On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

Waiting for an addict to hit bottom is a death sentence, say Moyers and Scheff

Share story

Whisky
In this 2012 photo, a woman holds a glass of whisky at Edradour distillery in Pitlochry, United Kingdom.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

A common belief is that addicts can't be helped until they hit bottom. Two authors agree that it's not so.

"The only 'bottom' with this illness, as far as I'm concerned, is death," said William C. Moyers, a vice president at Hazelden Foundation. "And anything short of that is a way out."

David Scheff, author of "Beautiful Boy" and "Clean," agreed. If he'd waited until his son Nic had been ready to enter treatment, he said, Nic would be dead now.

Moyers, who has followed his memoir "Broken" with a new volume, "Now What?", said he has discovered in almost 19 years of sobriety that he has to "remain teachable."

"Addiction is an illness that is cunning and baffling and powerful, and very patient," he said in a joint appearance with Scheff on The Daily Circuit. "It waits. So I need to continue to invest in my recovery today ... I have to walk through the rest of my life dealing with all the things we have to deal with, not using alcohol and drugs.

"I have to continue to invest in my recovery in the same way that a diabetic or a hypertensive or a woman who's overcome breast cancer has to continue to invest in their recoveries. Addiction is a chronic illness. There's no cure for it, at least not yet. But there is a solution. ... What I have to do is remain teachable and remember that I am only one drink or one drug away from going back to a spot that I never want to go back to, which is to be locked in the grip of addiction again."

Both Scheff and Moyers stressed the need for families and friends of addicts to try to withhold judgment.

"There's this fear that we have, that we're going to be judged and that we are in shame when this is in our family," Scheff said. "Through William's story and other stories, I learned that this is an illness. We don't judge people when they're ill. It's unfortunate that with this illness, people are judged and made to feel shame.

"We love our kids so much. I knew he loved me, and I knew he adored his brother and sister. So how could a person make what appeared to be these unconscionable, selfish, self-destructive as well as destructive choices? It's so hard to watch.  It took a long time for me to understand.

"Over time I came to understand something that is really hard to grasp: that Nic wasn't making these choices. He was ill. It wasn't about choice. He was in the throes of these chemicals that had entered his body and had changed his brain. And once I started to understand that, and understand that my son was not a bad person, a selfish person without willpower or whatever, then I was able to stop looking at him with judgment and anger and start looking at him with compassion and instead trying to do everything I could to help him get well."

Moyers agreed that people need to understand the illness of addiction, but added that addicts need to accept responsibility for their actions.

"Listen, nobody made me smoke marijuana for the first time at age 16, or legally drink alcohol at age 18," he said. "I did that of my own free will. I own that piece of it. But what it did to me is what it does to about 1 in 10 of us in this country." Such substances, he said, "hijack the brain and steal the soul."

"I of my own volition took those substances into my body, but then they took over. That doesn't absolve me of the responsibility of learning to manage the illness, but it helps to explain why good people do bad things, moral people do immoral things, rational people do irrational things. That's the nature of the disease, and it often pits families against themselves."

Another plea for understanding came in a call from Anna in Minneapolis, who said she had been sober for a year and a half.

"A lot of people from the outside saw it as a purely selfish thing," she said. "As something where I just wanted to have fun, and didn't care about what other people thought. And until that was overcome, healing really couldn't start within my family and my friends."

Rachel in Burnsville called to say she'd learned that addicts can't be helped until they want help. 

"I have a 20-year-old son who is just entering recovery," Rachel said. "He started at the age of 14 smoking marijuana, and it eventually took him into the whole 'spice' world. We put him in a private facility down in Missouri for 10 months. That didn't work. He came back up to the Cities. He was arrested and went to jail. He was in Juvie for 12 months, and it wasn't until he got put in adult jail ... that it became real to him. ... He has said to us over and over, 'As much as you wanted me to recover, it wasn't until  I wanted to recover that it made any difference.'"

Susan from Minneapolis said jail had helped her son, as well. And for herself, she found help in a 12-step program for family and friends of alcoholics. 

"Al-Anon has been the most important thing to me," she said. "I'm the parent of a 23-year-old heroin addict who is now in jail. He's been through several treatments. And going to my own 12-step program has really enabled me to love him and not try to cure a disease that's not curable right now. 

"It's really allowed me to continue my own life and to be present and full and happy when he does emerge."

LEARN MORE ABOUT DAVID SHEFF AND WILLIAM MOYERS:

• Interview with William Moyers, author of Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery
"Moyers:  This book is not profound or deep like a memoir. It is meant to be practical and get people from the problem to the solution. The book tries to break down the walls of denial that stand between the addict, the addict's family and the community. The solution is really very simple and I stress the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous because this is how I stopped drinking and drugging, and how many millions of people like me recover." (AlterNet)

• Addict's Father, Now Advocate
"Now comes 'Clean,' less memoir than guide for those just entering the terrain Mr. Sheff knows so well. If the book represents a certain redundancy of subject, its likely audience — those who must watch as friends and family spiral away —  cannot hear too many sympathetic reiterations of the same truths. In 'Clean,' Mr. Sheff changes perspective, writing as advocate and journalist rather than distraught father. Still, his story line recreates that of 'Beautiful Boy,' tracing the trajectory of addiction from cradle to rehab and beyond with the same question in mind: How does a promising cleareyed kid from a good family wind up in an inconceivable sea of trouble?" (New York Times)

• David Sheff's Top 8 Myths about Addiction
"Sheff asserts that the reason that addiction treatments overwhelmingly fail is because of how we view addiction. And he says correcting common misconceptions about the disease can be the first step towards improving the social support and medical treatment systems for those struggling with their addictions." (PBS Newshour)