How Do You Help an Alcoholic?

Homeless Guy #2 was released from jail this week.  All of us were surprised, as he already has multiple probation violations on his record.  I’m glad he has been given another chance, not because of his particular circumstances, but just because I believe everyone deserves another chance.  After all, God keeps giving us chances to improve, to do things right this time.  And who am I to argue with God?

Our friend’s next court date is a year from now.  Depending on one’s outlook, that either gives him a year to get his life back together and prove himself, or it gives him 12 months’ worth of opportunities to mess up again.

Upon his release, #2 immediately moved back in with his wife at her mother’s home across the way from us.  The next day, I saw them holding hands, and then they came to pay us a visit.  Sitting across from each other in the living room of the parsonage, this heavily tattooed couple spoke nothing about prison life or about past hardships endured.  Nor did I hear much talk about the future.  It was all about the present, about living in the now.  Still, I heard the usual whininess creep into her voice and easily detected his annoyance therewith as he asked her to stop complaining several times.

Predictably, everything fell apart within the next day or two.  The wife came over here in hysterics, claiming that one of her acquaintances had called the cops on her, not because of anything she had done, but solely due to the woman’s vindictiveness.  “I don’t wanna go to jail!” she wailed.  Pastor Mom prayed with her, calmed her down, got her to leave.

Then it was #2’s turn to visit us solo.  A talented musician, he brought over his guitar and introduced us to a beautiful tune that he said he had just written.  He reiterated that he wants me to help him with his civil case, in which he seeks compensation for injuries incurred during one of his previous stints in prison.  I told him that he has already waited so long that his case has probably been dismissed.  However, I agreed to call the court clerk’s office for him and we were surprised to learn that the judge has ruled that #2 has another month to file his paperwork.  I agreed to help him prepare for court if he brings over all his medical documentation and spends a couple of hours with me to sort it all out.  So far, this hasn’t happened.

He thanked me for my help and vowed his commitment to us, volunteering to wash our cars regularly.  “If you want to do something for me, start going to AA meetings,” I told him.  #2 appears to have had a long-running love/hate relationship with the bottle and I made it clear that he’s going to end up right back in jail if he doesn’t take action.  I didn’t remind him of the night that he woke up in a ditch, soaked to the skin, and came banging on the outside of the parsonage at two in the morning, needing a change of clothes and a ride back to where he was staying.  I did, however, remind him that his most recent stay in jail was due to a parole violation check that resulted from his arrest on public intoxication charges the previous evening.  #2 hemmed and hawed, told me that there used to be AA meetings close by but that there no longer are.  As I was sitting at my laptop, I immediately looked this up and provided him the days and times of three meetings that are held just down the street, plus those of daily AA meetings a few miles away.  He grinned sheepishly.  I knew right then that no one will ever hear him say “I’m Homeless Guy #2, and I’m an alcoholic.”  And I know in my heart that it is only a matter of time before I learn that he is back in jail.

Then #2’s wife began texting Pastor Mom and wouldn’t stop.  The fact that her texts went unanswered did not appear to deter her in the least.  #2 is being mean and evil to her.  She needs us to pray for her.  She wants help in drafting a prenuptial agreement.

Say what? You mean tattooed guy is not actually married to tattooed lady?  Lucky for both of them, if you ask me.

The next time I saw our friend, he asked me what I think of the Kabballah, whether he should study it.  “Is it good or bad?”  I explained that it is probably unwise to get into that staff unless one is steeped in God’s Word first.  I told him about an Orthodox Jewish saying that a man should not open the Kabballah unless he has studied the Torah from childhood through to the age of forty.  But the Kaballah speaks of the center of the body being the stomach, he protested, and when he felt convicted (by the Lord, not the law) while in prison, he felt a distinct gurgling in his stomach.  I pointed out that, being a Christian, the study of Jewish mysticism might not be the wisest use of his time.

Then I saw him again, when he popped his head into the parsonage for just a minute or so.  He informed us that his wife was out in front of the church in the car we had sold them and that the cops were with her.  It turned out to be a false alarm.  It wasn’t their car after all.

As for Homeless Guy #1, he remains in jail.  In his short time there, I hear he has already served one stint in the hospital ward due to behavioral issues resulting from his mental problems.  The district attorney offered him a reduced sentence of 11 years in return for a plea of guilty.  He wisely declined.

The word going around now is that the victim of #1’s crime never actually came forward herself.  Apparently, one of their mutual acquaintances, quite possibly out of malice, called the police to report the alleged rape.  At this point, it is unclear as to who is willing to testify to what.  Rumor is that the alleged victim was seen in #1’s tent several times after the supposed crime took place.  I don’t know whether a judge would even allow such evidence.  I think the DA is going to have a tough time making his case.

Oh, and Homeless Guy #2 is now back to living in his car.  This, I think, is an excellent use of the car, as he does not have a valid driver’s license.  That fact, of course, has done nothing to deter him from driving.  Even if he manages to stay away from alcohol and reports for every scheduled appointment with his probation officer, the cops will eventually get him for driving without a license.

It may be August, but we’ve had some seriously chilly nights recently.  We gave #2 our old quilts.  We finally bought new, heavier quilts (turquoise!) that my wife found on sale.  I’m glad that the timing was just right for someone who needed our old ones.  After all, they were given to us as a wedding present.  As soft and comfortable as they are, they had become torn and ratty following 16 years of hard use.

About halfway through the church service this morning, I heard the door open and turned around to see the dynamic duo walk in and sit down next to each other.  He had his arm around her as if nothing had happened.

11 thoughts on “How Do You Help an Alcoholic?

  1. Can’t get enough of your posts! Always engrossing and insightful.

    You are too nice, LOL. I have great sympathy for people who are stuck in the vicious cycle of substance use but, at a certain point, if you let the bridge remain burned for a while that person may get that they need to build a new one……… It’s called taking responsibility. Not that you want my advice but it may help to make yourself a little less available to him. His wife may be a better person to make inroads with. Alanon is a great program where people learn to stop “whining” and start setting limits.

    Btw, I worked at Folsom for a very short period as a contractor and one of the reasons I left was because the inmates often filed frivolous lawsuits against anyone and anything, even the therapists who were trying to help them…

    • As my wife likes to remind me, you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. As frustrating as this can be, its truth is undeniable. At some point, it is necessary to allow people to go their own way and wish them luck. Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. How much help can you offer someone unwilling to help himself or herself? I always struggle with the thought that my help is a temporary band-aid keeping the person from some new revelation-producing low that helps him or her turn his or her life around. It’s difficult to watch people suffer if I can help reduce the suffering in any way, though.

    If you figure out how to help an alcoholic, please pass this remedy along.

  3. If people are unwilling to commit to positive change, your efforts sadly fall on deaf ears. I recently had to remove myself from this type of relationship (in the process now) because I can’t keep watching this friend hurt herself, knowingly.

  4. I am not an expert on substance abuse or its treatment but I read a great book on the subject ” In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” by Gabor Mate. He is a MD who worked with people who had severe additions in a clinic system in Canada. He writes about his experiences and gives us a glimpse into these people’s lives which are very sad. Many of his patients had faced terrible situations as children with horrendous abuse. I do think substance abuse is a way of self medicating for depression and other mental health issues. I think it can be a case of you need to “walk a mile in their shoes.” Dr. Mate was often frustrated by his patient’s problems with getting off drugs. And they did have all kinds of bad behaviors in order to support their drug life-styles. But the book did give me better understanding of what could be behind the behavior and compassion for their terrible suffering. But it’s also true that when you try to “help” them they very well may not follow your advice. I did attend an Alanon meeting when I was a Nurse on a unit that treated alcoholics that were detoxing. What touched me about the people I met in the meeting was these were wives, mothers and fathers who still chose to be in the lives of the person who was drinking. They supported each other and worked on not enabling the person who was drinking.

    • I love the “hungry ghost” imagery of the book’s title. You make an excellent point: It is not just the alcoholic who suffers, but his or her family as well. I harbor mixed emotions about the concept of enablement, much of which is related to the life path of my sister-in-law, who died a couple of years ago. She was a drug addict who lost her children to the social welfare system. She spent a lot of time in prison; my wife and I wrote her letters regularly. I believe that her family enabled many of her destructive choices, but I don’t necessarily think they were wrong in doing so. By providing her food, shelter and encouragement, I believe she lived a lot longer than she would have otherwise. Her life has also helped me to reinforce what I have known for a long time: That “people can change” is a great American myth. Very few people make significant changes, as it has been shown that our personalities are pretty well set by the age of seven. A “recovering alcoholic” may attend AA meetings and stay off the bottle for years, but one traumatic event can plunge him back into the abyss. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. We are who we are. And that’s okay. 🙂

      • Well I do like to believe that people can grow and change and that people have a great capacity for resilience. I hate to say that “people can’t change.” I think addictions are very hard and some people are not able to overcome them.

  5. Great post again, Uncle Guac.

    I just listened to this piece yesterday. It explains a lot about addictions and the environment that keeps them going. Interestingly, when I want to change a bad habit (though nothing as bad as alcoholism), I do “mix up the routine” a bit until I eventually quit whatever it is I started doing. There is something to it…

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