Can You Help Someone Who Doesn't Want to Be Helped

Can you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped? The answer is, it depends. It has often been said of those seeking help for addiction that they have to “want it for themselves”. They can’t really succeed in making a change unless they really want it. And there is a lot of truth in that idea. If someone is not ready to make a change, or doesn’t see a need to change, they will very likely resist making a change. They don’t “want” help. But does that mean you can’t help someone that doesn’t “want” to be helped? 

To answer that question you have to understand a little more about why people “want” what they want. There is a quote from Steve Jobs that aptly illustrates this idea. 

“It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.” 

— Steve Jobs 

If people can’t see an option, if they can’t really conceive of a potential future, can they really “want” it? 

Heart is where the home is 

Maybe an example can illustrate this point more clearly. I saw a documentary several years ago called Dark Days that chronicled the journey of a group of homeless people in New York City. This motley crew of lost, hopeless, down on their luck people found a home in an abandoned subway tunnel and built their own community complete with shabbily built “homes” and social networks that offered some measure of support and connection. The citizens of this underworld found themselves in this environment for a multitude of reasons including drug addiction, job loss, and criminal behavior. But they all came to deeply value this dark place and to think of it as home. When the city of New York found out about the abandoned tunnel and its inhabitants they moved quickly to get these city stowaways out of a potentially dangerous situation. The possibility of tragedy in an abandoned, decaying tunnel was great; there could be a tunnel collapse or deadly buildup of leaked gasses. It was not a safe or acceptable place for people to live.

And indeed, these under city dwellers lived in perpetual darkness marked by impoverished living that few would find appealing. Of course that depends on what you see as appealing. If you think this is the best you can do, that it is the only place you can really call home and the only place you can find some modicum of acceptance, maybe it’s not so bad. As it turns out this group felt very attached to their “home” and protested vigorously to keep it. They couldn’t see a happier life even with the promise of relocation and support to start a new life above ground, out in the light of day. They felt like this dark, dank pit was their home. It was their best shot at some kind of happiness. 

Shedding some light 

The truth is, we call a lot of things home, everything from the empty hollow promises of drug addiction to suffocating squeeze of destructive relationships. And why do we stay there? Because “it’s the best I can do”. “If I lose this I have nothing”. Is there a better choice? If there is, we can’t see it. “Stop drinking? How could I ever have fun without alcohol?” We can’t see it. “I don’t have a problem, I still get to work every day”. We can’t see it. 

Sometimes until we are pushed into the light, we are “happy” in the dark. We can’t see beyond the shadow of our own misery until that AA lead tells a story that hits strangely close to home and a little light shines in and illuminates our need to change. We can’t see the sheer emptiness of what we call home until someone pokes a hole in the walls we have shabbily put up around us to hide the harsh reality of where we really are. But if we are going to “want” it for ourselves, we need to see what “it” is. We need to see a whole new world of possibilities before we can want it. 

The documentary referred to earlier in this piece effectively illustrates this point as it follows one of the evicted subway tenants from his shaky underground domicile, to a simple apartment above ground. The sentiment he shares makes it clear that his decision making process was deeply affected by shedding some light on his situation. Once in his new home he shared that in those “dark days”  “you don’t really realize” the place you are at until you can look back from this new, better place. Apparently the life he was living wasn’t what he wanted, he just didn’t know it yet.