Molly's best friend Lucy* began taking heroin when they were both 18. "Since then, I've supported her through countless crises. She'll be in some awful situation and even though she's got herself there, she needs help getting out of it," says Molly, who is now 26 and a trainee solicitor.
"Usually I'll help her and things will be OK for a bit, but then she'll have another crisis and the process repeats itself. I feel so tired and frustrated with the whole situation, but that's just the way it goes."
For years, Molly tried to steer her friend onto a different path. When Lucy seemed apathetic about applying for university, Molly wrote her applications for her. "But then she got kicked out of college because she just didn't go. Until recently, I was transferring her money every few days because she told me she had no money for food… and this is just the tip of the iceberg."
When someone becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, their friends and family often end up in a situation like this, picking up the pieces. But, according to Dr. Robert Lefever, founding director of the PROMIS recovery clinic in the UK, repeatedly helping an addict with their problems could be symptomatic of a different kind of problem, one he calls "compulsive helping."
"Wanting to help a friend or family member in crisis is natural, but the first thing I have to do when treating an addict is peel off the compulsive helper," he says.
According to Lefever, who is one of the only mental health professionals to speak widely on the phenomenon, compulsive helpers often end up trying to run the addict's life for them, taking on their responsibilities and consequently stopping the addict from learning from their mistakes. "It's a common dynamic, because addicts go looking for compulsive helpers and compulsive helpers go looking for addicts. The need to be needed meets the need to be fixed."
The alternative to compulsive helping, he continues, is tough-love. "If you have a partner who is a gambler and you pay off their debts, that's your compulsive helping. You've made their addiction worse. It'd be better for them to go bankrupt or to prison."
The concept feels counterintuitive "because we're taught to praise people who put other people before themselves," says Lefever, who set up a support group in London for compulsive helpers called Helpers Anonymous. They meet weekly and run on the same model as Alcoholics Anonymous. The 12 steps include mantras like: "We admitted we were powerless over other people's lives and our own compulsive helping, and that our lives had become unmanageable."
The reason for creating a space for compulsive helpers to meet is simple, Lefever says. "By coming to Helpers Anonymous, compulsive helpers acknowledge that ultimately they can't do anything to stop someone else engaging in self-destructive or addictive behaviour. But they can alter how they respond to it, in a way that's more constructive for both parties."
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He says the hardest part of unlearning compulsive helping is standing back and letting the addict suffer the full consequences of their actions. "It's not easy, but sometimes you have to leave people in the pain that they've created. You didn't cause the pain, you just didn't bail them out.
"Maybe another compulsive helper will step in to fill the gap, or—and this is what we hope for—maybe the person will step up and take responsibility for themselves. That's not to say you should deny someone care and compassion. But you have to draw the line between what is healthy and what is unhealthy."
Compulsive helping can happen at work, too. "A compulsive helper will be a compulsive helper across the board, tidying up people's messes, taking on work they weren't asked to do," says Lefever. "They often work in care focused professions—social work, nursing, or legal aid. You hear stories all the time about the nurse that does 20 hours of unpaid overtime, but they don't need a medal, they need help."
"I've managed addiction services for 10 years, and I often see practitioners who get too involved with helping their clients," says Stephanie Chivers, a habit and addiction specialist. "When a client calls them in a crisis and says 'I need to see you today,' they will look at their already-packed diary and make time. They make their clients the centre of their world at the expense of other aspects of their life."
By doing this, Stephanie explains, practitioners are compromising their own happiness and their ability to make sound professional decisions. "I probably see it more among women than men, but in my experience there tends to be more women working in supportive services anyway."
Although compulsive helpers and addicts are commonly drawn to each other, compulsive helpers can also end up helping people that don't have addiction problems. "I had a friend in an emotionally abusive relationship," says Trish*, 28, a journalist. "Time and time again I would cancel my own plans to comfort her when they'd had an argument, or he'd done something that should have been unforgivable."
Trish remembers investing emotional energy into the friendship, only to have her friend inevitably get back together with her boyfriend. "The next day they'd be back together, and I'd be left feeling totally drained. I'd hear from her again a few days later when there was another crisis and she needed to hear my pep talks." Eventually, Trish moved to a different city. "We lost touch and they broke up about a year later."
As for Molly, she is currently trying to cut ties with Lucy. "We decided to go to a festival together but she didn't have any money, so I saved up and paid for both of us, meaning that I didn't have much free cash," Molly says. "Once we were there, she ditched me for a guy she'd just met who bought her alcohol… because I said I wouldn't."
When they arrived back in London after the festival, Molly told Lucy she didn't want to see her again. "That was hard," she says, "because I was worried she might end up sleeping rough." But then the unexpected happened: "I don't know how she did it, but last I heard she'd gotten back safe and sound—on her own."
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