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[ Opinion ]

How Much Help is Too Much?

As sober people, and individuals working in addiction recovery, we’re likely to have relationships with recovering addicts who sometimes struggle to stay sober. For whatever reason, the transition to a sober lifestyle is easier for some than others, whether because of co-occurring mental health problems, lack of employment, or other issue. For those who continue to struggle, it can be extremely difficult for friends and family to know what to do and how to help. We all want to keep the struggling addict safe and healthy, but how can we tell what the right level of help is?

Hazelden Betty Ford defines enabling as “shielding people from experiencing the full impact and consequences of their behavior.” Shielding someone in that aspect, or enabling is the last thing we want to do. For most, getting sober only happens when they’ve hit rock bottom. All of us, addicts or not, must hit their own version of the bottom and, on our own, develop the willingness to try a new way of life. Yet it can be almost impossible not to offer a suffering person some kind of relief, especially when they are a loved one or close friend.

These are difficult situations, and each instance should be approached on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, there are a couple of simple questions we can ask ourselves that may put us on the right track to determining if our “help” is helping or hurting. For instance:

Who is this serving? 
Is this about my ego, or is it about the person I’m trying to help? It’s always important to make sure it’s about them, not me — that my decision to help is other-centered rather than self-centered. 

Did they ask for help? 
This is a crucial question and one that I always ask myself when I’m trying to carry the message to others in my personal life. To give effective assistance, the other person needs to want to be helped.

Is this with my control? 
Here’s another question I always try to ask myself when I’m offering help to an addict in need. There are many situations entirely outside my control — situations where I’d need to take on responsibility for things well outside my sphere — and in those cases, it’s often not appropriate to offer assistance.

What kind of help am I offering? 
There’s a big difference between taking a willing addict to a twelve-step meeting and assisting someone in, for instance, working out a legal problem. What am I being asked to do, in this case? And how much time and energy do I feel comfortable expending?

Am I keeping secrets for the addict? 
A situation that forces me to keep secrets, to hide an addict’s behavior from others, is similarly often not one where it’s best to become involved.

Does this threaten my safety? 
I can’t be of service to anyone if I’m not safe and healthy, and so it’s never wise to become part of something that would make me unsafe. To be truly useful to others, my safety, and my sobriety, always must come first.

Have I checked in with anyone else? 
Whether it’s with a trusted friend or confidant, it’s important to run big, difficult decisions by another person (or several other people!) before drawing a final conclusion. If I want to keep something secret, if I want to hide it from others, it may not be a good idea; conversely, if I get another person’s sign-off there’s a better chance things will work out as planned. 

I can’t tell you the number of situations I’ve encountered with friends and acquaintances where I’ve struggled with the amount and kind of help I should provide. For instance, how many times is it appropriate to drive someone to detox? In doing that, am I saving their life or preventing them from hitting bottom? That’s one I’ve asked myself many times. But though there may never be an entirely clear answer, there are ways of coming closer to a right decision — and one of those ways may be asking yourself the questions listed above. I’ve also tried praying and meditating on whether and how much I should help someone, as I do with most tough choices.

No matter what, I want to make sure I’m helping rather than enabling. That’s what’s best for me in my own life, and it’s also what’s best for the struggling person. I try to remember it like this, I’m not doing anyone a favor by preventing them from experiencing the true consequences of their addiction. (Those consequences are what got me sober, after all.) Still, I don’t want anyone to suffer unnecessarily. And that’s why I always take time for a little soul-searching, and to get some extra guidance, whenever I have to make this difficult decision.

John Roesch is the managing principal for Life Assurance Recovery Services, a New York City recovery services organization focusing on interventions, recovery coaching, and at-home-detox services.