Helping without Harming
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Helping without Harming


helping without harmingThis post was originally published on October 22, 2013.

In the marketplace of human kindness, I used to really do my part in terms of allowing people to express theirs. Don’t misunderstand; I wasn’t helping. I was the other essential cog in the machine—a factory of never-ending opportunity for people to try to fix my out-of-control life.

Ring-ring. “Hey, it’s Brian. Listen, can I ask you for a huge favor? I need…” What followed that could have been anything: a place to stay, money, to talk, for you to get me out of this or lie for me, to come pick me up right now.

I need you to forgive me. Please?

I seemed to hit the crisis-lottery a lot and I rarely hesitated to make requests of family, friends, women I was involved with or, on many occasions, total strangers. The need part, as it turned out, wasn’t really accurate. When nobody could or would fulfill these needs, the world never actually ended.

I never meant to get into these situations. But the things I did—perpetual drunkenness and other forms of intoxication resulting in a continuous violation of societal expectations and various codified laws—always led to them. It was never a product of my intent. It was said by my defenders, they who were abused and doomed to fail in their mission: “He means well.”

And I did! I wasn’t entirely selfish. I gave plenty of people a friendly ear, a ride, some cash—whatever I could but only when I wasn’t preoccupied with my own problems. Unfortunately, the more I got bailed out of trouble, the more trouble I got into and the more problems I had. So things just worked out so that I spent the entirety of my time being selfish.

Eventually, my good luck ran out. The list of people willing to take my calls became short. I got to a point where I was very, very alone. My world became small. I felt betrayed and forgotten about. My options became limited: it was either sober up and stop with the lunacy or face those more permanent consequences—the kind where those defenders eventually have to change their tense to “He always meant well.” I chose the former. I still needed help and I got it but this time it was the kind you work for. The saying about how you give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day but teach him to fish and he’ll eat for the rest of his life may be a cliché but it’s applicable here. Still, this only worked for me when I accepted that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and stopped complaining long enough to watch the guy bait the hook.

Would you believe, surprise-surprise, my bad luck also ran out after that? Once I wasn’t creating mayhem, I was no longer constantly in need of bailouts. After some time, a lot of the people I knew felt safe to pick up my phone calls again.

When I stopped drinking, I was told that I had to make it my mission to help others like myself. Sober alcoholics aren’t the only ones preaching this idea—spiritual and philosophical traditions have long endorsed it and social science is now corroborating the benefits. When first exposed to the idea, I thought it sounded simple enough—hard work but simple.


When I was back on my feet—with a job, a car and no longer institutionalized—I was ready to start my new mission. I waited for my opportunity, hoping I’d be prepared.

A guy I knew from sobriety had gone back to drinking. He hadn’t been ready to give up the bottle yet and had reentered the field to conduct more research. It wasn’t a success. Late one night, he called and said he was drinking in an alley. He was in a far away city where he knew no one. He wanted help.

Along with two like-minded friends, I set out—the Sober Squad called into action. We drove over 100 miles to get to him. Just as we were almost there, he happened to encounter law enforcement who promptly arrested him. They were kind enough to tell us this before hanging up his cell phone. I felt robbed of my shot but at least was able to pick him up from a train station the next day. He felt very bad about what had happened and thankful that I’d wanted to help. We made plans to go to an AA meeting together.

He never showed up. A few nights later, I got another call. He needed to be picked up again. This time somebody was threatening to kick his ass. I wasn’t sure of the gravity of the predicament until an unknown voice came on the line and instructed, “Come get your friend before I kick his ass.” Luckily, this time he was in our town. I told him to wait outside and raced to the scene. By his so-called bad luck, he had randomly encountered the police again when I got there. Luckily the situation hadn’t escalated and they allowed me to take him. “Let’s go to that meeting tomorrow,” I said. He enthusiastically agreed. He said he needed help.

He never showed up. He didn’t answer when I called. It wasn’t long before I heard from him though—another night, another call. That time he had me pour out all of his beer dramatically while he announced his desire to give up this awful life. We made plans to go a meeting the next day.

I began to feel a little irked. I wasn’t a taxi service or a maid, damn it. Was this how trying to help other alcoholics worked? Despite my irritation, I wanted to stay sober and had been told this was an essential part.

One day, a friend with many years of experience in this process approached me and said she had heard about what I was doing with this guy. I expected the next sentence to be a verbal pat on the back, a showering of approval I had earned. Instead it was a dressing down. “What the hell are you doing that for?” she asked. “You’re enabling him.”

I didn’t pick up the next call. It was hard but I let it go to voicemail. I heard later about the ensuing drama. There were rumors of a hospital visit and another arrest. I wanted to reach out but kept my distance.

Turns out, I had done only one thing right—the offer of a meeting. Wasn’t that what had helped me? There were other things I could’ve done for him; things I wanted to. But none of this would’ve helped if he was still unwilling to do that.

He learned, though. Things got however bad they needed to for him to change. That guy has over four years sober now and he’s done it all without so much as one automobile ride from me. He had plenty of help but nobody did it for him—especially not me. He finally had that thing, the only thing, he really needed: willingness.

Looking at my own past, I no longer believe the people who wouldn’t pick up my calls had forgotten me. Any sense of betrayal was gone the minute I knew what it was like to be in their shoes. Sometimes giving a person what they want is the worst possible thing you can do.

Helping others is still my mission. I sponsor guys, drive them to meetings, even buy meals and provide couches to sleep on sometimes. I’ve watched people go out and drink after all these things. I still struggle with these questions. I’ve crossed the line into enabling sometimes but I’m only human and I make mistakes.

I can’t help anyone who doesn’t want help. All I can do is try. I can’t make anybody do anything and when I try, I run the risk of harming them and myself. I like to think I’ve gotten a little better at giving up that fight.

But if you want to learn fishing, I’ll save you a seat in the boat.

Photo courtesy of Yoni Kaplan Nadel [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Brian Macaulay is a writer living in Los Angeles.