Why I Helped Him the Way I Did

Thank you all for the positive responses to my story about spending time with the guy I found by the ocean who was having a bad experience on too many drugs.

Even my mother, fortunately, responded with “I’m so proud of you”… which, I think, is a pretty big deal. Most moms I know would be inclined to scream, “WHAT ON EARTH WERE YOU DOING IN THAT DANGEROUS SITUATION?!”

I’ve gotten some responses, though, that put my actions up on some kind of superhuman pedestal, that’s a little weird to me.  (I got some of that after the
homicidal drunk on the airplane” story, too)   When people need us (you, me, anyone), we help the way we know how to help, and we don’t think twice about it.  There’s nothing magical about that.  It’s just showing up.

But people can only respond to what I give them, so it seems misleading at this point not to disclose another piece of my history: I’ve gotten help for substance abuse.

Several years ago, I went through a period where I was severely depressed.  I leaned heavily on alcohol to survive it. Pretty quickly, my reliance on alcohol become more destructive than my depression.

There’s a long story here, and I’m going to give you the really short version.  I scared myself, I realized I needed help, and I went into an alcohol abuse recovery program (the famous one — the one you’re not supposed to name). I also started seeing a therapist.  I spent eight months battling my compulsive actions and the depression that caused them, until I finally got to the root of the problem:

I was queer and not accepting it.

(Ain’t that one a stinker?)

I worked through the depression, and then worked with my therapist to experiment with letting alcohol back into my life.  I drank lightly, socially, and didn’t enjoy getting drunk.  I wasn’t, by the program’s definition, an alcoholic.

The recovery program and I had a very sad breakup, in which I couldn’t really explain my story because it didn’t fit their model for recovery.  I’m still a huge fan of their program, though. I’ve seen it help lots of people — people who sincerely want to be helped — and I think, hands-down, it’s one of the best paths out there.  I know it helped me immensely.

But back to why I’m telling you this: the moral of the story is that I’ve spent stretches of time in community with people who are struggling with self-destructive behavior and trying to help each other through it.  I learned strategies that allow me to be present for people without letting their pain and flailing get too close to me.  And after a few minutes of conversation, I can usually tell the difference between someone who’s really looking for help and someone who’s still trying to control the situation.

This complicated stretch of my life, by the way, is also where I learned that hanging out by the ocean is a good way to remember that I’m not in control, either.

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7 Responses to “Why I Helped Him the Way I Did”

  1. Catherine Says:

    > It’s just showing up.

    Which belies the fact that a) a lot of people DON’T show up, but would rather walk on quietly by, eyes averted; and b) a lot of people don’t know what to do, even if they DO show up. Or think that they don’t know what to do.

    You’ve given some background context to your decision and actions on this occasion, and I think that’s a powerful takeaway from this story – remembering how it feels to go through a dark time, what helped, what didn’t help, how what others did helped, or didn’t – and transferring all of that into wider contexts. You’ve learned a lot during your own complicated stretches, but you’ve got the greater gift of being able to see beyond them, and the insight to see how to apply that learning in much wider contexts.

    And the humanity and decency to want to.

  2. lawrence Says:

    you are an angel in disguise – no fun intended

  3. derforkenbearden Says:

    xoxoxo. that is all. and you know i mean it.

  4. susan mernit Says:

    Trust and compassion are valuable traits; we’ve all failed, many times, and connection and caring make such a difference. This poor guy had no one till you helped.

  5. Emma McCreary Says:

    Excellent. Thanks for contextualizing this. I had been doing a bit of the “Wow, I could never do that” pedestal thing (and I always hate it when people do that to me). This is a really clear explanation of the skills necessary to help in those situations as well – showing up, but also knowing what is needed and when what you can offer will help because the person is ready to receive it. Nice.

    And I also feel relief understanding some of why I feel uncomfortable and wouldn’t just “try to help” – because I *don’t* have those skills or that context/experience and I feel unsure how to maintain my own safety/boundaries and/or what to offer that is helpful and if it will actually *be* helpful. That relaxes some of the self-judgment that came up reading your story (Ack! I would have avoided that guy! What is wrong with me?). Oh yeah – I’m just trying to meet my needs for safety and I’m not familiar/skilled in doing that around people who are addicted to drugs. It doesn’t make me wrong or bad or heartless or uncaring, just not skilled and comfortable in that situation.

    So thanks, this post was helpful for me. =)

  6. sarah Says:

    Thank you, Emma — that’s exactly what I was trying to put on the table.

    And I can also turn it around and use it as a way to remind myself that all the pedestals I put YOU on instinctively when you give me phenomenal advice are probably comparable to this.

  7. Emma Says:

    *Exactly*.

    =)