WEDNESDAY, AUG. 6 — Q: A close friend has a drinking problem. His wife kicked him out, he lost his job, and he’s been a lousy father to their 1-year-old son. He begged to stay with me (his only single friend) and has been sleeping on my couch for months. Despite my lecturing him a thousand times, he’s still going out and getting wasted -- while trying to talk his wife into taking him back. She called to ask how he’s been. I said “pretty good,” though the truth is, I just want him out of my apartment.
A: No wife, no job, probably no car, and no house — it's like there's a country song sleeping on your couch.
You have been helping him — helping him stay exactly where he is. Welcome to the dark side of empathy: empathy that backfires, ultimately causing harm. Dr. Barbara Oakley, who studies this “pathological altruism,” explains in a paper that empathy is a knee-jerk emotional response rooted in our fast-responding intuitive thinking system. Empathy jumps right in, shoving us into action. Our slower rational thought system often isn’t consulted, isn’t given the chance to say, “Hey, wait a minute, Bub. Will you maybe be helping a drunk stay a drunk by turning your living room into the Schlitz-Carlton?”
Perhaps contributing to your unhelpful empathy was the myth (not supported by science) that addiction is a “disease,” a condition that, like multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s, people are powerless to overcome. Sociologist Lee Robins first dispelled this disease myth with her 1974 research on heroin-addicted Vietnam vets. Robins found that one-fifth of the American soldiers in Vietnam had become addicted to the heroin or other narcotics they used to escape the horrors and lack of control they experienced while over there. Yet eight months to a year after returning home, about 10 percent had used opiates, and less than 1 percent were still addicted. What made the difference was no longer needing to escape.
Outside a war zone, addiction is adult baby behavior. As clinical psychologist Dr. Frederick Woolverton explains in “Unhooked,” addiction involves ducking into a substance or activity to avoid experiencing uncomfortable emotions that are a normal part of adult life. Take a new father’s feelings about the ginormous responsibility ahead of him. Understandably scary. But rather than try to figure things out, your friend resorts to child abandonment in liquid form -- instead of running away, floating away: clinging to that worm in the tequila bottle like a rat on driftwood.
You can’t lecture a guy out of addiction. To overcome one, a person needs to realize that it “interferes with their deepest values or goals,” explains addiction expert Dr. Stanton Peele in “Recover!” Peele gives the example of Phil, a lifelong smoker who’d made numerous failed attempts to quit. After a heart attack, Phil woke up in the hospital longing for a smoke. His daughter said that if he had another cigarette, he’d never see her again. That moment was the end of Phil’s smoking. Peele notes that “Phil’s core life” was about being a father, not a smoker. When forced to choose, smoking got tossed fast.
Peele says that even someone who isn’t a therapist — you, for example — can remind an addict of what he values through “Motivational Interviewing,” a sympathetic, nonconfrontational questioning technique Peele details in “7 Tools to Beat Addiction.” First, draw out what matters to the person — in your friend’s case, maybe how it felt to have a child born, what he wants for his son, etc. Then, gently inquire about how his goals and dreams square with his current life. Don’t push; if he’s resistant, pull back. Your job is simply asking questions, not judging or criticizing. By getting him to recognize the discrepancies between what he wants and what he’s doing, you're getting him to do the math: that he needs to make some changes if he wants more out of life than cirrhosis.
It’s also time for some healthy kindness — the sort that feels bad in the moment but, in the long run, may get him on the road to contributing to a college fund (beyond the one for his bartender’s kids). Give him some deadlines. First, he has to tell his wife the truth, or you’ll at least tell her you weren’t completely honest. Next, inform him that your apartment is retiring from its stint as the Motel 6-Pack. Give him a move-out date, and be prepared to stick to it. Remember, your being cruelly kind is his best shot at getting a handle on more than the sides of your toilet bowl. It’s also your best shot at charming a woman into bed without the added challenge of explaining the guy in your living room who can’t figure out whether to hit on your plant or vomit into it.
It’s Amy Alkon’s Advice Goddess Radio — “Nerd your way to a better life!” with the best brains in science solving your love, dating sex, and relationship problems. Listen live every Sunday — http://www.blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon/ — 7-8 p.m. PT, 10-11 p.m. ET, or listen or download at the link, at iTunes, or on Stitcher.