Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Can You Help?

This particular experience has weighed on my mind for a few days, and I’m conflicted as to how to respond to it.

Went to a meeting in which there was a person who has been diagnosed with various mental illnesses and who is on a bunch of medications. While reading the steps, this person descended into delusional talk. They really didn’t know what was real.

A couple of us put our hands on the person’s arms, trying to help them stop their rambling, but they just descended further. Finally another person came over and said, “Let’s go outside,” helped the person out of their chair, and escorted them out. And stayed with them for half an hour. And another person took over reading the steps.

This ill person sometimes calls me. And I sometimes call them to check on them.

Sometimes, this person talks as though they might want to end it.

Sometimes, even in Death Valley, flowers bloom.

This touches a still-raw nerve in me: when I was a kid, somebody very important to me, about my age, talked as though they wanted to end it. They had a plan: they had, they said, the materials to carry it out. And at 16 and 17, I was made to be responsible for determining this person’s state of mind. I had to talk with this person and report back what they said to the people who were responsible for them. I did this because I loved them and because I didn’t know, at 16 and 17, how else to behave when asked by adults to do these things.

(I’m talking vaguely on purpose: I don’t want to breach this person’s privacy. But the fact is, what happened back then still impinges on how I feel, how I’m tempted to make decisions, today. Do you know what I mean?)

When I was a kid we had a magnet stuck to our fridge that said, “He Ain’t Heavy / He’s My Brother.” I was taught that I Am My Brother’s Keeper. Cain and Abel.

And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel your brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

(We didn’t read the King James version; we were Catholics; but I like the language)

I said this to a couple of my friends after the close of that meeting the other day.

“I was taught that I’m my brother’s keeper,” I said.

“That’s unfortunate,” said one of my friends. “Because that’s not true. You can’t keep everyone safe. Sometimes you can’t help.”

Sometimes I Can’t Help.

(Can I? Can I? … Trust God, Clean House, Help Others.)

I’ve actually thought about going to this person’s psychiatric appointments with them. They have hardly anybody in their life to look out for them, and I have a lot of experience negotiating health care systems.

I’ve thought about taking them into my house so they’re not so lonely and desperate. I mean, in the old days people took addicts and alcoholics into their houses and helped them out. Right? They did for them what they could not do for themselves.

(Who has delusions of grandeur here? Whose ego is blown to drastic proportions? Who fancies herself The Savior?)

It’s hard for me to admit my powerlessness over other people. It is so difficult for me to resist taking care of other people. It is my first “drug of choice”—saving people, taking care of other people, making other people feel better. It comes from having had responsibilities foisted on me at too young an age.

I was too young, at 17, to be climbing into a suicidal person’s head and reporting back. But the reality is, it made me feel competent, effective. Powerful.

It set me up to want to get high off this power-trip later in life.

My sponsor would say,

The question is not “Why did this happen?” The question is, what are you going to do now?

“But what if they decide to top themselves?” I asked. I could feel my throat constrict and my eyes burn with the memory of the person in the past talking about a cyanide pill they’d said they had. (This person also grew up in an alcoholic family, though they still, to this day, refuse to admit it. Fortunately, they’re still alive and well.)

“Then they will be dead. And that will be very, very sad,” my friend said. “But this program is not to help with mental illness. The best thing you can do is direct them to the people who can help them.”

I know someone else in the program who suffered with mental illness and who ended it recently. People with experience in mental health services tried to help him.

I know another person in the program whose son texted her the other day that he was going to end his life.

I’m thinking about these people today.

My sponsor would say,

Prayer is very powerful.

Part of me scoffs at her and says it’s all bullshit, I prayed my entire childhood and terrible stuff happened, prayer sucks.

Part of me believes her. The part that believes her prays.

Sometimes I want to get even more honest than usual on this blog. I hope you don’t mind.

If you’ve experienced something like this, I’d like very much to hear from you.


  1. No, do get honest. This was powerful. One of my hardest lessons has been that I can’t do for everyone. At some point, they have to own what they have, and I have to own mine.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  2. Shawnnnichole333

    December 2, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Thanks for your hoensty & putting words to the conflict I feel inside. It’s hard for me to distiguish between my will and Gods when “helping” others. I am reminded of “do you best & let go of the results” It’s not that I don’t care how it turns out…I care BIG time – But I also need to keep my sanity, and remembering I have no control over the outcome helps me do that.

  3. That’s why I’m so involved with To Write Love on Her Arms! They address this better than anyone! (TWLOHA) Vote for them and DO SOMETHING to help!

    Here’s a link:

  4. i hear you. admitting powerlessness is power. imagine how quickly things would get unmanageable trying to rescue every despairing person.
    i work in a setting where concern abt suicide is unabashedly concern abt lawsuits – which actually helped me back away from the idea that i’m taking responsibility for keeping a person alive.
    what i do is, i renounce responsibility to keep someone alive on behalf of someone else. i’m delighted to put my heart in (i.e. take responsibility for) a project of keeping someone alive on their own behalf.
    i sometimes have to remember that there is no end to suffering. so, forget it. there’s also no end to love and grace, so, keep on going. this pair of thoughts seems sane to me.
    with gratitude,

  5. As a person who suffers from mental illness, the line in how it works “there are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders can stay sober…if they have the capacity to be honest with themselves”. I have stayed sober for 23 years, even with my grave mental disorder. Without AA, I would be dead. No question. Do I attribute my success to one person “saving me”? Absolutely not. The best advice I have gotten when I am in trouble is to “spread it around”..meaning, one person may feel depleted by my issues, so don’t always go to that person for help…get a good “we”.

    Last year, I was in the hospital for my disorder for 6 months…hard to swallow when one is 22 years sober. My sponsor tells least you didn’t drink on top of it..and he was so right. Had I drank, that would be when impulse to end it all would have over taken me. I go to meetings and I share my experience with others when I talk and how the thought processes of it could lead me to drink.

    Some people steer clear of me..mostly because they are afraid and don’t know what to do. But others take the time to thank me for sharing. Why? because I never know when something I say will keep another person with a mental disorder from drinking or ending it all. THAT is my speak freely about who I am..”To Thine Own Self Be True.”

    No, one person can’t save me..but they can have clear boundaries about what they can handle and then send me on to the next person in my “we”.

    I could go on and on about mental illness in recovery. Studies have shown that MANY of us suffer from dual diagnoses. For many many people, drinking and drugging was a way to self-medicate. Whether said people CHOOSE to address their mental health issues is another topic…But I am ever grateful for AA and my “we” for saving my life.

  6. What if it was your child who wouldn’t seek help? Is it enough to be very very sad? Should you enable to postpone the inevitable hoping they will get some clarity? Should you allow yourself to be swallowed in their self-pity and desparation? Unfortunately I am experiencing this now. I’m trying to trust a higher power, but fear, pity, sadness, guilt etc are putting up a good battle.

  7. I appreciate the willingness and effort it has taken you to put together a “we” that helps you, and that allows you to help others… thank you so much for writing.

  8. It’s more difficult I think when the person we’re worried about is very close to us… But I’ve seen folks who are able, even then, to detach with love and give the people they love and who concern them the dignity of their choices. One of the hardest lessons in life to learn.

  9. You write about the most difficult situation anyone can imagine, I think. I believe it does neither the parent nor the adult child any good when the parent allows herself to be swallowed in the other’s self-pity and desperation. … Holding you in the Light.

  10. I know exactly what you mean. If I thought someone was really going to end their life I would call the Resolve Crisis Network at 888-796-8226. It is local and they are professionals who will be able to make decisions in an area that I can not.
    Otherwise, the best I have to offer is, *Call your doctor.* and, *I love you, ya know.* And despite someone else’s mental health not being my concern I still call them and see how they are doing and if they don’t answer I worry that they are not ok. Like they might be dead.
    Every time I see them I talk to them even if they are delusional. My hope is that what I say sinks in to some part of their brain. I tell tehm I don’t understand when they say things that are coming from their illness. I don’t know what else to say. They expect an answer and I don’t have one if I don’t understand. What I do understand is that I love them and I think every body is valuable. If I thought they were not safe I would call Resolve. or 911.
    It is painful to watch others in pain. It is painful to be in pain. It hurts. I can’t fix it but I can offer a little compassion and some time.

  11. I was raised very deeply embedded in the Southern Baptist religion. We were taught to be codependent–if we were ever happier than anyone else, then the guilt would be piled on. It has taken me a lot–of self-education, therapist education, support group education, and a few beautiful people who said the right thing at the right time–to try to get over the need to manage someone else’s life. To figure out that I actually do have boundaries.

    I helped a friend for several years who would get their meds perfect–then a month later they would have to find another combination. This person really helped me and I hope I helped them at least some. There was a suicide attempt, a while I spent in the ICU waiting room–and life went on. I had to learn where my boundaries were during that time.

    A danger I found was that it was so much easier to deal with their problems than to deal with my own. I could play the proper codependent to help this person, yet also I could play victim and put off all of my priorities. I still catch myself starting to do it.

    I do have to say that I would have made the same choice (and have made similar ones) when asked to “spy on them for their own good.” I did not know enough except that I would momentarily be important, and I might save someone’s life.

    Now I know how short life can be, how fragile or strong life can be. I know that if someone is bound and determined to take their life–that they will find a way to do it even if you are with them 24/7. And I have come to the realization that if they do–it was their decision. And it is sad, but it is. Each person is in charge of themselves alone.
    And as I became familiar with that boundary between “each”, then I learned that it did not matter if it was a family member or not. Although it would be extremely hard and extremely sad if it were your own child.

    Alerting authorities, suggesting helplines, sharing your own stories of climbing out of that hole, a hug, a meal–but you need to know your own boundary and respect theirs. I have a pact with someone–if they get to that point, they must talk to me first–and vice-versa. We have each helped talk the other one “down from the (figurative) ledge” more than once. But how many people can you do that with?

    As far as prayer, positive thoughts, etc.–I remember a study I read about that was done in some country or another (in the 1980’s) where a group of people prayed, meditated, sent positive energy to a group of patients (I think it was heart surgery). Consistently, there was a dramatic improvement in the health of the patients around the time that a group miles away was praying for them. I don’t remember when or who, but I choose to accept that study that says prayer helps. The person may still die, but maybe with more peace and serenity than otherwise.

    Sorry for the ramble–I edited half of it out. This is a subject near and dear to my heart.

  12. “Sometimes, even in Death Valley, flowers bloom.” Beauty in despair, thank you. xo

  13. Truth is, I cannot stop someone bent on self-destruction. There’s only one person on the planet that I can control, and even then, I have limits. My sense of humility has grown over the years, along with my relationship with a loving Higher Power.

  14. Appreciate hearing about humility. This is what my conflict is about: who I am, how much power I have (or lack), and the need for a connection with higher power. Many thanks.

  15. I keep learning about boundaries over and over again. Why does this lesson need to be repeated?

    I appreciate long, thoughtful comments. Thank you.

  16. I am not a mental health counselor. I do think that mental health issues are outside issues in a 12 step program. It is best for me to let someone who is part of a crisis team know if someone has threatened suicide. That is what I can do. My friend who killed herself had been depressed for years. She lost belief in a HP and took pills and died. She was 24 years sober when she died. There are mental health crisis units in most cities. If someone is in danger, it is a good idea to call them or to let a family member know. And then pray for those that are sick and suffering.

  17. Thanks for being honest. I’ll try to do the same. Perhaps you’re just a nice person who wants to help. Nothing wrong with that. I would just not take on the responsibility of thinking you are going to save anyone. Can you help? Yes. That seems unselfish. Has this person asked for your help? Can you do some small things and keep it in perspective. Keep your boundaries ? Not have to do something huge like have them move in with you?
    I know this is heresy but if all any of us did was sit around and pray I don’t think much would get done. Just saying’. The best advice I’ve heard is that this person needs medical help. Can you support them in that? Make sure they are going,etc? I hope it works out for you (and them).

  18. I faced this situation recently myself; my daughter, who just went off to college, went off of her medications and tried to commit suicide. Bottom line: I needed to hang onto my recovery community for dear life. Whatever I put before my sobriety, I will lose. I’ve learned that the hard way, and so far it’s true no matter how long I’m sober (30+ years now). thank goodness I don’t have to handle any of this alone.

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