To Help An Addict
With an authenticity borne of personal experience, Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes the ordeal of a concentration-camp prisoner. Ivan, the little character of Solzhenitsyn’s book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was sentenced to ten years of forced labor in a Siberian concentration camp. On one occasion, after failing to convince an unsympathetic guard that he needed medical attention, Ivan posed a question profound in its simplicity, “How can you expect a man who is warm to understand a man who is cold?”
How, indeed. And how can one expect a nonaddict to understand an addict? It certainly is a challenge. People who want to relate effectively to alcoholics and addicts must somehow, develop a personal awareness of the compelling power of destructive habits. The method of standing on the upper rungs of the ladder and telling people who don’t even know where to place their feet to “come up where we are” is of no value. Addicts run from people who have a superior attitude, and they can literally spot them a mile away. We must enter into the experience of the addict – enter into the feelings of the suffering person – if we want to be helpful. Only those who have been cold can understand what it means to be cold; only those who have experienced their powerlessness can understand what it means to be overcome by addiction.
If we are to be channels through which the refreshing waters of compassion flow, we need to recognize that other people suffer in ways of which we are not aware. In other words, in order to be of service, we much overcome self-righteousness and judgmentalism – a feat that can be as difficult to accomplish as overcoming addiction!
Humility is the key. “The humblest workers, in cooperation with God, may touch chords whose vibrations shall ring to the ends of the earth and make melody throughout eternal ages.”* This line by a spiritually insightful author inspired my husband and me to establish The Bridge in 1974, although we had very little going for us but good intentions. Since then we’ve learned a lot about ourselves, our own compulsivity, and the incredible power of destructive habits. It would seem that we had to start a recovery program in order to discover that we ourselves were addict/codependents!
We didn’t have a business plan that called for us to identify ourselves in this manner, believe me! We weren’t aware that we were (dys)functioning out of personal histories of pain and trauma that placed us a high risk for dependency disorders. Certain events in our early lives led us to overcompensate in potentially addictive ways. We became compulsive overdoers of everything, and in the process developed unhealthy dependencies of work, food, religiosity (as opposed to true spirituality), caretaking, and control – among other things.
Our excessive behavior gradually brought us to the point of emotional exhaustion (depression). At that point, we recognized our vulnerability and sought professional help. Being humbled in this way prepared us to do the job God had given us to do. No longer did we have to try to “understand” addicts. We were addicts.
Although the experience of recognizing and admitting our powerlessness was serendipitous for my husband and me, I suspect that it is a necessary point of departure for anyone hoping to be of service to addicts and alcoholics. I would hasten to add that I don’t believe such an experience can be contrived. Only God can bring it about.
Nevertheless, if you have a desire to help addicts, I suggest that you begin by studying your own behavior with a willingness to notice the ways in which you are preoccupied, driven, or in any way excessive. When you do this, you are – in effect – stepping down from the higher rungs of the ladder and identifying with those you are trying to help. Such humble self-examination offers an additional benefit: By discovering your own addictive tendencies and addressing them before they become full-blown, you may prevent disasters in your own life!
*Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Nampa, Id.: Pacific Press, 942), 159.