How to Help the One You Love

A New Way to Intervene and Stop Someone from Self-Destructing

Brad Lamm

St. Martin's Griffin

(One: You’ve Got the Power!)

If anyone needed to change, it was me.

From the time I was a teenager, I had a preoccupation with catching a buzz. The son of a preacher, I grew up in a drug- and alcohol-free home in Eugene, Oregon. Our house, situated on an acre of land, was a neat, modest wood-frame home on Kirkwood Street, a road away from my father’s church. Our house was surrounded by azaleas, rosebushes, towering oak trees, and a large lawn that I and my three brothers mowed regularly. There was a garden in our backyard where we grew a lot of our own food, and we were able to can a season’s worth of fruit and vegetables. Folks from the church, many of them farmers and fishermen, would stop by with beef, lamb, salmon, and crab to fill our two large freezers. There were sidewalks, neighbors waving from their porches, and schools within walking distance of my house. Life in Eugene was largely predictable and tranquil.

But mine was not. I was born with a birth defect: abnormal breast tissue. In other words, I had boobs. I looked like I needed a bra. I refused to take a shower at school, and my secret was something I tried to keep. But in fifth grade, I was exposed by a coach who took delight in making sure I was always a “skin”—that is, assigned to the team that had to take their shirts off to play ball. “Look at Lamm’s tits!” the coach would yell. It was cruel.

To be laughed at. To be different. To be in fear of discovery. It just hurt way too much. I decided one day that I should kill myself—and confessed my intention to my parents. They were shocked: “We never brought it up because we didn’t want you to be even more self-conscious,” they said.

My emotional crisis forced a decision on their part—to correct my deformity as soon as possible. At age fifteen, I had surgery, and voila, the outside had changed. Yes, the physical was improved, fixed. But the birth deformity, although corrected, left me feeling damaged emotionally; the psychological scars of being laughed at and mocked as a kid still remained. For most of my life, I felt like I didn’t belong, like I could never belong, like every room I walked into was an unwelcome one.

The same year I had the surgery, I attended a Christmas party at a retirement home where I played the piano on Sunday mornings for the old folks’ church service. When no one was looking, I snuck a bottle of champagne, locked myself in a bathroom, and chugged it down. My first experience with alcohol equalized all the unease with which I lived. Gradually, alcohol became something I felt I needed desperately, in order to remove my insecurities, make me feel like I fit in, and provide relief from my feelings. The more alcohol something had, the better, and I conscientiously read the bottle labels to make sure I was getting the highest proof available.

My drinking escalated. At the beginning of my freshman year in college, I’d get drunk before classes, then snort cocaine to boot myself out the door. As time went on, drugs of all types became a fixation, especially cocaine. It was an obsession, lord and master over my life, all I ever thought about.

I decided to leave college at age nineteen. My life at that point had become an endless series of flirtations with recovery from drugs and alcohol, yet I always ended up right back where I started: in the drugs, the alcohol, and the nicotine. I was self-medicating with everything that could release me from the pain I felt. My grandma Lamm called my pain “a bag of dead chickens.” “Why do you insist on carrying it around everywhere you go?” she’d say.

Of course, she was right. I needed to drop the bag to get better. But I couldn’t. To do so would mean I would have to do something about my addiction; I would have to face the dreaded c word: change. I was not ready for that. The thought of living without my crutch was too frightening.

I decided to “find myself” and settled in Kamakura, Japan, an ancient seaside city, where I lived in a picturesque hillside home near the beach. I taught piano and English, studied Japanese and Buddhism, and wrote music. I bought fresh fish from the local fishermen. I cooked healthy foods, tried to live a healthy lifestyle, and worked to fix the pain I felt through spiritual exploration and dedicated self-discovery.

I wasn’t doing hard drugs, but I was doing alcohol, mainly beer and wine, and sometimes to the point of blacking out. The beer was making me fat. I smoked to control my appetite and keep the weight off. I binged and even purged when I had eaten too much. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another! I hated my lack of self-control. I prayed daily for strength. “Please God, relieve me from this!” But I felt my prayers went unheard and unanswered, or maybe I just wasn’t worth being listened to. Maybe I was too damaged by my past—that sack of dead, rotting chickens I kept lugging around. I wondered, too, if maybe God had turned his back on me.

One Saturday afternoon, while browsing in a little office supply shop, I slipped a book of Shinto prayers in my pocket. I rationalized that it was okay to reward myself by stealing something, since I hadn’t drunk anything for five days. I deserved to get something for nothing. Not for nothing, as it turned out. A security guard pulled me aside, and within minutes I was surrounded by guards, speaking a hundred miles an hour in a language I barely understood. They threatened to call the police, but in the end I cried my way out of it and charmed my way back to my moped. I went straight home and drank until I passed out.

After I awoke, I read a prayer in I Corinthians 10:13 and claimed it: No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

But to no avail.

My way out always led back to another unanswered prayer. Was I not praying hard enough? Or was I maybe a hopeless case, as I feared? I always ended up back where I’d begun, which was nowhere—fast.

Then one day a solution came to mind—the notion that if I moved to New York City (the center of the universe in my mind), I could make the connection, find the answers I lacked, and moderate what I had been unable to control. Within a week, I was packed up, ready to go. I would make a fresh new start of it! I took boxes of a life that I’d cobbled together to the post office and mailed them to New York. I kissed my friends good-bye, and closed the latest broken chapter of my life, promising myself that the future would be better.

This was a fantasy, and the reality was far from it. Within a short time of arriving stateside, I landed a job as doorman at the world-renowned Limelight nightclub. I was in heaven or hell, depending on your view. Drug dealers slipped me drugs each night if I would let them in. Alcohol and cocaine were always a handshake away.

A chance meeting, while I was working the Limelight door, led to a job hosting an entertainment show that aired in six cities. Turned out I was pretty good in front of a TV camera. A man named Conrad Shadlin, the top agent for weather anchors on television at the time, took notice. He wrote me a letter and wanted to take me on as a client. He promised he’d train me on how to be an on-air personality and teach me how to do the weather. I signed on. Maybe he would lead to my prayers being answered.

My first gig as a weather guy was in Boise, Idaho. The year was 1996. My parents and brother Scott lived there too, and I was happy to be reunited with them. Life in Boise would be a fresh start. I promised myself (again) that I was done with drinking. I swore that I would never do drugs again. I wore a nicotine patch on my shoulder. This would be the time everything clicked for me! I loaded my car and headed for Boise. But by the time I was through New Jersey, I had ripped off the patch and lit a cigarette. I resumed drinking within a week. I tried to stop, and was in and out of 12-step meetings in Boise.

I reported the weather on the morning show three hours a day live, Monday through Friday. I threw myself into my work and became something of a local celebrity about town. I loved what I did and who I was becoming—a son, a brother, a friend, a local star! Yet alcohol was still my constant companion and first love.

I’d get home from work, start drinking, and not stop until I passed out. The alarm would ring at 3 A.M. I’d shower, get coffee’d up, and be back on the job. During this time, I struggled like never before with bulimia, purging to control the weight I was gaining from alcohol and food binges. I was desperate to stay thin and avoid those “ten pounds” they say being on television adds on you. To heal, I tried prayer. I tried fasting. I tried begging for change from a higher power, and yet there I would land, alone in my house with my dogs, a pack of smokes, and a glass of something that would take me away.

In 1999, my agent got me a better job in Washington, D.C., doing weather in one of the top ten markets in the country. This was my dream job. I had arrived. But within weeks of landing in D.C., I was snorting cocaine again, in addition to everything else. I had inexplicably drifted deeper into addiction. When push came to shove, the addiction always won.

Coke and alcohol made me feel safe. I felt completely sure of myself. Drugs took away all my fears. They did that socially, distancing me from other people, making me feel less vulnerable. They did that professionally, drugging me through the stresses of work. The Xanax I gulped by the handful made my job as a TV weather guy easier and lighter—and the weather, well, better.

Once, while delivering the weather on the noon broadcast, I started sweating, even though it was sixty-five degrees in the studio—a result of all the drugs I was taking, along with the bile gurgling up in my throat. It was like the scene from the movie Broadcast News where Albert Brooks’s character, a newscaster, starts sweating and never stops. I explained it away with excuses and lies: “I have a fever….” or “My blood sugar must have gotten too low….”

I eventually replaced cocaine with crystal meth, a sniffable form of speed, to control my weight. My first experiences with it were so pleasurable that I didn’t think there could be anything else that exhilarating. The drug had cracked open a door, letting in a paranoia that was malevolent and insane. Late one night, I tried to pry a molar out of my jaw with pliers, convinced that someone was listening in to my conversations through an implant in the tooth.

My life took on a deeply fragmented quality, with different personas emerging and becoming more distinct but also more false. At work, I was the composed weather anchor; after work, I was the addict, throwing back double vodkas and sniffing crystal meth with abandon. I didn’t know who I was, severed from the thread that led to the real me.

In the mornings, I’d look in the mirror and think, “What happened?” I had the résumé of a model citizen, not a common drunk. Hometown: Eugene, Oregon. Occupation: weather anchor. Parents: beloved minister and devoted mother, both of whom raised me in an alcohol-free home with lots of love.

In other words, nice person, from a decent middle-class family. Why couldn’t I beat my addictions? Of course, there is no simple answer. Trying to describe the process of becoming an addict is like trying to describe space. It’s too big and mysterious and pervasive to be defined. All you know is that you can’t live without the escape.

I went through countless detoxes to get cleaned up. But I didn’t keep the post-detox promises. Active addicts try, and active addicts fail. That’s how it works. I made the promises, and I really did try to keep them. But I kept rationalizing the third drink or the fourth or fifth. “Just today.” “Bad day.” “I deserve a reward,” I told myself. “I’ll stop tomorrow.”

I was existing in a state of self-imposed chaos, lying and hiding and keeping secrets and feeling trapped, absolutely trapped, in the whole mess. Sickened, drained, unable to feel—it was perpetual numbness. No sadness, no happiness, no highs, no lows. Nothing. This is why an addiction like mine was so difficult to kick. My pleasure receptors were so fried that my brain no longer had the ability to feel any pleasure on its own. When you’re this addicted, you’re so depressed that you want to get high, again and again. By turns, I wanted to die, or be delivered.

All told, I spent twenty years living in active addiction. Then scary realities began to intrude on my life, ultimately triggering my change away from drugs. At age thirty-five, I started to notice that tiny blood vessels had begun to burst all along my nose and cheeks. My doctor told me my liver was in bad shape. A tremor in my hands developed, then grew worse, then persisted for longer periods, all day sometimes. Active addiction is heartbreaking and cruel. It took me to a place of desperation and loneliness, of unrelenting pain and humiliation.

One day, during a brief moment of lucidity, terrifying realities dawned on me: It might just be a matter of time before I drove home drunk one night and ran someone down or ended up in jail or lost my job. I really might kill myself if I kept living the way I was living.

Then along came my friend and business associate, Paul. Six months earlier, Paul and a group of three guy friends had been instrumental in getting me to resume therapy to tackle my alcohol and drug use. I had stopped the crystal meth, but finally failed at moderating the alcohol consumption. My drinking was off the charts. Ironically, by that point, I didn’t even enjoy drinking. The fun had stopped more than a decade earlier. But the patterns of behavior had become so ingrained, so enmeshed in my brain chemistry, that getting between me and my addiction was like prying apart two pieces of metal that have been welded together.

But Paul, bless his heart, had not given up on me. He called me at noon one day. Six times. “Call me back,” he said on the voice mail. “Okay, this is the fifth call…call me back, Brad.” I could barely get out of bed to finally pick up the phone. I was sick—sick from being up all night drinking. I wasn’t sure what had transpired the night before but I sensed it hadn’t been anything good. I didn’t even know how I got home. Paul wanted to meet for a late lunch.

I knew I was a mess and I knew I didn’t want to die. Because I was afraid of losing my livelihood, and because I was afraid of losing my relationship with him, I showered, dressed, and headed to meet him. Paul urged me again to get help. He told me what he had seen, which is what I advise friends and family to do today: “We made a deal six months ago that you’d moderate—that you’d slow it down, or stop if that’s what was needed. But you didn’t. You’re a very sick, chronic addict, and I believe you’re going to die out there unless you go away and get help right away.”

I respected Paul; his voice mattered to me. But I wanted to scream, “But you don’t understand. I’m a preacher’s kid. I play the piano at church. I was on TV.” I knew he was right. I was thirty-five and desperate and was sick, sick, sick. And I needed help.

I was so beaten down and so tired that when I met with him, I said yes to help. I said, “I will do what you tell me to do.” I knew he cared for me. I knew he had love for me as a friend. If you’d asked me that day if I was “done” with the addictions, I would have said that I needed to learn how to drink less. Honestly, I didn’t consider giving up drugs altogether. Not that I liked any of it—the smoking, the drinking, the drugs. It’s just that the bar was so low to what I thought was possible that I didn’t believe I could actually ever stop and stay stopped.

I was like a boat adrift at sea, and Paul had been the wind filling my sails and carrying me in a direction I had no real say in. I allowed myself to be navigated, and so began my own journey of change and restoration.

My therapist suggested a treatment center in Minnesota called Hazelden. But stubbornly, I went online to research another one that looked like a spa. I remember clearly thinking that if I could just get away for a bit—get off the merry-go-round of my life and get some good therapy—that perhaps I could fix what ailed me.

That next morning, with bags packed, I headed to the airport, boarded a plane, and admitted myself to treatment in Laguna Beach, California. I had not raised a white flag and surrendered in my heart. I did not consider myself “done.” But I had said yes to help, and that was a start.

The last time I had a drink was on that plane on the fourth day of February 2003. I ordered two double Bloody Marys. As I was drinking the second double, the little boy sitting next to me jabbed me with his finger and made a sign with four of his fingers. He had counted the four little empty blue bottles of SKYY vodka sitting on my tray table. “That’s a lot!” he said. He didn’t know the half of it.

With my head hung low (and $10,000 in cash in a FedEx envelope in case of emergency—remember, I was really not thinking clearly), I checked myself into treatment. The rehab provided a safe, therapeutic environment in which addicted folks like myself could get through their physical withdrawal (the detox part), then work on themselves and learn to navigate a drug- and alcohol-saturated world (the treatment part). I was not locked down, I could walk out anytime. From my bedroom window at rehab I could see a liquor store just across the street to remind me that the world was just ready and waiting to welcome me back into my addiction.

We had individual treatment plans designed to help us work through the guilt and shame that are part of addiction. Educational groups. Process groups. Groups. Groups! Groups!!! I was given a key that first day in just the schedule—what you’ve got to do, you are unlikely to do on your own.

Many addicts have underlying issues, such as depression, anxiety, childhood trauma, or sexual or domestic abuse. Many suffer from severe eating disorders or chronic pain, real or imagined. Others have lost people, places, and things that serve as daily reminders of what was—and push them toward a drink or drug or other harmful behavior. All of these are potential triggers to active addiction and need to be addressed to achieve a sustainable recovery. To stop and stay stopped is tough, dusty work, but change does begin—and so it did for me.

On day three at treatment, my counselor, Carol Coleman, looked me dead in the eyes, and told me I needed to crack open if I wanted to get well. “Brad, you’re only as sick as your secrets…and until you start getting honest, you won’t make it.” Something clicked. I cried and cried like a dam had opened. The tears came out like something had cracked open inside me.

Recovery was rough, tough going. I spent hours tracing my relapse history and building a timeline of progression, identifying many of the feelings and thoughts that led to each setback. I had believed that my addiction marked me as a morally deficient individual. I believed that if I’d just tried a little harder, I could have handled it, and myself, better. But the reality was that by the time I got to the inpatient program, I began to understand that in the end, I had to come to terms with my disease. I really got it that I was sick—not a bad person—and I went from feeling like a mistake to feeling like a human being. In my heart, I knew my true recovery had begun.

My journey on the road to becoming whole, healed, and full of hope has been complicated, to say the least. That first year of radical change was the most difficult of my entire life. After all, I had spent decades building these patterns of behavior that codified and fed my addictions. Peeling those away from my life took consistent, hard work. I made many, many mistakes! The only mistake I didn’t make was that I didn’t pick up a drink or a drug. I learned to pick up the phone and talk with other people instead. My feet proved smarter than my head at many points. My feet led me to a 12-step meeting or other help when my brain said, “Go get loaded.”

But then came a crisis point. At day 106 of my new life, I didn’t believe I could make it without drugs or alcohol. I hit a wall big time. I had lost a lot following my return from rehab. Many things had changed.

I returned to work and found the locks had been changed—and a legal battle for compensation ensued. My relationship that I thought was the love to last a lifetime was in tatters and freefalling in a quick, painful spiral. Plus, I had worn myself down. Not enough food, sleep, or support. I was not thinking clearly on that springtime day, and the options seemed out of frame. Hopelessness had profoundly replaced the hope I was feeling. A drink suddenly seemed like a good idea.

I was in the midst of painful, self-revealing work in recovery that caused many feelings, faults, and frightening realities to become terribly evident. I was looking in the mirror like never before, and what I saw hurt like hell. I hurt more than I’d ever hurt before, with nothing to deaden the pain.

My mind hurt. My body ached and my spirit cried out, literally. I yelled into the air in my living room, “I CANNOT TAKE THIS ANYMORE!!!” I thought I could not make it without a drink or drug—and given that perceived reality, I decided it would be best that I killed myself. “At least I will die sober,” I thought.

I sat down, calm and clear, but stretched spiritually so thin that I was like a thread just waiting to snap. I resolved to end my life.

Even as I write this now, tears fill my eyes, because the reality of that painful moment in time comes flooding back. I thought, “I will not pick up a drink or drugs—but there is no way I can live through this pain without them, so I must take my life.”

Feelings are not facts, but at that very moment in time, I was unclear on that point, and the resolve I felt to take my life felt like victory in the face of inevitable relapse. I believed there was no way I could not drink and make it through this.

I wrote letters to seven people that early morning in a desperate scrawl. I sobbed and sobbed, alone and afraid but resolute. This is the way. I will not pick up a drink or a drug.

A hunting knife that had belonged to my grandpa Lamm was the object that I would use, I decided. He was an old farmer who hadn’t much liked folks like me I reasoned; his knife seemed the right answer to a botched life like mine.

I paused to pray. When I paused, doubt crept in. I asked the question and was unsure of the answer. Would I go to Hell if I took my life? Would I be forgiven?

With that question in the front of my mind, sobbing, knife in pocket, letters in the other pocket, I climbed in my Jeep and drove to my church.

I had rejoined the church two years earlier in an attempt to set right my life. I thought if I reconnected with God, then maybe I’d have a chance. Pastor Candace and Pastor Phil welcomed me in, and I had a spiritual awakening of sorts. With the church’s 500 members, I felt surrounded by love and a God who loved me. I donated more money than ever before, thinking perhaps that’s what I’d done wrong in the past—been too materialistic. Give more away to get something more back?

That fateful day—day 106—I arrived late, wearing sunglasses to hide myself, and sat in the back row alone. Over the past two years, I had occasionally shown up at church in a similar disguise because I was still high on meth from the night before but still looking for answers.

Pastor Candace asked if anyone might come forward to pray with her. She asked, “Who here is in pain?” I stood up and headed forward. As she placed her hands on my shoulders, the entire congregation behind me, I wailed and cried and hurt. She asked me to bow my head, and she prayed to God in a soft, soothing voice. Her prayers on my behalf calmed my spirit.

I asked her, “I’ve decided to kill myself. It’s the only way. Will I go to Hell if I take my life? I just cannot live without a drink.” I was sobbing hard.

Pastor Candace led me to her office after service and talked with me for a while. I gave her the knife, and I never saw that thing again. She called my 12-step friend, Mark, who drove to the church and picked me up.

Paster Candace helped me in my struggle with addiction, and that day, I know, she saved my life. She is one of many who, along the way, helped me. I have not, could not, become well by myself.

The rest of that fateful day 106, a group of supportive friends surrounded me. I was fed, physically and spiritually, and that desperate moment passed. Today, as I write these words, more than 2,400 sober days have come and gone, in pain, joy, sorrow, gratitude, crisis, and dancing.

Make no mistake—I believe myself recovered. But I can unrecover, or lapse back in a moment. So it is important for me to take things one day at a time, maintaining a healthy respect for this disease.

Each day, I wake up with a choice, and by choosing not to drink, just for that day, I am a better son, friend, husband, and person. I choose to enjoy the gifts that come from a recovered life, a loving relationship with my family, the ability to help others through my work, and a strong faith.

Many years of sobriety have now accumulated; many small efforts have resulted in a family that loves me, a community that understands me, and professional acclaim. None of this has required me to go it alone without guidance or support from others. Admitting error and need has not been fatal. It added to the emotional fabric of my life and connected me to others. I became motivated to help people, and I believed there was a way to do that. So I took a leap of faith and became trained as an interventionist, to help family, friends, and others change someone they love.

Looking back, Paul and those three guy friends had done much to initiate change in my life. And that’s the point of the work I do today. There is strength in numbers, and power in the love we have for the people in our lives.

And so in my work, I use a unique program crafted in love, one that anyone can use to get a person to change, no matter how many times attempts have failed in the past. Some of the very same techniques that led to my own change—a concerned friend giving “eyewitness” observations of my behavior, a heartfelt invitation to change, and a prearranged plan for help—are integral parts of the change process I use today. This method works, and is near-miraculous in its effectiveness.

People can Change

I understand that you may be a little skeptical right now. We tend to assume that people change rarely, slowly, with great difficulty, or not at all. We’ve been told that we’re “hardwired” to think, feel, and act certain ways, that it’s all set in stone at an early age. It’s just the way we are.

In early studies, childhood psychologists often pegged the age of final jelling as early as five and as late as thirty. In other words, adults past their twenties should just forget about making meaningful changes.

Well, good news. This assumption is wrong, dead wrong. The truth is that people can change easily and, quite often, instantly. An irresponsible person can become a responsible one. A volatile, angry person can begin to be kind. A gossiper can become more discreet. A substance abuser can get sober. A spender can become a saver. I don’t care what it is, every bad personality trait or unhealthy behavior can be turned around. People really can change and make their life (and yours) better.

All they need is a little help to shift their attitude, behavior, and spirit.

That’s the key: People need help to change, particularly if they’re engaged in self-destructive behaviors, they’re emotionally unstable, they have huge mood swings, or they exhibit extreme combativeness or other corrosive behaviors that threaten to undo or destroy relationships. The most effective catalyst for changing another person is you. You may not see yourself as an influence on others, but that doesn’t alter the fact that you are!

You see, people change, for better or worse, through their relationships with other people. Proof of this is everywhere. Take an example that made headlines not long ago: the phenomenon of obesity and thinness spreading through social networks. A landmark study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that one person’s obesity can significantly increase the chance that his or her friends, siblings, and spouse will also become heavy. And if a person slims down, the people around him or her also may lose weight. Both obesity and thinness are “socially contagious,” concluded the study’s authors. At the heart of the matter is the sharing of acceptable norms for weight, not just sharing the same eating-and-exercise habits. If someone you care about gains weight, your notion of an acceptable body size may change. You may decide it’s okay to go up a couple of sizes. And surprisingly, the researchers found weight was not affected by geographic distance. If you have a close friend or a sibling who lives a mile or a thousand miles away, that person’s weight gain or loss can have the same effect on your weight. In addition to gaining weight, behaviors like drinking and smoking can spread in social networks.

The same researchers have studied other aspects of change in which social networks exert their influence. One study, published in 2008 in the British Journal of Medicine, showed that happiness is catching, rippling through social networks to up to three degrees of separation. Knowing someone who is happy makes you 15.3 percent more likely to be happy yourself, the study found. A happy friend of a friend increases your odds of happiness by 9.8 percent, and even your neighbor’s sister’s friend can give you a 5.6 percent boost. Researchers defined happiness as a perfect score on the questions “I feel hopeful about the future,” “I am happy,” “I enjoy life,” and “I feel that I am just as good as other people.” To spread a little happiness around, be upbeat yourself. Or if you know someone who’s naturally happy and you’re not, hang on to that person and hang out with that person as much as possible. This same research also found that bad moods are contagious too! Each unhappy connection you have (for example, a grumpy friend, relative, or acquaintance) increases your chances of being unhappy—by 7 percent.

All of this research backs up many previous studies showing that close relationships are extremely influential in how we act and what we do. In many ways, we are who we hang with.

Think about the validity of this for a moment: You learned nearly everything you know from others—how to talk, how to dress, what to eat, how to act in society, and how to have intimate relationships. Who you are, what you know, how you act—these parts of yourself were all formed through interactions with your parents, relatives, friends, employers, and teachers. People in our lives affect us in a big way. So why not harness this positive principle to motivate a loved one to change?

In programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, addicts help addicts stay sober. In such 12-step programs, you are encouraged to get a “sponsor.” A sponsor is someone who has been in the program long enough to help the new member understand the particular recovery program and how it works. When I help someone who is recovering from an alcohol or drug addiction, I know that the more regularly I am in contact with that person, the more effective I can be. If I hope to change someone for the better, I would want to be with that person on a regular basis because I would have more opportunity for influence and more connectedness. Seeing him or her almost daily would be ideal. This type of contact builds a healing bond that leads to change.

Who has that type of contact? You do! You have more power to change a friend or loved one than a therapist does because you have far more contact with that person, hands down, than anyone else. So often we’re looking for the expert or the know-it-all to come in, sweep the problem away, and save the day. But it’s you who has the power and the influence. You’re going to see me introduce a lot of radical concepts in this book, and one of them is this: Family members and friends are better than therapists, especially in initiating change and supporting change so that it sticks. My change program is built on the natural bond and influence that exist in families of origin and friendships.

If you know someone who desperately needs to change—maybe they’re deep into some kind of self-destructive behavior or they’re just making life intolerable for others because of a troubling, recurring set of behaviors—you can make change begin. Your efforts won’t involve the usual stuff like nagging, prodding, manipulation, or threats—none of that. Sure, some of this might work, but it will have only minimal, temporary impact. The more you try to scheme or coerce your depressed boyfriend to get in therapy, your chubby mom to lose weight, or your lazy kid to get a job, the more they will resist. They’ll argue. They’ll fight. They’ll deny they even have a problem. In fact, they’ll ignore you, cheat, sneak around behind your back, or do any number of things they can think of to get you to back off. The more you push, the more they push back. You demand change. They dig in their heels. Deception and lies separate you. Now it’s a power struggle where one of you has to lose. And of course, no one likes to lose.

It’s simply human nature to resist being coerced or told what do, especially when people think they’ve got a good thing going and don’t want to leave their comfort zone. But it’s also human nature that someone will change when offered a loving plan, encouragement, respect, acceptance, compassion, trust, and support. So give up the fight. Wave the white flag of surrender. De-escalate the power struggle. Turn down the heat of anger and turn up the dial of love. Push pause on fear and step into hope. What happens may surprise you.

Sarah Durham: Clicking the Habit

From what I learned, it wasn’t unusual for forty-three-year-old Sarah Durham to spend eighteen hours a day online. She’d wake up early, grab her laptop, and steal away to the attic of her home, not bothering to change out of the old, oversized Florida State T-shirt she liked to sleep in. The attic space was cramped by boxes of Christmas tree ornaments, old cans of paint, and dusty suitcases. There were no windows. The only illumination was a single lightbulb dangling from a wood beam.

Sarah would turn on her computer, and chat on Internet dating sites and instant-messaging programs. Her day was spent cyber-chatting with a catalog of men in Los Angeles who had responded to her online profile. She would emerge from her attic for only brief intervals at a stretch.

Two years earlier, Sarah had posted her profile on a popular dating site. Her profile described a single, fun-loving woman who enjoyed the outdoors, dancing, and all types of music. Photographs of an attractive, blond, shapely Sarah adorned her profile. Sarah in a bikini. Sarah in a low-cut evening dress. Sarah in form-fitting jeans. It worked. Within the first week, she received nearly one hundred e-mails and fifty-two “winks” (the online equivalent of flirting). She winked back. Before long, winking became hot-listing, and hot-listing became e-mailing, and e-mailing became online courtships. Soon she was skipping meals and staying up late at night to chat with newfound male friends. There was no need to leave her house, change her clothes, fix her hair, or put on makeup for a date. With a few finger strokes of keys, Sarah had within the walls of her home flirtation, romance, and the ability to test sexual boundaries without face-to-face consequences. Every day the same scene played itself out, all behind the screen of a computer. Her household bills piled up, along with the dishes and dirty laundry. In two years’ time, she had detached herself from the outside world and forsaken any semblance of a normal life.

Got the picture? Okay, what if I told you that Sarah was a married, stay-at-home mom from Jacksonville, Florida? That she became estranged from her husband and children as she obsessively tapped away, day after day? That Sarah, a redhead whose waist protruded over her belt, wasn’t even using her own pictures to lure her cyber-lovers?

All true, then.

Today, Sarah has fully broken with this past life.

Her change began when her husband, Rick, called me about this crisis. Rick was a thirty-nine-year-old active-duty air force pilot, devoted family man, and elder at their church, who was away from home approximately 150 days a year. Several times, while home on leave, he noticed that Sarah seemed to be sleeping less and would become agitated if she couldn’t sign on to her computer. Growing suspicious, Rick would tiptoe into the attic and see his wife staring at the computer screen and would often catch a glimpse of an image. Later on it all made sense: He realized that his wife was forming romantic attachments online, and placed “snooping” software on her computer to prove it.

For some people like Sarah, the crutch is not alcohol or food, but an equally potent and self-destructive dependency on the “high” they get from nabbing an online bargain, gambling, or just spending hours surfing the net, posting to blogs, instant messaging, online dating, taking part in video games, or looking at porn. In the United States, specialists at the Internet/Computer Addiction Services, a therapy clinic in Redmond, Washington, estimate that between 6 and 10 percent of the country’s 189 million Internet users have a destructive relationship with the Web of the kind that alcoholics share with the bottle. Sarah was one of them.

Desperate to return his family to a normal life, Rick called me for help. I was moved when I realized that he was still prepared to forgive Sarah, though his marriage was being torn to shreds by her obsession. “I still love her. I thought we’d grow old together, and I can’t bear to see this happening to our family.”

I knew Rick was heartbroken, and I reassured him that he and other members of his family could indeed put the pieces back together. As he listened intently, I explained to Rick the four components of my change system, and how we should proceed. I asked Rick who should be invited to a meeting to help make change happen. I asked him to spell out what sort of change he thought was needed. I explained to Rick that if he followed a few simple principles, which I would help him with, he would save himself a lot of time, tears—and the precious relationship he had with his wife.

Rick was encouraged, and hopeful. Following through on what we had discussed, Rick invited her to a gathering of family members. “We want our Sarah back,” they said tenderly but firmly, huddled around her in the warmth of her living room. “We want to get you healthy. We’ve made some calls. We’ve found the best help.” That message got through. She cried, hugged them, and accepted the airplane ticket they had purchased for her. Six days later, she boarded a plane for a place in Arizona where she could get help and connect with others who had become hooked on the Internet. After two months, she was back home, taking care of her family, and staying out of chat rooms. She still had a computer at home; but with software installed to limit certain applications, she used it in safe ways.

Sarah’s emotional transformation started as quickly as it took you to read the previous paragraph. Change began! As Sarah and her family discovered, genuine renewal is possible, and it can begin now.

As we begin this journey together, I want to equip you with a few empowering thoughts about change to get you started. Here goes.

You are not Alone

As isolated as you may feel while coping with your loved one’s behavior, the fact is, you are not alone. At this very moment, millions of families are going through what you are going through; millions of others have survived the storm and are willing to help, guide, and encourage you. Although knowing that others suffer certainly doesn’t lessen your pain or anxiety, you can draw hope from knowing that many have solved their problems, experienced change, and learned to live more satisfying lives. You can too—thanks to the help offered by support groups. There are more than 500,000 support groups in the United States (that’s a conservative estimate), serving upwards of 20 million people. This figure includes branches and chapters of national organizations, as well as strictly local groups.

Among support groups are two broad categories. First, there are support groups for the addicted or afflicted person. Name any handicap, medical condition, or other life-disrupting problem, and you’ll probably find a support group ready to help.

Second, there are support groups for people like you—the family and friends of those who need to change. Al-Anon, for instance, is a support group for families of alcoholics, and also provides aid to families of persons addicted to mood-altering drugs. Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), and Celebrate Recovery are other examples. You can also find support groups on my Web site, www.BradLamm.com.

Both types of support groups exist in a variety of forms. Some are highly structured. Others are informal. Some groups meet on a regular basis—once a week, once a month—sometimes in the homes of members. There are even some support groups in which you can attend meetings online; Al-Anon is one. Some groups work closely with health and psychology professionals; others go it alone. However they differ in their structure, self-help groups share a common goal of bringing together people with similar experiences who, by sharing, can gain strength and support from one another.

If you get involved in a support group for family members, you’ll feel less isolated knowing others share similar problems. You can also exchange ideas and effective ways to cope with problems and gain a new sense of control over your life. No matter the group or method of organizing, their underlying message is “You are not alone in this.”

Support groups have been integral to my own recovery. People there welcomed me. My goal was to live. Survival, basically. They told me that if I eventually helped other people, I would receive and be helped myself. A wonderful thing happened. I got better. In two or three months I was in better shape than I had been for twenty years. I needed a miracle and got it.

Support groups are hardly a novel concept either. In fact, they may have first been spawned millions of years ago, according to some anthropologists. Early humans learned that survival of the clan, village, or colony depended on support, with everyone working cooperatively to provide food and protection against common enemies. Through the centuries, support of this nature was provided by a variety of organizations, such as the guilds of medieval times, the “Friendly Societies” that developed out of the Industrial Revolution in England, the grange movement of rural America, and churches. Of course, the modern support movement began in the United States in the 1930s with one group that still ranks among the largest: Alcoholics Anonymous.

Support groups remain a powerful and constructive means of helping people help themselves and others. If you’re interested in joining or forming a support group, first determine if there is a self-help clearinghouse in your area or state. Clearinghouses provide directories of existing groups, publish newsletters and books, hold workshops, and help people find an appropriate group or get a group started. The phone book or Internet is a good place to start. A local hospital or social service agency will probably be able to help. Meetings of support groups are often listed in the community bulletin board sections of local newspapers. There are two national clearinghouse organizations—the National Self-Help Clearinghouse Department and the Self-Help Center—that can also provide information about local groups, as well as books and pamphlets that tell what to look for in a group before joining and suggestions on how to start new groups. (See Appendix I for other resources.)

Don’t keep the problem to yourself and don’t run from it. Circle the wagons. Ask for support. It’s a good thing. We humans are communal beings. We like the buddy system. We thrive best when we work together and share our experiences and our abilities. To enhance the quality of your life and help your loved one, turn to the people who love you and turn to the people who have learned to deal with similar problems. Ask for support, accept support, and count your blessings, because life will get better.

Your Love has Influence

Quite frankly, there’s nothing more influential than love. It has long been sung that “you’re nobody ’til somebody loves you,” and by the time that we become teens, it’s likely that all of us have experienced at least some degree of the influence of love. We find out early that it makes you do things that you wouldn’t normally do. We realize that love makes you say things that you wouldn’t normally say. And we know that it makes you feel things that you wouldn’t normally feel.

I’ve seen rather radical changes in friends who were in love. Cyndie, who used to be a pack-a-day smoker, spent the early months of a relationship hiding her habit from her marathon-runner boyfriend, Jeremy. When he caught her sneaking a smoke one too many times, he issued an ultimatum: the cigarettes or me. Cyndie loved him very much. She told me that some things were more important than the kick she got from smoking. She’s since given up the habit and now she runs marathons with Jeremy, who now also happens to be her husband.

I also have some newlywed friends, the Ramseys, who started their marriage out on rocky footing after the wife realized that her husband was drowning in debt, mostly due to maxing out his credit cards. She told him, “I love you very much, but I don’t love this credit situation. You’ve got to do something.” That very day, he called the credit card companies and worked out payment plans that fit his budget and would ultimately free him from debt. The motivating factor? Love.

When I was younger, I certainly didn’t want to change for anyone. Or so I believed, until I realized that many of my talents had been motivated by relationships. I went from being an eat-beans-out-of-a-can guy to becoming a gourmet cook because of someone I liked at the time and wanted to impress. I learned to play killer cards because of another relationship. The relationships may be over and done, but many of my accomplishments testify to the influence of love in my life.

Nothing influences people more toward change than love, from romantic love to love between parent and child to love between siblings to loving friendships. The loving bond of spouses, lovers, close family members, friends, and others is more influential than any other factor in persuading people to take life-altering action. As you’ll find out, an intervention, and indeed the entire change process, can be a profound demonstration of that love.

So yes, love is a great change agent. But how exactly do you express life-changing love? As I say in my Change Seminars, love is not always an emotion or a mushy feeling. Love is action. It’s how you treat people.

When we’re frustrated or stressed by someone’s behavior or bad habits, we may say things we do not really mean or intend to say, all blown out of proportion to reality. Or we may become sullen, communicating through moody silence. All these behaviors do is engender hurt feelings, create emotional wounds, and strain relationships. That’s not love or loving. What is loving is to hold back from saying the unkind or negative thing, even when you’re frustrated, provoked, or fatigued. Not to say the unkind or critical thing is love in action.

Love is also listening to someone, not only with your ears but also with your heart. When we are communicating with another person, we need to give them our full attention, to be completely present, without censoring, criticizing, lecturing, or comparing. True listening is very active. It takes courage and patience. Until your loved one feels that you are listening, he or she may not be open to your influence.

Love assumes (and looks for) the best in others. When you believe that others want to be their best, you exert a powerful influence that can bring out the best in them. Most people have much potential, often obvious, but often dormant. And they tend to respond to how we treat them and what we believe about them. The German writer Goethe put it: “Treat a man as he appears to be, and you make him worse. But treat a man as if he were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be.”

Finally, as I tell my clients, do not give up and do not give in. It is unloving and harmful to shelter people from the consequences of their own behavior. In doing so, we teach them they are flawed and weak. When we give in to irresponsible behavior, we condone and unwittingly foster that behavior. And, if we give up—by turning our backs on them—we zap their motivation to try. My approach of do not give up and do not give in, crafted in love, requires responsibility and action on your part. Otherwise, you head down the path of least resistance, giving in when you really care or giving up when you don’t. When real love is the motivator, change begins.

Be open to Messengers of Hope

When I recently asked a mom, Shannon, if it hurt doing nothing while her son was drowning in drug addiction, she was clear that she was in pain, though she wanted things to get better. But she was stuck. Her “normal” had become so used to the hurt, pain, drama, disappointment, and fear that it proved a real challenge for her to shift focus, and gain a truer perspective. Being stuck is bad, but you can pry yourself loose. You just need a tool called hope.

That’s how Shannon pried herself loose. The prying was possible, however, because she was open to messengers of hope—people who demonstrate that there is hopefulness in what looks utterly hopeless. While I was working with Shannon, I urged her to join a support group for families of drug-addicted kids (Nar-Anon.org). At first, she was reluctant to discuss the problem with anyone because she was embarrassed. She was also scared to contact a social service agency because she was a single mother and feared her two other children could be taken from her. She was so angry at her son and ashamed of herself, even though it made no sense to think she was to blame. Still, I kept after her to connect with a group. Finally, Shannon did take my advice. Joining a support group, where people took the time to let her vent her feelings and told her she was not alone, made all the difference. Shannon met other parents whose kids had gotten off drugs. The support group enabled her hope.

What exactly do I mean by hope? Don’t confuse it with optimism. Optimism, which is a great attitude to have, is based on directional signs that things are going well. The medicine worked. The economy is getting better. Your kid is getting better grades this semester. Optimism assumes that the present course will continue and bring positive results. Optimism arises from a perceived pattern of success. Hope does not. It springs into being amid the worst kind of gloom. It’s believing in spite of the circumstances, and then watching the circumstances change for the better.

The late minister and author Norman Vincent Peale once offered this poignant insight:

Have you ever stopped to wonder what it is that keeps you going from one day to another? What lies behind your ability to fight your way through periods of discouragement or depression? What makes you believe that sooner or later bad times will get better? It’s a little, four-letter word that has enormous power in it. Power to bring failures back to success. Power to bring the sick back to health. Power to bring the weak back to strength. It’s hope.

We have the option of being full of despair or hopeful, tragic or triumphant, victims or victors. Hope is a powerful attitude that opens doors where despair slams them shut. A hopeful attitude helps us see the best, work for the best, and, ultimately, experience the best in life.

Shannon chose hope over despair. Hope inspired her to action. It was her fuel, the fire that enabled her to stand up, invite folks in to help her, and begin change for her son. Parents move mountains. So do brothers and sisters, and loved ones each and every day. As she did, you can choose hope over despair and do-nothingness.

Helping a loved one in trouble is not only fully possible, it’s often urgently important. The attitude we take is key: choosing support, action, love, and hope over anything else. You are your loved one’s most powerful force for change. You can give that person a fresh start—and you may even save a life. There is strength in numbers. Together we can accomplish what we cannot do alone. Fall into hope and action! You can and must do it!

HOW TO HELP THE ONE YOU LOVE Copyright © 2009 by Brad Lamm