"Help" is a Four-Letter Word

This morning I watched a documentary called Risky Drinking that profiled maybe five different people with varying degrees of binge drinking habits or lifestyles.  My experience viewing this film left my stomach feeling a little swishy because nearly all of the vignettes felt like they could have been lifted from my own life experience in some way shape or form... But what actually got to me?  Right at the very end when the filmmakers added some notes about "where these people are now," the final screen read like this:

The first half of the message displayed first and it gave me pause in the same way the word "help" in this context gives me pause anymore.  I can tell you from very personal experience how futile and useless the word help is.  You can help someone paint a wall.  You cannot help someone see things they don't want to see, change things they don't want to change, make choices they don't want to make.  You can support, you can stand by, you can be a sounding board, you can offer hugs, you can dole out tough love -- you can do whatever the fuck you want.  But you cannot help.  

That wall won't ever get painted that way.

While my brain fired imaginary bullets at the top part of that message, I was completely caught off guard by the second part -- the truly meaningful part:

Reading this final takeaway from the film took my breath away.  Because, yes -- so much yes to this.

Each of the stories shared in this doc offer very vulnerable and exposing truths about their individual lives, why they drink, how it got started for them, how it spiraled out of control -- and how it impacted their relationships with other people, especially children and partners.  Besides one younger woman who claims pretty flippantly to be "all better now," citing her binge drinking on a string of really tough life events (the death of a friend, a major breakup, moving...) and maybe also crediting her new boyfriend as part of her "maturing" process, the rest of the film subjects have deep-seeded issues related to their drinking.  None of them proclaim to be "cured," and at least one of them fully admits that his struggles remain intense.  Common across all stories is a social circle that not only supports but nearly requires excessive drinking.  One storyline cites domestic abuse as a result of frequent blackout states.  Interestingly enough, the women profiled are single at the time of filming (one the recently dumped woman already mentioned, the other a recently divorced woman) while the men are all knee-deep in ex and current wives.  What that tells me is that women gravitate towards a fixer-upper -- they think they can "cure" the addiction or "help" in this way.  One woman -- a second wife to a man who is constantly in and out of treatment programs -- simply looks more exhausted every time she's on screen, vowing that if things don't change this time, she's gone.

But she's never gone.

We never leave, not us supportive women.  We stand by our man until the bitter end.

"If this doesn't work, I'm going to have to give up," she said without conviction.

It took courage for everyone involved in sharing their experience for the making of this film.  It takes courage to combat addiction, to be proactive about making the necessary lifestyle changes, to remain vigilant each and every day about how addictions are manifesting.  It takes courage to stay, it takes courage to leave -- all of it takes courage.  

But courage isn't a cure.  Courage isn't happily ever after.  Courage isn't helping.  Courage is vulnerability.  It's personal growth.  It's something internal.  Courage is temporary.

Even so, nothing in our lives can change without it.  

And that's why that final tagline about the documentary subject's courage brought instant tears to the back of my eyes.  That's why it caught my breath.  I thought about these individuals and their loved ones being willing to be filmed in various states of drunkenness, various states of denial and extreme emotional reaction, various states of total exposure for what "risky drinking" looks like.  And with each person's story bookended by a medical or psychiatric expert commenting on aspects of severity highlighted by the example these participants provided, it only makes their situations that less "normalized," that less acceptable.  Brain chemistry and function literally changes -- personalities slowly wiped away, like an Etch-a-Sketch being shook.  

Your brain can't regrow neurons.  To overcome these obstacles requires intense dedication and commitment to the process.  You have to want the change and you have to work hard on it each and every day.

One of the doctors says that loved ones, family, and friends sometimes have to be "responsible" for monitoring the addict's progress.  That advice feels incomplete if not downright misguided.  The real truth -- the undeniable truth -- is the only person who can enact change is the person themselves.  They have to want to do it for themselves, not for anyone else (including an audience of documentary watchers they want to "help").  They have to embrace, confront, and admit that there is something causing unnecessary damage in their lives and with their relationships and that one step towards remedying that is to abstain from drug and alcohol use.  They also have to understand that sobriety isn't the only "solve" -- that often times, drinking and drug use is numbing out another emotional issue that will require its own treatment, confrontation, and examination in order for evolution to occur.  That doing this sort of work is difficult and painful and may result in them wanting to turn back to drugs and alcohol as a means of coping with this other shit.  That sobriety isn't only the cessation of substance abuse -- it is the exploration of alternative ways to deal with feelings and emotions, with relationships, with regrets, with decisions, with exposing their authentic selves.  It means learning to break down defensive responses and pointing fingers of blame and, instead, sitting with sometimes very painful realities and learning from them.

Why do you think we sometimes call things "sobering."  What does that mean?  It means applying a clear eye to a situation.  It means dimming out the drama and the extra fluff and seeing the issue for what it is.  

sobering fact is often not joyful or fun or something to rally around.  It's usually something that induces a lump in your throat or an uneasiness in your gut or desire to stop what you're doing and get grounded in what this means.  Sobriety always requires quiet, thoughtful, intentional work.  No one can do it for you.  You have to summon the courage each and every minute of each and every day.  That's why it's so difficult to achieve.  Courage is fleeting, remember?  Numbness is much easier.  Having your substance abuse as an excuse is easier.  Blaming other people is easier.  Settling into denial is easier.

For ten chaotic years, I was deeply involved with an individual who abused substances and refused the label alcoholic -- and so I didn't refer to him as an alcoholic.  Instead, I normalized his excessive drinking and escalated my own drinking while I was with him.  I was merely keeping up with the standards set by him and our shared community and it never occurred to me how toxic this lifestyle was until I was almost two full years removed from it.  During my time with this person -- someone I cared about and loved a great deal -- I really lost myself.  I became anointed as "the one to save him" by him and by our social circle.  I didn't understand the unfairness of that label or the burden of it until I was nearly crushed by its weight.  I truly thought it was my job to "rescue" him from his addictions and so it was devastating to feel as though I'd "failed" at this impossible task.

I didn't know I couldn't help him -- he had to do it himself.  That was the only path towards true and lasting change.

Substance abuse is cruel.  It's destructive.  It can happen to anyone.  It can happen all in an instant or it can drag out slowly over decades.  I often refer to alcoholism as the slow suicide.  

On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.  Fight Club.

For me, I reached the breaking point where I had to leave this person I loved or be killed by his shadow.  I chose survival.  I climbed out of the fire and nursed my wounds and started over.  I summoned the courage each and every day to do whatever it took to break that toxic cycle.  But, still, I understand the guilt expressed by the friends and family in the documentary -- I still sometimes feel guilty for giving up and walking away.  But it was my only choice.  I couldn't help him.  I had to go.

This is my on-going documentary about it.  It takes great courage for me to be intentionally transparent and open about my experiences -- but don't ever confuse it as help.  You want that, you've gotta do it yourself.

Modified from a a piece of writing from the Anything Goes in 2021 daily writing project.  Details here.

Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar


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