Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Loving an Addict: To Help or Not to Help?

(Article by Dr. Seth also appearing at Psychology Today)

Not too long ago, Melody Beattie barged right into my therapy session with a client, knocking the door off its hinges and turning over the coffee table by my chair. I couldn’t believe it – it all seemed so crazy. Before I proceed, though, I should probably explain that Ms. Beattie, herself, didn’t explode all over our session, but rather her clinical surrogate.

If you’re not familiar with Melody Beattie, you should be: She developed the concept of codependence as illustrated in her self-help juggernaut Codependent No More. The concept, fully co-opted by the mainstream to the point of water cooler ubiquity, is one of the most important concepts that has emerged from psychological thought in the past fifty years.

In a nutshell, codependence describes the psychological process that ensues when an individual loves an addict. One of the takeaways from Ms. Beattie’s book is that loving an addict is akin to hell on earth, and she walks the reader through the various ways in which the supposed caretaker isn’t actually caring at all – but rather reinforcing the addiction or, as they say in 12 step groups, enabling.

In the session in which Ms. Beattie (sort of) appeared, my client described an episode in which her friend had –again - been arrested for drug possession, and my client arrived at the jail in the middle of the night to bail her out. “Why,” I asked, “did you do it?” The answer, in a flash: loyalty. My client’s belief is that this is what you do when you love someone – you help a loved one in need.

Thank goodness for self-helps books, such as Codependent No More, and therapists who can serve as objective guides in such instances of clouded judgment. Though I admit that I wanted to spring to my feet and shout, “No! You can’t bail her out!” I opted instead for something more neutral. In brief, I asked her to read Ms. Beattie’s book and spoke to my client about the myths of “helping” an addict.

Let me be clear before I make a pronouncement that leads to unwarranted hate mail: If someone you love is addicted, it is important to offer your love and support. If your loved one ends up in the slammer, it is understandable if you bail him or her out. I am talking about loving addicts who continue to screw up and whom you continue to bail out. If you run to pick up the pieces, you’re not doing anyone any favors. You must be aware of the long-term damage you can do to yourself in investing in something that might repeatedly bring dismal returns. True love is not about repeated rescue – it’s about productive mutuality.

It’s always an interesting experience when you’re working as a therapist and a clinical session makes something you read about in a textbook come so clearly to light. I truly wish Ms. Beattie had appeared in that session in which my client discussed her codependent reaction – perhaps she could have outlined her own concept more clearly!

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