Don’t Drown Together

life buoyWhat do you do if someone you love is caught up in an addiction?

They want help – but the help they want is not the kind they need.

They want to be rescued, or just left alone – but you can’t do either.

They’re trapped and unable to get out – but every day they make decisions which mire them deeper in the mess.


You can be hard.  I can’t help you.  I won’t.  Sort yourself out and come back when you’re better.

You can be soft. I’ll rescue you.  I’ll do what you want.  I’ll give you exactly what you ask for.

Or – you can be strong.  Offer love, but refuse to mould it to their definition. Offer help, but recognise that you’re not the solution.  Offer grace, but to the person, not their drives.

Here’s an example. At my lowest point in anorexia, I told Glen I’d register with a GP. When he discovered that I hadn’t, he threatened to take me to a surgery and watch me fill out the forms. I paused, then pulled a knife out of the kitchen drawer and pressed the blade across my arm: “Glen,” I said, “If you take me to the doctor, I will cut my wrists.” He backed off,  went for a walk and called his mum to ask for advice. With great wisdom, she told him this: “Next time she pulls out a knife, tell her calmly ‘No Emma, we’re going to the doctor’s. If you choose to cut your wrists, that’s your decision. And mine will be to call 999.”

It was tough – but sometimes that’s how love looks. And it was risky – but it was what I needed to hear.

A friend told me recently about her self-harming daughter. She and her husband tried talking to her and removing every sharp object from the house.  But they couldn’t watch her 24 hours a day. So they prayed about it and sought professional support. Then they sat her down and said this:”You know where the knives are. We can’t stop you. If you self-harm, you self-harm but we want you to tell us what’s going on. We love you and we’ll help you help yourself – but we can’t make this decision for you.” Their child paused and then answered, “but what if I cut too deep?” Her mother looked at her with love and said, “Then we go to the hospital together.”

The writer, Fredrich Buechner, watched in agony as his daughter struggled with anorexia. It taught him this:

‘I didn’t have either the wisdom or the power to make her well. None of us has the power to change other human beings like that, and it would be a terrible power if we did, the power to violate the humanity of others even for their own good….

If your daughter is struggling for life in a raging torrent, you do not save her by jumping into the torrent with her, which leads only to your both drowning together. Instead you keep your feet on the dry bank – you maintain as best you can your own inner peace, the best and strongest of who you are – and from that solid ground reach out a rescuing hand… A bleeding heart is of no help to anybody if it bleeds to death’.

Telling Secrets

If you’re caring for an addict of any kind, it will be very difficult to resist their pull. But the addiction is never satisfied. The more you give; the more they’ll take.  And here’s the thing: if you lose your footing; you’ll both drown.

So what am I saying?  If your wife is anorexic, drive her to the doctors? If your child self-harms, let them make their own choices? Sometimes, yes.  But sometimes, no. People are different and addictions don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes the right thing to do is to remove all sharp objects and every temptation to harmful behaviour. Sometimes it’s to step back and let it happen.  But the underlying principle is this: you stand against the addiction. You resist the person’s “pull” – because you love them – and that’s what they need. Remember:

1. Addictions are never satisfied. Whatever ground you give to them will not be enough.

2. Addicts need enablers.  It’s very easy for you to become part of the problem, even (and especially!) as you’re working hard to be the solution.

3. Abnormal should not be normalised. We must love addicts and bend over backwards to do so. But we shouldn’t make peace with what is unhealthy and destructive.

4. Addictions can be “sick notes from life.” Allowing the person to face consequences can be vital in helping them to break out of harmful cycles.

5. The addict is not the only victim. What about your spouse? What about their siblings? In fighting an addiction, you’re also fighting for them.

6. You are not the rescuer.  But Jesus is.  Your loved one needs Him more than they need you.  And your need for Him  is just as great.


5 thoughts on “Don’t Drown Together

  1. I think I might be a bit stuck. Got told off for triggering someone I didn’t know had even had an ED this week. I think I am in control of things at last, but keep finding myself drawn to thinspo sites and other unhelpful material to somehow express myself or meet my desire to be thinner… Beginning to wonder how much control I actually have.

  2. As a mother of a 30 year old daughter who was diagnosed 2 yrs ago with complicated anorexia; ” being strong ” meant taking a huge risk. Standing on the bank offering a hand in love was rejected and resulted in my daughter not communicating with me for 5 months. I respected her silence and gave her space. I trusted that Jesus had her in the palm of his hand and that He is all sufficient, I trusted that God was working in the silence, but the loss of relationship was devastating. We are now communicating but I so miss having a ‘ normal’ relationship with her and wonder if it will ever be possible again.

  3. Eloise – I can’t imagine what you’ve been or are going through with your daughter; though maybe my mum could guess. I’m so sorry. I pray that your relationship with your daughter and she herself, will be restored.
    Your experience puts flesh on what it means to stand on the bank; it’s easy to write about it in the abstract, but as you’ve reminded us, costly and painful in practice.

  4. PWP – if you’re like me, you have very little control: but I think there’s great hope in this when we recognise it, and ask others for help. The temptation to be thinner might still be there, but you don’t have to act on it – and you’re learning ways of saying no. That’s recovery; not just not having the feelings, but having them and talking back to them with the truth. I think with these sorts of sites, the best thing to do is block them or ask others to help you do this

  5. Healthy boundaries and their respective consequences, how foreign they seem when we’ve been living in close quarters with addiction, either our own or someone else’s.

    The best way so often appears too harsh for us as “nice” and loving Christians. Instinctively, we think running in and grabbing the glass just before it hits the floor is the right thing to do, but it just puts off the inevitable. You are so right, an addiction by nature is never satisfied. The vortex keeps pulling you in tighter, and the stakes keep getting higher, and your world keeps getting smaller.

    But God himself sets boundaries and indeed lets us each choose. He never leaves or turns away in disgust, but neither does he force us.

    What a healthy level of involvement actually looks like has been the hardest lesson for me. I still don’t always get it right.

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