Families should overcome fear of forcing addicts to face reality

People come to my office with anguish and despair about their addicted loved one. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings and friends – flailing, cruelly impaled by helplessness like an insect on a pin. Bit by bit, piece by piece, they watch their loved one deteriorate, come apart and sink ever deeper into the madness of addiction. And there’s next to nothing they can do.

They tell me of the addict’s incompetence. They delineate a long list of what the addict can’t do, doesn’t know how to do and has never been good at doing. They rehearse the list of the addict’s limits and carefully explain why those limits are what they are. The addict is ADD, had an absent father, "I wasn’t a very good mother," the best friend died when the addict was young, always had trouble in school – the list goes on and on.

No surprise. Addicts are, by definition, not especially competent human beings. Developmentally speaking, they tend to be stunted. Immature. They tend to manage their emotions as regressively as a toddler or, on their good days, no better than a dramatic junior high schooler. Addicts tend to "marry" passive inertia with an astonishing entitlement. The normal reciprocity marking all thriving, healthy relationships appears regularly to be lost on the addict.

And intimacy? This is the ultimate forbidden zone for a practicing addict, especially intimacy with self. Oversimplified perhaps, but a reasonable person could observe that the central purpose of addiction is to guarantee that the addict can dodge intimacy with self at all costs. For to know oneself is regularly grossly uncomfortable. To know oneself would mean feeling the shame of it, the sadness of it … the fear. And, of course, if intimacy with oneself is chronically avoided, then intimacy with others is nigh impossible.

The addict locks himself in a prison cell. The addict is bound in chains inside the cell, surrounded by gasoline cans. The addict lights a cigarette, then cries out to family and friends for help. Family and friends grip the bars and call into the addict. Imploring. Begging. Pleading. Yelling, screaming, berating. Hurling gelded ultimatums.

Problem is, the only working key to the chains and the cell door is in the addict’s pocket.

So, yes, the people in my office are correct. The addict is vulnerable because the addict is not an especially competent human being.

Based on this argument, now the people in my office explain why they cannot rightly have expectations of the practicing addict. Why they cannot risk setting limits. Why they are obliged to continue passing food, money, lawyers and lodging through the bars of the prison cell. If they stop, the addict will be homeless, go to jail, commit suicide or otherwise die.

This is how folks who love addicts argue for stuckness. How to get them unstuck?

I ask them to look for The Exception. Specifically, does the addict ever waver from the abiding incompetence? Does the addict ever exhibit moments of competence?

Ever notice that addicts tend to be supremely competent when it’s time to act out their addiction? They are innovative and clever. They adapt, adopt and improvise. They cover their tracks as skillfully as a raccoon running from the hounds. A trained Navy SEAL does not have better camouflage. Addicts plan crimes. They pay attention to detail. They show up on time for the drop. They weave complicated, artful tapestries of deliberate and calculated lies. They manipulate family and friends the way a master puppeteer makes a marionette dance a jig, using love against the very people who love them so deeply.

So, not so fast. Addicts are, in the end, selectively incompetent. The people in my office have been duped.

So, together, we take a breath. We force ourselves to imagine homelessness, jail and suicide. Death. We compare those horrors to absurdity of what’s happening now, which is essentially that we are a part of the problem. Our behavior is keeping the addict sick. We don’t help the addict by lowering the bar. We help only when we raise the bar.

We stop passing the contraband of codependency through the bars of the prison cell. We say to the addict: "My love is unconditional, but, effective immediately, my resources are available only for wellness. Not for sickness. If you want my help, then reach in your pocket, get the key, lose the chains and come out of there. In the meantime, may the angels protect you. Because I will protect you no longer."

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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