous - thank you for sharing your story. It's true that a well timed comment by a loving friend (or family member) can plant a seed that grows into recovery, even if it starts as anger or resentment. Did the 10 year hiatus in your relationship result from his saying something? Good to hear that you're friends, again, and a valuable insight for people considering saying something. Sometimes you DO put a friendship on the line to help save someone's life, but in many circumstances .. it's worth it. And if the person does recover, they will always be grateful you said something (I say this from personal experience, too).

    Annie - I think you're right when it comes to strangers, that the opportunity to be hurtful rather than helpful is great. It's hard to come from a place of "I've been there" (as another commenter astutely pointed out) with someone you don't know at all.

    Please keep commenting, everyone - this is helping so much!


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  8. We've watched our across the street neighbors struggle with a drinking problem as long as they've lived across the street. Their oldest child is 11 months younger than our daughter and they are tight buds, have played together every day since they were babies.
    The level of denial is huge. There have been so many times when I've wanted to say something, and haven't. We actually changed bus stops for a bit, because we just had a hard time dealing with the lies and the cover ups. As long as they (both parents struggle with it) are sober, they are delightful people. He, in particular, is a great dad. The kind of dad who comes home from work and takes all the kids in the neighborhood to the park for an hour, then heads home, cooks dinner, bathes and puts his kids to bed. He seems to be able to keep it together more than his wife.
    There have been times when I've wanted to tell her, red wine stains are not covered by gargling with listerine. I've suspected her of drinking in the mornings and then head out to pick her kids up at school. Her personality changes when she drinks - both of them do, but hers in particular and she seems to be the one who really struggles with drinking. There did reach a crisis point a few years ago where social services were called in, although they won't admit to it. They trip themselves up in lies so many times, it's hard to tell what they think is real. I can tell when things get bad, because the kids beg to come over here. Now that they are old enough to run over on their own, I let them stay. I wish I could do more, but I can't. Their mother is working full time these days and that seems to be helping her. There aren't any (not so)'hidden' bags of emptys lying in the bushes around the house and with a sitter to put them on the bus in the morning, there's no wondering if she reeks from the night before or if she just got an early start.
    We've talked with other neighbors about confronting them when the drinking seems to take over, but they seem to be able to quit and pull it together just as it seems to get to that point again. The one neighbor in particular is recovery, and has an ex-husband who is an alcoholic who struggles. I myself have a reputation as 'party girl', so we do realize the delicacy of the situation. We also realize, that as long as they deny so many obvious lies, anything we say and do will get a negative reaction. So we choose to just be there for the kids, unquestionably. It's all we can do. So, I totally got why you didn't say a word.

  9. Hi, Ellie!

    Thank you for this topic. It's a great one in so many ways, and there are so many thoughts swimming around in my head. I did read your post about the woman buying the alcohol at the store. My beliefs are similar to those you have posted above. In 16+ years in 12 step programs, almost 16 of them sober, I realize I have strong beliefs on this subject.

    I'm in recovery from compulsive eating and have had similar thoughts & feelings about approaching someone with information about food programs. I would not have wanted to be approached when I was obviously underweight or overweight. And I did have an addiction. Many people have medical conditions that cause them to gain or lose significant amounts of weight. I've found that making assumptions of others can be hurtful to them and me.

    The same could be said for the woman who was buying the alcohol. Has anyone seen the recent commercial where the woman portrayed seems completely disheveled, shaky, unable to work, depressed, even clumsy and we are led to believe that she has a drinking problem when we discover that these are the affects her daughter's addiction is having on her? Maybe that woman was buying the alcohol for a loved one, still at the end of her rope but alcoholism is not her problem. More assumptions.

    The truth is that God as I understand God does not need me to "police the Universe". The loving energy that flows from my heart to those whom I feel may need help (like the woman buying the wine) may not be visible but to me it is palpable. I feel it for that woman. I believe that many people who read your post felt it for that woman. That energy, whether in the form of prayer or thought or a desire for her well-being (which I believe are also prayers) is POWERFUL. And while it happen at a level that we cannot see, that woman may be reaching out today because of it. Who knows. She may be sober.

    These are my beliefs. God as I understand God does not punish others because I didn't "do something". I believe God gives them the next person. And the next. And the next.

    I have also had no luck whatsoever helping people who did not reach out for help. In fact, there are dozens of people over the years who have reached out to me for help who ended up not being willing/ready for it.

    There is a part of the Acceptance pamphlet by Vincent P. Collins that states, "I finally learned that you cannot help people unless they really need help, are willing to be helped, want YOU to help them, and ASK YOU to help them. Even then, you can only help them to help themselves."

    This has been my experience. Especially in relation to my own mother’s alcoholism.

    This does not mean I don't reach out to those still suffering. I certainly do. And in a myriad of ways. For example, When I am in a conversation with someone at work or in another setting and they bring up something that makes me think that this may be someone that I'm supposed to share my recovery experience with, I have learned to ask my Higher Power for guidance. It's amazing to me how often things happen just at that moment - the phone ringing, someone walking in, the other person changing the subject - that tells me that its not the time or place. When I feel safe and the conversation continues after that prayer, I feel like it's my heart, not my ego, that is sharing and I am often pleasantly surprised by the response.

    Thanks again for the post and for all of your comments :)! Namaste, Jennifer E.

  10. The only thing that came to mind when I read this is that recovery is for people who want it not for people who need it. I can want it all I want for someone else but until they want it there's not much I can do. I may even be stepping in the way of their HP working in their life in their HP's time and place.

    I'd have to check my motives because I've spent way too much energy in my life wanting to be many other people's HPs and trying to be just that.

  11. Becky - that's a heartbreaking story. I'm glad that you and the other neighbors are talking to each other, so if the day comes where action is necessary, you will have each other to lean on. One of the primary things I KNOW to be true is that when I'm reaching out to people that I never, ever do it alone, especially when I'm physically helping out, like giving a ride or going to someone's house. I also make sure I'm talking to another trusted sober friend so that I can keep my own support system in place.

    Jennifer and Hope - thank you for your insights as well .. your words help me so much.


  12. Great analogy, and so thought provoking.

  13. Hi Ellie, an excellent topic. It's such a hard one to figure out bc honestly most self destructive behaviors stem from Mental health issues and if taken to far can be fatal (accidents, suicides) or hurt others, the person's children, not just yourself. My personal philosophy when someone I love is clearly in trouble is it's time to intrude. Keeping things covered up don't do a thing to get them help. While you are right that a person needs to be ready to get well, I also think sometimes they also need a slap in the face (not literally) to realize how bad it's gotten. Or in some cases, the destructive behavior might be a cry for help. By intrude, I don't necessarily mean go directly confront an acquaintance, but maybe it's time to tell members of their family, or close friends so that you and others can keep an eye on them. We can't save the world but maybe our intervening would save their life, get them one step closer to recovery. If enough of their friends and family openly knew and talked about it, perhaps it would sink in. Or maybe involuntary intervention is necessary depending on how extreme things are. I've lived through too many suicides to sit back when I see a real problem.

  14. Your post the other did make me wonder what you could have done. Because you are open about your recovery, we know that you have been where she is, but she does not. I had a thought just now though, what if you had business cards printed with just the Crying Out Now website and you could just simply hand someone a card. They could then do what they want with it, but maybe it would help her to realize they are not alone. Depending on where someone is with their addiction will determine how they respond to anyone trying to help them.

  15. Ellie: While all of the comments are very insightful, I vote for Julia's idea of printing the "Crying out Now" cards with the website highlighted on it.

    You could have a simple statement on the cards saying something like "Try it you might like it" to hand out in situations such as this one.

    to cover the costs you could auction off a piece of jewelery or as Stephanie did just ask for contributions or there may be somebody that reads these blogs who is in the printing business and can do the cards at a reasonable price.
    Why is the card such a good idea? I know that it takes time for the ego to process that something is very wrong and it wasn't until after reading many of your blogs that I understood what was happening to me in that I had given over the power to my alcoholic tap worm who was controlling way too much of my day to day thoughts and actions.
    But I didn't stop right away as I had to process these thoughts. When I received my signal that someone else was willing to take over my actions I was ready for the next step and took it. Had I not gone through my own process of putting myself and others through complete hell and turned to your blog, I would have missed my signal.
    The card will enable the person to start their own search for a solution which may take them alot of time.

    I'd go back to the store where you saw this person and talk to the vendor as he obviously noticed the woman as well. Give him your new card and ask that he give it to her the next time she is in with the reasons that you wrote this blog. If she goes to the "Crying out Now" site she will eventually find you and appreciate the prayers and love that you felt for her.

  16. Ellie: I think what people need to do is talk about it - like you do. The more people feel that they aren't alone, the more likely they are to get help. And the more you talk about something, the less power it has. The best we can do is be supportive, and websites like yours help do that. I openly talk about my problems with anxiety and depression because I want other people to know they are not alone ( And I want to be reassured that I am not alone as well. That is the first step.

    I'm not sure what I'd do if I saw what you saw. Probably the same thing - note it and feel sorry for her, but do nothing of action - prayers are a good idea, though. The help is out there when she is open to it and ready to find it.

  17. I love the idea of Crying Out Now cards. I'll make some up. I am more comfortable doing that than handing out cards with my own info on them.

    And Gillian - what you say about the crying is so true. I don't have to presume that I know what the problem is (even if in this case it seems like drinking) to ask someone if they are okay. And if I have cards like Crying Out Now ready in the event someone says they have a problem with drinking, that's a good first step. Often, in situations like that, if someone does open up about their drinking, I'll hand them a meeting list (I carry those with me) but sometimes people find that too aggressive. So having the cards would be a great thing.

    I *knew* you guys would have great insights.



  18. I just want to second the "I've been there" idea, if cards are going to be printed up. Or perhaps, "we've been there." One or the other on Crying Out Now cards. I think a hugely helpful message is that a person suffering is not alone, and certainly not as alone as they think.

  19. Yes indeed, the cards idea rocks with good intention, purpose, actual help that can be accessed on the person’s timing. What a great proposition. has a ton of really neat cards and they will print and ship for about four dollars. They advertise it as free and you really do only pay shipping. I have ordered dozens of times from them in the last decade.