I wanted to help you. I tried to help you. I thought I could help you.
When I couldn’t help you, I felt heartbroken, baffled, flummoxed, bereft. Why wasn’t my desire to help, my effort to help, working? What was wrong with the help I was offering? Was it insufficient? Ill-conceived? Foundationally flawed and therefore ineffectual? I thought I cared deeply, but did I need to care more? Care better? Would more time, effort, resources, energy, heart and mind have made the difference? Was what I was doing wrong? Was I wrong?
The clichés meant to comfort me distressed me more. I was told, “You can’t change people. They have to want to change,” and “People need to hit rock bottom before they become ready to change.”
Nooooo! Some people are in such a state of distress they can’t see they need to change. They can lack the ability to even conceive of new possibilities for themselves. They can feel too dejected and demoralized to reach out to grasp the hand that’s offered. Some people simply can’t help themselves. The Good Samaritan didn’t leave the wounded by the wayside to die. I won’t either!
The more I gave, the more people didn’t change. They didn’t take care of themselves, didn’t do what was good for them, didn’t step away from disaster. I tried harder and harder and failed more and more. Most of the people didn’t thank me for my efforts. Some of them blamed me for things not being better. If only I were different, if I only did things differently, if only I gave more of this and less of that, then they would be helped. I had just done it wrong. I was wrong.
I dreamed at night of solutions to try in the day. My days filled with effort and emptied of life.
I started remembering the miserable experiments done with dogs using floors that delivered shocks in increasingly smaller spaces. When the whole floor was electrified, the poor dog just laid down, put its head on its paws, and took it.
I was ready to lie down and take my punishment for not knowing enough and not being enough.
Feeling helplessly, hopelessly, powerlessly trapped is a very, very bad scenario for someone with an addiction. The dog has no way out. But I do. I can drink and be free.
Thinking we can and should change people and situations and that if we can’t, we deserve and should be punished, is normal for people with trauma in their histories. It is human nature to wish that things could have been different, to second guess our own behavior and choices, to feel guilty about things that were our responsibility, and to feel the shame of believing we were not good enough or powerful enough to keep what happened from happening.
There’s something compelling about attempting to control people and situations in the present that feels like antidotal balm for what was uncontrollable in the past. The behavior of attempting to wield god-like power over others looks like arrogance, grandiosity, hubris, ego. It’s just sorrow. It’s just desperately trying to get it right this time and not get hurt again.
The good news for me is I know I have a problem. I know I need to change. And I want to. I don’t want to return to active addiction. I do a billion things to treat myself for what ails me, one of which is attending individual counseling sessions.
I asked my therapist: Why was my help not helping? If it wasn’t my fault, then why was my help not helping?
And because I have tried over the years to share with her what it’s like to be me, and she has tried to hear me and understand, she knew the answer.
Here’s the simple but key quote from the reference she gave me: “[The] present situation exists because of a long chain of events that began far in the past.”
I feel like I’m still letting out a breath I’ve held for over 50 years. I made my bed for the first time in two months.
I majored in history. I was fascinated by the past. I studied it passionately. But I didn’t try to change it. I knew without question that I did not have that power.
Now I understand why I have been confused by the advice, “Let go.” Of what? Power to change anything in the past is not something I ever held.
So. You. I see you sitting in front of me. A billion events, including your own unique, precious, perilous, individual choices along the way – and mine – brought you and me in our current states to this moment right here, right now. I have no power over your past! I have had no power over any choice you have made up until now! I will have no power over your next choice, either! You are you! I am me!
Today, I take full responsibility for what I say and do. Not what you say and do. What I say and do.
You may or may not attribute the responsibility for what you say and do to you. You may attribute it to me. But it’s not a power I have. I see that now.
I tell you something. I’m looking at you and feeling free to appreciate you in ways I never have before. I am so interested in you and how you’ve gotten here.
And I’m so sorry to hear you’re suffering.
I’m open to trying to help. What ideas do you have on how I might be of help? I’ll listen.
Then we can both watch and see what I choose to do next. My intention will be to help – and I so appreciate myself for my desire to help – but what I know, say or do may or may not be of help.
Then we’ll watch and see what you choose to do next.