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Help your patient ask for help

May 28, 2015
by Brian Duffy, LMHC, LADC-I
| Reprints

Most of us were brought up hearing messages such as:

  • “Figure it out yourself.”

  • “Big boys/girls don’t cry—and they don’t ask for help.”

  • “You’re on your own, pal.”

  • “Not now; maybe later.”

  • “When I was your age, blah blah.”

Bottom line: Most of us aren’t very experienced in advocating for ourselves. We don’t know when or how to ask for help. Ask too often, and we’re called needy, stupid or weak. But never ask for help, and we remain unguided, making some very bad decisions.

Yet our journey in recovery requires that we develop this skill. This article will address some of the challenges and solutions to this ongoing conundrum.

Asking a Higher Power

Many recovery programs stress a reliance upon a Higher Power. It's fairly easy to pray to a Higher Power when your ass is on fire. We become very contrite when facing the “hanging judge” or the angry spouse. “God, get me out of this jam and I’ll stop drinking, I’ll get my life together, etc.

Depending upon your relationship with a Higher Power, you might ask for help with a difficult relationship or a challenging assignment at work. Many people ask their Higher Power, “Keep me away from a drink or a drug today,” and end their day with a “thank you” to that same Higher Power. We must decide for ourselves the things for which we’re ready to pray.

For those just starting a dialogue with a Higher Power, I say: Don’t worry about it. It is a relationship like any other, so begin at the beginning. Any dialogue is appropriate, even one where you curse your Higher Power for letting you down. That is, in its own way, a prayer.

Even if you don’t believe in a Higher Power, the act of articulating your needs and wants constitutes an important step toward establishing goals and the strategies by which to achieve them. In other words, pray anyway, because it will help establish your intention to behave in a certain way.

Asking others

For many, asking another person for assistance is even more difficult than a discussion with one’s Higher Power. Here, the topic becomes subjective—open for debate and interpretation. Here are some situations our clients may face.

Do I need a detox?

This is often the first of many steps required to embrace a life of sobriety. It can be a pivotal moment when the addict realizes he simply can’t do it alone. It is here where the “gift of desperation” brings the addict to his knees—to a willingness to ask for help.

Can I join this group?

Joining a recovery group is asking for help. It acknowledges the need to be with and learn from others.

Will you be my sponsor?

For some, this can feel like asking a person to be your valentine. We can help our clients identify an appropriate sponsor, and we can minimize the awkwardness by role-playing the conversation. We also can set the right expectations regarding the role of the sponsor.

I advise clients to pay close attention to the words and actions of potential sponsors—to look for someone who seems to have the right values, a good attitude and a strong recovery. How quickly to “pop the question” varies with each situation. It should be a thoughtful decision, but made in the early stages of a person’s journey. It’s not a marriage, so if it’s not working out for either party, we find a new sponsor.

Can I have your phone number?

Sponsorship aside, the newcomer needs to establish a network of “sober buddies.” Yet care must be given that this request is not misinterpreted. The focus must be on recovery, with no hint of social or sexual motivations.

This support system can be most useful in explaining the jargon of recovery and in providing safe, sober socialization. It also can be the safety net when cravings become almost unbearable. Of course, the advice here for the client is to make the phone call before picking up a drink, not after.

Where’s the nearest clinic, food pantry, hospital, train station, etc.?

Many newcomers to recovery are also new to the geography. The good news is that most people enjoy helping others and providing answers to these questions. Because many clients are shy about asking for even the most basic information, addiction professionals should encourage and even rehearse these conversations.

Can I get a ride with you?

This can get tricky. Is it out of the driver’s way? How often should gas money be offered? Is one of the parties looking for more than just transportation? True motives must be examined, and the counselor can play an important role in analyzing these variables.

If the recovery meeting allows individuals to speak about their situation, the speaker might end his/her remarks by saying, “If anyone is going by way of Main Street, please see me after the meeting because I could use a lift.” This is certainly an appropriate way to ask for help. Getting a ride provides the opportunity to bond with another recovering person—and it allows that person to enjoy the gift of giving. It is definitely a win-win.

Will you lend me $20 until payday?

Bad idea. Nothing fuels resentments like money. If two people with long-term recovery want to engage in financial transactions, it might work out, but it is generally a bad idea.

Where can I find work?