It’s the principle of the thing.

Recently, I was thinking about someone who has a friend that is struggling with drug addiction. I had just parked my Jeep to go into a store. I opened the door to step out and there was a discarded candy wrapper. I reflexively picked it up. Those two disparate thoughts were joined and I was immediately transported back to 1983.

I was sitting in a boat with my thesis adviser, Dr. Vincent Bellis, surrounded by salt marsh in Jack’s creek, a tributary off of the larger South Creek estuary that empties into the Pamlico Sound. We were in the middle of taking core samples from submerged pine logs from the bottom of the creek for the purposes of carbon dating. I chanced to see a small piece of paper floating by, a gum wrapper I think. Dr. Bellis leaned far out of the boat to pluck the small piece of flotsam from the water before it had passed us by. We were nearly capsized in the process. He deposited the trash in his top pocket and resumed working.

He looked up and must have noted the puzzled look on my face. Without a preamble or any further explanation he declared, “It’s the principle, not the practicality.” I understood immediately what he meant. He stood on principle. He could not possibly clean up the planet. But he could assume responsibility for his tiny corner of the world, even sitting in a salt marsh near Aurora, NC. To this day if I find a piece of trash in my path, I’m reminded of Dr. Bellis’ lesson and I’ll stop and pick it up and dispose of it properly. I may not have been responsible for throwing it down, but to leave it lying would be an act of commission. It would be disingenuous to criticize the litter bug and walk past their flagrant disregard, ignoring it and walking away.

I have thought many times about that little lesson. It has so many applications in life in general. Take addicts for instance. They are a tough lot to deal with, too be sure. Unless they happen to be a family member, many view addicts as society’s waste, derelicts to be thrown away like so much trash along life’s highway. People walk by and look at them and say, “Sad, but not my responsibility.” They see nothing useful there, little more than poor souls lost to pity. If those same people happened on someone bleeding, or drowning, or having a heart attack then most would stop to render aid or, at the very least, assistance. What makes addicts different?

I still think a lot of people view addiction as some sort of lifestyle choice. Take it from this recovering alcoholic, it is not that simple. Would someone willingly and gladly choose to have a heart attack, a serious accident or drown? Of course not. Would someone willingly and gladly choose to become addicted, lose their money, their relationships, their house, their car, their job, their health if it was simply a matter of choice? Of course not. If you have trouble understanding this please read the post The Snowball Effect in the July archives. It might offer some perspective. Suffice it to say, addicts are emergencies in progress.

Everyone knows someone who is an addict or knows someone who knows someone who is addicted. What then is our responsibility to the addict? Clearly, we can’t make an addict sober. But we can stop and help without enabling. Enabling may come from genuine concern but it will not salvage an addict for recycling. It will leave them to roll along the landscape longer than they should or otherwise would. So, what in principle can be done to help an addict while avoiding the impractical solutions? If you care about people, stop to help if you know someone who is addicted, whether to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, whatever. Remember, it is not your responsibility to get them sober, it is your responsibility to stop and help in whatever capacity you might. That help can come in many forms.

You might not label what I am about to suggest as HELP because it is not hard to do and it is not something dramatic like you might see on the TV show Intervention. But, delivered with care and compassion it can be a potent agent for change. It is a simple approach. If you know someone who is troubled by an addiction (substance or behavior) meet with them, without judgment clearly state what you perceive to be the problem, with the utmost care, compassion, and earnest concern put you hand on their hand and tell them you are deeply concerned about them and that you care about them, that they matter to you. That’s it. It will register. Do not discount this simple act of compassion. Even though no action may be immediately taken by the individual that is addicted, it will be remembered. There will be a lasting impact from your efforts. Several times before I became sober I was approached by well meaning individuals that were concerned for me. They expressed their concern and their willingness to help in any way possible. I never forgot exactly who those individuals were and what they said to me. It registered with me and it did have an impact. Those efforts, and all like them, got me closer to my eventual sobriety date. I have had the opportunity to thank all those people and many times I have done so. They helped save my life.

It takes an addicts entire use history to get them to attempt needed change. Breaking through the denial is key. It isn’t just one thing that will do it. It takes everything they have ever heard about what they are doing, how it is affecting those around them and what they should do about it to help themselves. Trying to help every addicts is impossible and impractical. Helping the one you know is imminently possible, and you should. It’s the principle of the thing.

Written by

Clark Gaither, MD

2 Comments to “It’s the principle of the thing.”

  1. Hope Schaefer says:

    Thanks for the practical suggestion. What an encoragement to know that showing genuine compassion for our friends who are struggling with addictions, really does make a difference.

  2. Clark Gaither, MD Clark Gaither, MD says:

    Thank you Hope!

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