What Did Adam Lanza Have In Common With Us Addicts?

Family secrets.

Family secrets are those things that everyone close to a person or situation knows or suspects, but never talks about. Often the thoughts aren’t even put into words. When they are, they come with adjurations: “It’s no one else’s business!” “What would people think?” “We don’t want people sticking their noses into…!” “It would ruin his (life) (career) (reputation)!” “We don’t talk about that!” “How dare you say that about your uncle!” And so forth.

Frequently such secrets involve substance abuse. Just as often, they hide other sorts of abuse, addiction, and other unhealthy behavior from child molestation to spousal abuse, bingeing and anorexia to cluttering. In every case, this pervasive form of denial prevents individuals and families from getting the help they need.  And all too often it “protects” people with mental illnesses. Failure of a variety of people to look at the facts and deal with unpleasant issues prevented Adam Lanza from receiving the evaluation and treatment that he needed.

If Adam Lanza’s mother had sought help when she noticed his peculiar behavior, instead of convincing herself that he was merely suffering from a mild form of Aspergers Syndrome (which does not involve the same sorts of behaviors at all), things may have been completely different. If the other folks in his life, from family members to teachers, guidance counselors and other professionals with whom he crossed paths over the years had not failed to take the extra steps necessary to bring attention to his problems, things may have been completely different. If his mother had not had a perverse streak that caused her to keep firearms in a home with a troubled family member…. If… If… If…

My point here is not to defend Adam Lanza. What I’m trying to do is point out that keeping secrets does not enhance other people’s lives. People with self-destructive behaviors — whether they are using drugs, mentally unstable, or otherwise functioning outside the boundaries of a healthy life — are the business of the people around them. The havoc wreaked every day by people who are having difficulty controlling their lives and impulses affects us all, in one way or another.

And then there was Adam Lanza, and the others.

Support Groups For Families And Friends

In the previous installment of this series on recovery programs, I discussed some of the reasons why family members, friends and even employers of folks addicted to drugs (including alcohol) may need to seek some support for themselves.  In this one, we'll talk about support groups.

These issues can all be lumped under the term “codependency.” However, the word has become so over-used, both inside and outside the recovery community, that many people tend to blow off discussions about it. That’s a shame, because addiction to alcohol and other drugs affects practically everyone in our society in one way or another. From time to time we all need to deal with an addict “up close and personal,” and most of us have no idea how to go about it. That lack of understanding can do considerable damage, to the addict and ourselves.

I’ve written about enabling several times on this blog, and you can find some of those articles here. The bottom line, however, is simply that “helping” an addict in any way that makes it easier for her to live her life while continuing her addiction is enabling the continuation of the addiction. We addicts are experts at using charm, lies, guilt and anger to influence the people around us. Unless those folks come to understand the way we operate, and the truly effective ways of helping us, they are only helping us down the road to jails, institutions and death.

Effective intervention with an addict or substance abuser, if indicated, requires the help of a professional as a sort of referee, and to assist us in making plans. However, the best guidance for families and others dealing with addicts often comes from other folks who have gone through the same process of learning about their own denial and how to work through it and other codependency issues.

How many times have you tried to open up with a friend, only to get a lot of unwanted advice from a person who clearly has no idea what you’re going through? Or, how many times have you wanted someone to talk to — someone who can understand — and not known where to find one. The support groups for families and friends are a safe source of understanding and useful information about subjects that are often family secrets, unspoken by anyone.

The first such support group was Al-Anon, founded by Lois Wilson and Anne Smith, wives of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. Now formally known as Al-Anon Family Groups, and made up of the original Ala-Anon plus Alateen (for kids of alcoholics), it is still the largest and widest-spread fellowship of its kind. Over the 50+ years of its existence, the collective wisdom of the fellowship in how to remain sane while loving a drunk has become enormous — and invaluable.

Other groups, no less important, that have sprouted off of Al-Anon include

  • Nar-Anon for those affected by people addicted to drugs other than alcohol
  • Gam-Anon for people close to compulsive gamblers
  • Codependents Anonymous (CODA), dedicated to developing healthy relationships of all kinds
  • COSA, a recovery program for men and women whose lives have been affected by someone else's compulsive sexual behavior
  • Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), for adults dealing with family of origin issues

and several dozen others. The list above is for purposes of illustration, and not to imply endorsement of any one program over another.

These groups, along with many others, are easily available by searching for “family+support+(your+issue+here)”. Example: family+support+sex+addict gives us a huge selection of support groups, resources, and even online meetings for people dealing with someone else’s sexual behavior.

By no means should we ignore online supports. Often we are unable to find an appropriate meeting, embarrassed to open up in front of others, or perhaps we are even ashamed to be seen entering one. There are literally hundreds of online support groups for every sort of addiction and families of addicts. Two minutes of searching can turn up the one we need to get started on the road to emotional help, and to the skills needed to deal with our addicted loved ones.  We ought always to keep in mind, however, that sometimes there is nothing like talking face to face, or a warm hug, from someone who truly understands.

Our first responsibility is to ourselves.  We need to find ourselves in order to live our own lives.  We can't help anyone until we face that truth and act on it.    We can make changes only in ourselves.  We may, or may not, be able to influence our addict, but we need to admit to ourselves that the problem is partially ours, let go of our useless attempts to control, and learn to detach with love.

For our own sakes, and theirs.

My thanks to Michele O. Webb CAP, ICADC for her assistance.


How Can I Help My Alcoholic Or Other Addict?

The short answer is, “You can't.”

Addicts of all kinds, including alcoholics, have to help themselves. They do not seek relief until they are so miserable that they see no alternative.  Therefore “helping” one is usually the worst possible thing that a friend or loved one can do. Making sure they have enough to eat, helping out with the rent, giving them a place to stay when they blow the rent on liquor or drugs, giving them rides to the liquor store, bringing them booze so that they don’t have to go out themselves, bailing them out of jail, allowing them to get away with stealing you blind — all of those things that seem like the sort of thing friends and loved ones do, in reality allow the person to continue in their alcoholism/addiction without truly facing the consequences. This is called enabling.

Those who truly wish to help a person with a problem will assure them that they are loved, but that they cannot expect assistance in anything but getting treatment and sobering up. Be aware that they will then pull out all the stops and try to bully or guilt you into doing things their way. They will make all sorts of promises. Don’t believe them. They are terrified of quitting — for excellent reasons — and they will do or say whatever it takes to continue drinking or using. They do not understand that they have a choice.

Well-meaning friends and relatives who try to take the pain and unhappiness out of the addiction are keeping the person from finding a reason to make changes, and until that happens, recovery IS NOT POSSIBLE! Enablers are helping their loved ones to kill themselves.

If you are a family member or employer, you can consult with an addiction professional about arranging for an intervention. Do not attempt to intervene on your own; it almost certainly will not work. Intervention specialists know all the tricks, and are able to set up immediate referrals to detox, treatment and so forth. You don’t have access to those resources, and an intervention that is only done halfway is likely to waste what may be your last effective shot.

All you can do to really help is drive them to detox when they decide they want to go there, and withhold all other assistance. There will be plenty you can do after they have been sober for a while and have learned to function on their own, but there is nothing you can do until they make up their mind to take that first step.

For their sake, don’t stand in their way by “helping”.

Helping, Or Just Getting In The Way?

This morning I opened my Facebook page to find that the father-in-law of a friend had passed away. That's not so unusual in old folks, but it could hardly have come at a more inopportune time for her. She's in Florida, under conditions that make it difficult for her to leave before the end of the week, and she has her children, 11 and 14 with her. While she'd like to be back in the Midwest comforting her family and sharing their grief, she's instead trying to console the kids, deal with her pain on her own, and get some work done. Gotta be hard.

The feeling of wanting to do something — anything — to help in such a situation is nearly overpowering. Of course that's not possible, but the feeling is still there. I think that sort of thing is hard-wired in humans: the desire to help other people in distress, even at our own inconvenience, and sometimes even at our own risk. It must have been one of the things that kept the clans together, back in the days when we were mostly nomads. It is so universal that it has to be one of the foundations of our human-ness.

Sometimes It's Best To Simply Walk Away

Instincts are good things. We didn't get them by accident; we have them because they conferred an advantage at some point in time,  so the customs — perhaps even genetic tendencies in some cases — got passed on. But instincts, like other good things, can be troublesome when they cause us continually to move in directions that are not in our best interest. Often, they're not in the best interest of the folks we're trying to help, either.

By now, many of you will have figured out that I'm leading up to talking about codependency and enabling. Well, enabling anyway. Many times our instinct to help friends and loved ones can cause us to do things that are not good for them, even though it might seem so on the surface.

The parents who over-protect their children, preventing them from learning the coping skills that  they will need after they leave home are one obvious example. The grandmother who bails her drunken or drug-addled grandchild out of jail, sees to it that his rent is paid, gets him medical care and so forth is another. She may seem to be doing the right thing but, if we look at it a bit closer, we see that her very acts of kindness are preventing him from confronting his problems and being forced to do something about them. Why change, which is always scary, when it feels better to stay where you are and let someone else do the work?

This sort of thing can be carried even farther: the wife who stays with the abusive drunk, jeopardizing her own wellbeing and that of her children, out of a mistaken notion that it is her “duty,” or that “he really loves us because he's so nice when he's not drinking.” Well I'm an old country boy, and I can tell you that rattlesnakes have nice markings and look harmless basking in the sun, but you don't want one in your kitchen. It's not that they're UN-predictable, it's that they're as predictable as all get-out.

We could keep going on and on, but I'm sure you see the point. We need to look carefully at our behavior, as it affects other people. We need to consider whether what we're doing is really what they need, or if it just makes us feel good, or dutiful, or needed, or simply relieves that discomfort that most of us feel when we see someone in trouble.

Empathy and kindness are well and good, but there really can be too much of a good thing, when it comes to helping. Are we helping or hindering?

In the case of my friend, well, she's a big girl — a scientist and world-traveler.  She can take care of herself.  She knows how to ask for help, and she knows that she has many more friends than most folks, ready and willing to jump in and lend a hand. There's a fine line between willingness to help and getting in the way.