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.
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.
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 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.
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.