How to keep your head when someone around you is losing theirs and blaming it on you

This post is inspired by a friend who asked me how to deal with another who is currently experiencing addiction to alcohol. Although my suggestions focus specifically on that situation, they may be valuable in others. Firstly, please note that my suggestions are neither for coping with (i.e. denying, ignoring or blotting out) the addictive behaviour nor for fixing the person who is addicted. They are for people who find themselves having to be around or having to deal with people experiencing addiction. By ‘deal with’ I mean involved in some kind of voluntary interaction that has nothing to do with the substance or process to which this person is addicted. If the interaction is not voluntary, on both parts, my best suggestion is to leave the vicinity (whether in physical or virtual space) immediately. All that ground-clearing done, let’s proceed.

My life-coaching is based on my doctoral thesis, a reading of the work of Dr M. Pirsig, and I see alchemy as harmonious amelioration (improvement) on all levels of well-being. Let’s take them one by one (I use my own nomenclature and also suggest there may be a level superior to the intellectual, which Pirsig does not).

PHYSICAL SURROUNDINGS – depending on the way alcohol affects the body, a person experiencing addiction to alcohol may cause disruption in your home/ car/ office/ school/ church/ in a shop or a café/ on public transport. Some of this disruption may be in the form of misplacement of objects, breakages or theft; some may lead to situations raising concerns regarding health and safety.

Reading the fictional exploits (now televised) of a vicar in the Church of England I was struck by the lack of ability or willingness to physically limit the marauding of various drunken people who continually staked their claims to the personal space of ‘the Rev.’ and to the sacred space of the church. And then set about destroying it. This kind of abuse of friendship/ professional courtesy is unacceptable and any kind of thinking that justifies it, supposedly based on compassion, is only contributing to the deprivation of agency of the person experiencing addiction. In other words, holding such people responsible for their actions and physically preventing them carrying out acts of destruction is an acknowledgement of their continuing human dignity – no matter how that dignity has been degraded by their addiction.

So sometimes you might find yourself refusing to allow someone entry into a property which is yours or for which you are responsible; or refusing to enter a public building with this person. You may find yourself suggesting a meeting in a park and blandly stating, “I’m asking you to meet me there because I have concerns about the damage to property you may cause elsewhere”.

HEALTH – Focus on your own body, not that of the person experiencing addiction. If you are well fed and watered, warm or cool enough, suitably clothed and rested, if you have easy access to toilet facilities and also are assured of freedom from bodily harm from this person, then you have a better chance of feeling grounded enough to deal with them. If you are close to this person emotionally, check out your physical safety with someone who is not. You may not be the best judge of that. Ensure that you also have the means to swiftly and effectively leave the vicinity of this person, should the need arise.

SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS – As you may responsibly limit access to physical spaces, so you may limit access to family, friends, partners, dependents, colleagues and acquaintances. I know of cases where young children, while suffering no physical harm or being in danger of such, have been traumatised by being around drunken adults whom their parents have allowed into the family home (e.g. to sober up) in mistaken acts of kindness. You may have taken all necessary precautions to remain grounded when someone is attempting to bend you out of shape but that doesn’t mean that anyone else you happen to know or bump into is similarly prepared. You don’t have the right to inflict potentially abusive people onto others without warning and preparation.

Both for HEALTH and for SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS, you may decide that a limitation of time is helpful. Being around people experiencing addictions can be physically and emotionally draining. If, for example, you need to get a joint project done with such a person, then realise that it may be more prudent to divide the task into lots of mini-projects to be done in a few hours rather than a major one with a due date a few weeks hence. Think how many extended refreshment breaks may interfere with a vague schedule! Paying in advance is probably not a good idea whereas prompt payment for each small job done (or an agreed credit system which factors in quality and promptness of completion) may be useful.

Yau Chui Wah (2009) ‘Enhancing Self-Efficacy in a Strengths Perspective’ [in Ethan J. Kerr & Owen E. Gibson (Eds) Substance Abuse: New Research, New York: Nova Science, pp. 155-169] underlines the efficacy on the road to sobriety of valuing any success that people experiencing addiction have. So breaking off all social contact may not be the most helpful thing to do. Herbert Fingarette (1988) Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease [Berkeley, California: University of California] finds that labelling people as ‘addicts’ or ‘alcoholics’ firstly ignores the spectrum of addictive behaviour, which we all move along, and secondly reduces the agency of people experiencing addiction by seeing them only as chemical or biological complexes.

The dignity of the human being includes INTELLECTUAL GOALS and it is not unknown for very intelligent people to experience addiction. Patronising such people can only be counter-effective. They may in fact be capable and willing to read about their condition, once they pass through the stage of denial. However, the best way to keep grounded when dealing with someone experiencing addiction is not to suggest ways for them to effect their cure but rather to treat them with the human dignity which their behaviour endangers. This includes respect for their intellectual ability, which may be otherwise unimpaired. Sadly, it may not. Alcohol does destroy brain cells and even when the intellect seems to be functioning normally, there may be wildly impractical schemes or pervasive paranoia. So is advisable to exercise prudence regarding the intellectual components of any joint project.

Finally, like all human beings, this person searches for meaning. This may involve SPIRITUAL OR PHILOSOPHICAL VALUES. The addictive behaviour may be an unhelpful part of the search. Just because ecological tribes have retained the wisdom to embark on shamanistic journeys aided by herbal hallucinogenics, it does not follow that post-industrial culture can cope with these drugs. And yet the search itself is valid. Part of the frenzy of drinking may be a rejection of the emptiness of materialistic consumer culture and of the roles it requires that we play. That emptiness may not be filled simply by frequent attendance of church services or yoga classes. There may be deep questions about the life of a person experiencing addiction that are being avoided.

None of this is your concern. Everyone searches for meaning somehow. Not all of us destroy ourselves and others in the process. These suggestions may help you to understand someone in this situation. But mostly they are to suggest how to keep your head when someone around you is losing theirs and blaming it on you.

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