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COMMITMENTS : Stepping In When a Loved One Spins Out of Control

March 27, 1995|JOAN KELLY BERNARD | NEWSDAY

In certain situations, there are no innocent bystanders.

A friend goes over the edge on alcohol. A colleague's increasing absences spell trouble with drugs. A parent punches a child in public, to the horror of others.

If you are a witness and you're human, you are involved. And faced with a difficult question--what to do now?

Consider 26-year-old Lori, who is so concerned about her grandfather's daily drinking and driving that she is thinking of alerting the police to ambush and arrest him on the road.

"You just can't talk reason to him," she says. "I'm worried that he'll get in an accident and hurt himself or hurt someone else. Even though he's a stubborn, cranky old man, I don't want him to be gone."

One can only guess at the similar emotional quandary that faced then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton when he approved a drug sting that would target Roger, his half brother.

Or how friends and family of O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson feel about their failure to act upon, or even to notice, signs of his now highly publicized pattern of physical abuse.

"We know from case after case after case of battery that ended in homicide that what happens when a man is treated that way is, he feels an increased license to batter," says Ann Jones, author of "Next Time She'll Be Dead: Battering and How to Stop It" (Beacon, 1994). Jones goes so far as to call intervention in domestic violence "homicide prevention."

That's not to say intervening in another person's problems is easy or always possible. Jones and other experts caution that, in cases of spousal violence especially, the situation is bound to be more complex than any outsider can know. And anyone who has tried knows how futile it can seem to reason with an alcoholic or drug abuser.

"Intervention does not reward spontaneity. It rewards planning," says Chandler Scott McMillin, former director of the Addiction Treatment Center at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., and co-author of seven books on addiction. "It is tricky, and the basic problem is that people's natural inclinations are usually wrong."

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First, learn everything you can about the particular problem. Read books. Consult experts at community treatment centers. The more you understand about the nature of the problem, the better prepared you will be for the defenses the person has built up to persist rather than seek help.

Put together a group of people willing to join you in confronting the individual, people who both care about and have some influence on the person. While individual efforts can work, the chances of success are much greater with a group.

McMillin warns against including anyone in the group who cannot contain his or her anger. It is too easy for a person in trouble to write off the opinion of someone who may lash out. But there is no effective defense against a sincere expression of concern.

It also is essential to prepare a fact-filled accounting of episodes that underscore the extent of the person's problem. And if the problem is substance abuse, plan the intervention for a time when the person is likely to be sober. His or her defenses will be weaker, McMillin says, and if the person gets angry, he or she is less likely to act on it than when intoxicated.

With a substance abuser, be prepared to offer the person a choice--not about whether to get help--but among specific programs. It may be a hard concept to grasp, but the point of an intervention, McMillin says, is actually to create a crisis rather than defuse it.

"Never offer stuff that removes the pain of the consequences (of the problem)," McMillin says. "Because what motivates us to change behavior is pain. Anything that reduces our pain indirectly removes the motive to change." He adds with a certain wry poignancy, "If anybody's going to suffer from alcohol or drug abuse, it should be the alcoholic or drug abuser."

Don't be discouraged if you don't see immediate results. "I've interviewed countless women who said, 'I wish I could go back and thank that doctor who talked to me or that woman who talked to me,' " Jones says. "Just those words were crucial to the women trying to get away, even though they couldn't act on them at the time. You may in fact contribute significantly and never know that you have done so."

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