Why We Can’t Save Addicts, Alcoholics, or Anyone but Ourselves

A dear friend of mine practiced as an addictions counselor for 30 years. If you hang around that long, you will find yourself treating three generations of folks, sometimes within the same family. I vividly recall being with her when she ran into a couple she’d served almost three decades ago. The woman looked at her and gasped, “You’re still doing this? My goodness! Just think of how many you’ve saved!”

Without hesitation my friend replied, “One.”

In response to the woman’s confused expression she explained, “The only person I’ve ever saved is me. I help people save themselves. If they’re willing to do the work they get better.” It bothered the woman to hear this for obvious reasons – she’d been trying to save her husband for years. A counselor would say that she’s an untreated Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA), a Rescuer, and a Caregiver. Robbie Robertson described her as, “A drunkards dream if I ever did see one.”

Her greatest denial is how angry she is – especially at him. She makes a choice to not accept powerlessness over his disease and his choice to fuel it. This is only attainable by seeing everything as her fault and her responsibility. He is absolved because he’s the one who’s sick. She seeks to save him.

My heart goes out to those who attempt the impossible, who seek to be above reproach, or to make things turn out perfectly. I fail every time I try.

I’ve learned that I have no control of outcomes when others are involved, only my part in things. This is the set up we often embrace – we don’t judge ourselves on our efforts, but rather, on the end results.

We take on roles in the lives of those we love. Some of these are consciously chosen, some are taken on by default (“If no one else is going to do it then I have to…”), and others were unknowingly assigned (what our family origin taught us of our place in the world and the earning of worth). In response to overwhelming need and/or dysfunction, we shoulder responsibilities and expectations that are not healthy and we push every limitation. You’d think we’d break (we see ourselves as broken), but we just bend.

The worst thing you can say to us is: “I don’t know how you do it.”

It’s well intended but it draws attention to how heavy our burdens are. It’s easier when we don’t think about it (“It” = ourselves). It’s easier to believe that we must carry them. The truth is we’re afraid to let go. The truth is we feel like we’ve failed…and mustn’t give up. So we do more, push harder, and deny the inevitabilities inherent in attempting the impossible. It just never works. We live the same story, demanding that a different ending be given to us. Maybe the names and faces change but all else remains the same.

Never do we ask, “Who’s writing the story?”

The choice to save ourselves feels selfish. We’re locked into earning redemption, worthiness, and love. The idea that anyone would freely give to us is terrifying and not part of the story.

The story we’re living was written for us. We did not freely choose it. We are free to pick up the pen, change the plot, change the characters, and become our own heroes.

Tell yourself, “The only person I can save is me.”

“We’ve been conditioned to not make mistakes, but I can’t live that way

Staring at the blank page before you
Open up the dirty window
Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find

Reaching for something in the distance
So close you can almost taste it
Release your inhibitions
Feel the rain on your skin” – Natasha Bedingfield “Unwritten”

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in assisting people in recovery (whether from drugs, alcohol, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles and improve their quality of life.