Can you change a mentally ill family member – Powerlessness?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.


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What is powerlessness?

Does powerlessness have anything to do with mental illness and family members? The more we move from a model of mental illness that emphasizes permanent disability to a wellness and recovery model the more we see terms like powerlessness applied to the recovery from mental illness process. One blog reader asked about applying Al-anon principles to their problems with mentally ill family members.

Are people really powerless over mental illness and addiction? Doesn’t saying you are powerless just breed an attitude of helplessness, a victim mentality? Not at all.

There are some things in life we have control over, there are a lot of other things that we have little or no control over. The important thing is learning which is which.

This kid was walking along texting on his phone and generally not watching where he was going. He walked straight into a cement wall. The whole situation looked humorous to me, but I am quite sure it was not a laughing matter to that teen. He became quite angry and hit that wall a good one with his fist.

That teen could stand there pounding away at the cement wall but in the end, he is likely to find he is powerless over that wall. Eventually, he may damage the wall but he is going to harm himself seriously in the process.

Now insisting that the wall is wrong, that it needs to get out of his way is unlikely to be helpful. But isn’t that what happens to so many people, especially people in recovery, every day. Despite clear indications that the current approach we are taking is not working we continue to insist that the world change to accommodate us.

Looking at that wall in an objective way it was easy to see that there was a gate only a short distance away. The teen could have taken the gate, or at the other end the wall ended and with a few extra steps he could have gone around, still, he insisted the wall change.

The alcoholic is like that. Every time they drink they end up drunk. They struggle to control their drinking. The anxious or depressed person tries to deny they have a problem. Ignore the problem and it will go away is the universal motto.

Even after untold negative consequences, alcoholics tell themselves they will find a way to keep drinking and not have problems. The sad truth is that if anything has become an addiction in your life you will never be able to control that thing again. You are powerless to make that thing do what you want it to.

We are all powerless over rain. Now anyone can take a few raindrops. But I have never been able to make it rain or not rain on command. Facing a hurricane I can walk into the storm contending that I am not powerless over a little rain but eventually the storm will get the better of me.

The surest course of action when encountering the hurricane is to admit you are powerless over the storm and take cover in as safe a place as possible. Accepting that you are powerless over hurricanes and that the storm will do what it will do is a wise use of thought. Accepting help for your emotional problem is a wise course also.

The safest thing to do when encountering a drug is to admit that the tiny little thing can whip you any day. Struggling to do a little of the drug and still not let it control you is looking for disaster. No one controls their addiction. Learning that you can say no before the first taste, that is power.

We also need to learn that we are powerless over others. All that begging and bribing, the threatening and the use of force, this approach never really gets you control of the person. If your partner is addicted do you really think you can somehow win the battle to control the substance? We are powerless over people and things.

People will struggle for years to not be sick even when an effective treatment for their problem is right in front of them.

So the idea that a family member might by some special effort get their family member to change and presumably not have a mental illness, that is the clearest sort of delusion.

A central message of Al-anon as I understand it is the same as the message to addict’s, continued efforts to pretend that we have control over others, people, or things, are an illusion. Once you admit you are powerless over the mental illness, then the person can stop trying to pretend they don’t have the problem and begin to look for help in living with their issue.

The key to helping others is to first change yourself. The serenity prayer tells us to change the things we can, mostly that is ourselves, accept the things we cannot change, and develop the wisdom to know the difference.

Absolutely spiritual principles like those of A.A., Al-anon, and other 12 step groups apply to mental illness just as they apply to addiction and alcoholism.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Seven David Joel Miller Books are available now!

My newest book is now available. It was my opportunity to try on a new genre. I’ve been working on this book for several years, but now seem like the right time to publish it.

Story Bureau.

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Baldwin struggles to survive life in a post-apocalyptic world where the government controls everything.

As society collapses and his family gets plunged into poverty, Baldwin takes a job in the capital city, working for a government agency called the Story Bureau. He discovers the Story Bureau is not a benign news outlet but a sinister government plot to manipulate society.

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

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What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead, and you could be next?

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3 thoughts on “Can you change a mentally ill family member – Powerlessness?

  1. Pingback: Getting some recovery – preventing relapse | counselorssoapbox

  2. What a fascinating way to think about addiction. I think this analogy can be applied to so many aspects of our lives: mental illness (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder), as well as simply the difficulty that some people have in their personal relationship choices, child rearing struggles and even personal character flaws. I particularly like the image of the gate in the cement wall. There are those who struggle with mental disorders for whom there is no gate, but for many the path to the gate needs only to be cleared so they can find it and go through it.


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