My husband's brother is a crack addict

He says he can quit any time he wants -- he's quit plenty of times before!

By Cary Tennis
Published November 23, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My husband got a phone call from his younger brother two nights ago. Apparently little brother, who teaches high school in a largish East Coast city, is a crack addict. He hasn't paid last month's rent or utility bills and owes two dealers money. He says he only owes each one a couple of hundred dollars or less. He's started going to NA meetings, but has already had a slip.

Needless to say, my husband and I are both freaked out by this news. We not only want little brother to get into some type of treatment program immediately, we've advised him to go to his union representative and ask for legal counsel. If there is some way he can get treatment through his insurance and have his privacy protected, maybe he can save his job. Little brother pooh-poohed this idea, as he thinks he can stop on his own. He says he's done it before.

We also pleaded with him to think about his 20-year-old daughter who comes to visit him at his apartment. We told him that he is putting her in danger as well, as a drug dealer who is owed money wouldn't think twice about hurting her to get at him. His reply was that his dealer didn't know where he lives. We told him that he is in crisis and needs help now, but he's set on doing things his own way. He has already asked to borrow money from us, but we told him no. We also warned him not to hit up his elderly mother for money either.

We want to help him and be supportive, but I have to admit that I'm furious with him. He's risking throwing his life, his daughter, and his job away just to get high. I know addiction is an evil beast and that crack is one of the most psychologically addictive substances, but I just want to strangle him. He lives about 600 miles from us, so that won't happen -- but I also do not want him coming to visit us in our house until he can say he's been clean for at least a year.

Cary, what, realistically, can we do? If we could give him some sort of advice, what could it be? He admits he's a drug addict, but is very bright and can intellectualize anything. He's already lamented to us that crack addiction doesn't have the same cachet as heroin addiction. He skates around the periphery of his addiction by comparing it to people who take Ritalin for ADD. He can go on ad nauseam with his lofty explanations and justifications, but I all I want to do is slap him.

So once again, Cary -- I ask you -- how are we to handle this? Any advice for little brother?

Confounded by Crack

Dear Confounded,

You know, when a relative or friend has an addiction, we face a deep, confounding contradiction. On the one hand, we know we must do something. On the other hand, we soon learn how profoundly powerless we are over the addict. We may learn this by repeated attempts to reason with the addict and force the addict to change. We may also learn it by hearing the stories of others who've been in our shoes, perhaps by attending some meetings of Nar-Anon or similar group.

When, after some struggle, we accept our powerlessness over the addictions of others, we find a new freedom to act. Knowing we are not in charge and are not responsible for someone else's choices, nor for the ultimate outcome of our attempts to help, we find we can take concrete steps that may improve the situation.

Knowing we are essentially powerless, we act anyway.

So what can you do? I suggest you consider staging a family intervention. Once you understand what an intervention is and is not, you may see that whether it helps the addict or not, it can help those whose lives are being affected by the addict. Just focusing and saying what it is that has to be said, and being with others who are also being affected, can help heal the family system regardless of how the addict himself responds.

 The thing is, you can't make him "hit bottom." Before he submits to the necessity of change, an addict has to reach a moment of despair and hopelessness where out of the fog of devilish hallucination something becomes clear: This is it. Enough. Help.

I remember, when I reached that point, my word for it was "Help." I just said, "Help." We say many things. We say, I give up. Please help me. I've had enough. God, please help me. All of these things we say when we hit the sweet spot of our misery. Improvement seems to begin from that point. If only we could induce such a state. We can't. But external events do seem to play a part.

I've heard addicts say that being remanded to the courts, or being placed in shackles or in rehab or in jail, or, in one case, finding himself face-down on the carpet with a boot on his neck, did make a difference. Whatever contributes to that ultimate moment of clarity may be said to make a difference. So if you arrange an intervention it might make a difference. Other, darker possibilities may also make a difference. If he gets thrown in jail it might make a difference. If he kills somebody it might make a difference. If he loses his job it might make a difference. These are not things to be wished for. But they are things that happen.

There's no guarantee that anything will work. But that's no reason to do nothing. In fact, to my mind, it's all the more reason to keep trying -- as long as you are firmly grounded in the understanding that you do not control this thing and it is not your fault and you cannot fix it.

It may be hard to imagine being at peace with such a terrible thing as this addiction of your husband's brother. But we have seen repeatedly that people can be at peace with such things. And, to broaden the perspective, we might say that if we are to ever evolve into a peaceful society, we must be at peace with many things we disapprove of or cannot fathom. So working with addicts is a wonderful way to learn acceptance. If you end up going to a Nar-Anon meeting, and/or staging an intervention, you may encounter both your radical freedom of action and your radical powerlessness over results. You also, along the way, end up helping your brother-in-law. I surely hope so. And I wish you the best of luck.

The new holiday book is here!

That Special Time of Year

Makes a great gift!

What? You want more advice?

Cary Tennis

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