It’s the Individual And the System

While listening to media personalities speculate about the circumstances and cause of Whitney Houston’s untimely passing I’ve heard several people say with certainty; “No one was there for Whitney”. There have also been statements to the effect, “Living in the limelight is overwhelming and celebrities are surrounded by enablers who give them anything they want.” While these things are undoubtedly true at times, I’m thinking about Whitney’s tragedy another way.
Amy Winehouse’s signature song Rehab (Amy was another famous casualty of toxic fame/substance addiction/rebellion/etc.) has a lot to say about what’s really going on in relationship systems that are marked by addiction.
“They tried to make me go to rehab but I won’t go go go.”


This is the way I imagine what happened with Amy: At first, she was indulged and protected. Seen as a temperamental star, entitled to special treatment and cut a lot of slack. Maybe people were feeling that drugs or alcohol, in reasonable quantities, could keep her calm and happy. But her use started increasing and her “people” started getting more anxious. Not only were they worried about her, they began to worry about their own livelihoods if the star didn’t continue to produce. So their level of scrutiny went up; cajoling, bargaining, demanding, spying, lecturing, maybe even trying to supply Amy with drugs in controlled amounts-anything to manage a woman who’d become unmanageable. In reaction, Amy got more sneaky, irritable, demanding, secretive, and out of control. She would have felt ganged up on. She may have isolated from the people who cared about her in reaction to the expectations and worry. By isolating or cutting off she put herself at great risk, because she really was dangerously emotionally dependent on others. This is all speculation, but probably not far from the truth.
People often cave in to the demands of drug addicts; they do so because they are anxious that something terrible will happen if they hold a firm line. But these same caring people are just as likely to be controlling, judgmental, self-righteous, and intrusive with the loved ones they perceive to be too weak or damaged to care for themselves. This becomes a reciprocal process: The more loved ones try to control the irresponsible member of the group, the more incompetent/sneaky/immature that “dysfunctional” one becomes. The more “dysfunctional” the irresponsible one becomes, the more judgmental, self-righteous and intrusive the “helpers” become, around and around. In these cases, it’s not one individual who’s dysfunctional, it’s the system that becomes dysfunctional.  This is a crucial change in perspective, in part because a disproportionate amount of the available energy in these systems gets focused on the “problem,” greatly diminishing everyone’s ability to view events in an objective way.  The overwhelming emotionality in the group makes it very challenging for any one person to take a more helpful position.

It is difficult to know when to help and when to hold back. There are no easy answers to the problem of addiction and no one-size-fits-all treatment protocol. But loved ones, by the position they take relative to the affected person, have the ability to throw kerosene on the situation-thereby inflaming it-or to create a calmer environment where improved coping can occur. Here are some general guidelines for deciding whether or not, or how, to help someone who has a substance abuse or addiction problem: (These guidelines probably apply to helping in most situations-the goal is to give the help that helps.)
If you feel compelled to act the instant you perceive the need, you are probably reacting to your own anxiety. Take time to make a thoughtful decision.
When your driving motivation is the fear of something catastrophic happening to the symptomatic member if you don’t step in, it’s time to slow down and think things through. Short-term relief of anxiety by giving in with money, bail, a bed to sleep in, etc., may end up perpetuating the length and severity of the long-term problem.
If you are hoping that by helping, the addict will see how much you care and therefore be motivated to quit for your sake, get real. It hasn’t worked before and it won’t this time.
If you are saying to the addict “this is the last time I’ll help you out with…..I mean it!” Then you probably shouldn’t do what you’re planning to do.
If you are tempted to pry, take control, set rules for the other person (vs. determining what you are willing to do and not willing to do), give a lecture, or otherwise come at the user from an authoritarian position, you will probably get an outcome that is the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish. People live up to or down to our expectations. But you know this already, because you’ve done it a million times before and it’s never worked yet.
Tragedies of the type that have befallen Whitney, Amy and their loved ones, are common.  These problems are not reserved for the rich and famous. Families can inadvertently organize around a symptomatic member and things can get worse and worse, sometimes leading to disaster. The hopeful part is that anyone involved in such a family or group can take a more calm and thoughtful position, putting salve on the situation instead of kerosene. An anxious presence always makes things worse, while a calm presence can potentially do a lot of good.

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