Yes, You Can Change People

Most experts say you can’t change the people you love who are addicts, but Brad Lamm’s controversial book says intervention is the key. Benoit Denizet-Lewis knows from experience.

01.10.10 6:31 PM ET

Last month, my boyfriend spotted Brad Lamm’s book, How to Change Someone You Love: Four Steps to Help You Help Them, on my office desk. “Are you planning to try to change me?” he wanted to know. I assured him that I wasn’t. And, remarkably, I wasn’t even lying. Though certainly not a perfect boyfriend (he dislikes college basketball and would like me to cook him an occasional meal), he is one of the few people in this world I wouldn’t see fit to change.

I told him this, fully expecting a reward—kisses, dinner, something. Instead, he pocketed my copy of Lamm’s book and announced that he was heading back to his apartment to do some reading. “I’d definitely like to change some things about you,” he said with a grin. “Maybe then I can stop going to Al-Anon.”

“If someone we care about is self-destructing, we are not acting with love if we don’t intervene.”

He had only recently begun attending Al-Anon, a recovery fellowship for the loved ones of alcoholics. I’m not an alcoholic, but I am a sex addict, and because there are so few S-Anon meetings (for the loved ones of sex addicts), he had settled on Al-Anon. In only a few weeks, he had been indoctrinated with two of the group’s guiding philosophies: You can’t make people change, and you need to keep the focus on yourself. (Many people come to Al-Anon having spent years trying to change or control their addicted loved one’s behavior, only to lose their own sense of self—and their sanity—in the process.)

How to Change Someone You Love: Four Steps to Help You Help Them. By Brad Lamm. 276 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $24.99.

The idea that people—especially addicts—won’t change until they’re “ready to change” or have hit “rock bottom” is firmly entrenched in the culture of Al-Anon, Alcoholics Anonymous, and many other 12-step fellowships. The Serenity Prayer, which is recited at the beginning of most 12-step meetings, drives home the idea that there are certain things we can change (our behavior, our thinking) and certain things we can’t (other people).

A 43-year-old addiction specialist and interventionist, Lamm says he believes that we can—and should—try to change other people, calling arguments to the contrary a load of “hooey.” (He uses that word at least twice in an otherwise well-written book.) I spoke with Lamm—who has been sober from drugs and alcohol for nearly seven years—by phone recently from his home in New York City.

You’re going to piss off a lot of people in 12-step circles with this book.

I know. I’m already getting angry reactions. My publisher told me to ask this famous woman in the addiction world to blurb my book, but instead she sent me back a 3,000-word criticism. I wrote her and said, “Gee, I would really love to discuss this more with you,” but she was so upset she wouldn’t even talk to me. I like Al-Anon, and I encourage people to go there, but some of the group’s beliefs could use some revisiting. Some people who are hardcore Al-Anon, or who buy into the myth that we are powerless to change other people, would certainly intervene and grab a fire extinguisher and put out their friend or family member if they were literally on fire. But they often won’t intervene if their friend or family member is self-destructing or is in relapse.

But what about for people who aren’t in Al-Anon, who are just worried about a friend or loved one who’s in trouble? Why are many of us so reluctant to step in and intervene?

In this privacy-at-all-costs world that we live in, I think we buy into the notion that we don’t have permission to be nosy or interrupt. We rationalize that we shouldn’t get involved, that the person will come around when they’re ready. Sometimes we’re afraid of being rejected, or if it’s a parent we’re concerned about, it can come down to worrying about being written out of the will if we confront them.

You spend a good part of your book attempting to debunk what you call four myths that keep people from effectively intervening when a friend or family member is in trouble. 1) People never change. 2) You’re Powerless to Change People. 3) People Can Change on Their Own. 4) You Can’t Help Someone Until They’re Ready. Let’s talk about some of these. Do many people actually believe that people never change? Maybe it’s because I’m in recovery and see people change every day, but it strikes me as odd that people actually buy into this.

Many people still do. I have families that are worried about a loved one but won’t move forward because they buy into this myth. I think a lot of us believe this because we grew up seeing the rigidity of our parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts. We didn’t always see any examples of positive change. Growing up, I would often hear one family member say about another, “Oh, that’s just the way he’s always been,” as a rational for change not to occur.

In the introduction to your book, you write that you are trying to help people “put aside so much of the conventional psychobabble about not intervening, not seeking to 'control the universe,’ and not creating a codependent relationship.” You argue that we are, in fact, able to change someone we care about. This must be welcome news to the Jewish mothers of the world.

We are able to change people, but the problem is that we go about it all wrong. We nag. We manipulate. We stomp our feet. We get passive aggressive. We go at it alone, and it doesn’t work. We can’t do it alone.

Hence, the “Circle of Change” that you describe in your book. You argue that people are most likely to accept an invitation to change when there are a handful of people that matter to the person who are present at an intervention—or, as you prefer to call it, a “family meeting.” I was surprised to read that you sometimes want enablers at these meetings. Is involving your family member’s drug dealer or using buddy really a good idea?

Sometimes, yes. I’ll give you an example. One family, led by the mother, decided to intervene on one of her sons, an adult single man who was using crack. He had been pretty functional, but he had recently lost his job and was close to losing his house. The guy’s best buddy also used crack. The family didn’t want the friend anywhere near them. But these guys were caught in the same circle of behavior, and when I talked to the friend, it became clear that he didn’t like to see his friend suffering the way he was because of his drug use. I thought it would be a good idea to have him there, and he turned out to be the most important voice in the room, the guy who convinced the man to get help and turn his life around.

Who—aside from the Jehovah’s Witnesses who occasionally show up at my front door—are the toughest people to change?

People who can point to their careers, their cash flow, their success, as evidence that they don’t have a problem and don’t need to change. Recently I helped a family do an intervention on a very successful Wall Street guy, a real fat cat who was an alcoholic and was also sexually compulsive. The guy didn’t want to change. We knew that an important person to have (in the family circle) was the guy’s boss, and he agreed to call in by speakerphone. It can be risky to involve employers, but in this case having the boss participate went to the guy’s pride and his ability to make a living. His boss is the person who got the guy to accept help. This was really a case study of someone who could have been out there doing the same thing until he died, but we didn’t wait for him to hit bottom, lose his job, lose his marriage.

Did people try to change you when you were active in your addiction?

I had cut off myself from my friends and was really isolated. My family knew that something was seriously wrong with me, but the way they tried to help was by praying for me. They started prayer chains. My dad preached about his son struggling with addiction in New York City. It didn’t work. I believe that if a voice that mattered had actually been able to build support of other voices that mattered to intervene, I would have grabbed the life vest.

I wonder how I would have responded had my family or friends tried to intervene on me. My guess is that I would have told them to leave me the hell alone. I ended up deciding on my own that I needed to go to inpatient treatment for my sex addiction.

Yes, and then you wrote a book about it!

Well, how else was I going to pay for treatment? But, seriously, what happens if the person doesn’t come to the family meeting, or does show up but refuses to try to change?

If the person says they won’t attend the meeting, I encourage the family to have the meeting anyway, because people often change their mind and show up at the last minute. If the person refuses help at the meeting, the key is not to give up. People don’t always accept help the first time it’s offered.

Other than addiction, for what kinds of problems do you recommend that people intervene to create a “circle of change”?

As I say in the book, it is unlovable and harmful to shelter people from the consequences of their own behavior. The litmus test is this: Is the person’s behavior simply annoying to you, or is the person’s behavior putting them in serious jeopardy?

But people can take lessons from this book even when the situation is less dire. I got a call before Christmas from a male friend. He had received an email from his sister in-in-law telling him that she wasn’t coming to the family’s big Christmas gathering because, as she put it, “your wife is toxic.” In the email, she also told him not to repeat that to his wife because she wanted a “drama-free Christmas.” The email really had the potential to disrupt the Christmas gathering, and it was upsetting to several members of the family. A common way families deal with something like this is to take sides, talk behind each other’s back, build up resentments. But I give this family credit, because they had a family meeting by conference call and talked it out like adults. It’s courageous to do that. It’s much easier not to talk about it. They all have great love for each other. So, they talked it out, and she came to Christmas.

They sound like a remarkably healthy family! Might they be interested in adopting me?

I can ask!

You write that friends and family members are better at getting a person to change than a therapist is. I told this to my therapist in our last session, and he shook his head condescendingly. Is it a good idea for you to be upsetting the therapists of the world?

They can handle it. Besides, I really do believe what I wrote.

Lastly, after reading your book, I almost forgot one of my core beliefs, which we often fail to pass on to our loved ones: We are all lovable simply as we are. Should we really be in the business of trying to change the people we love? I worry that the title of your book sends out a potentially unhealthy message.

If someone we care about is self-destructing, we are not acting with love if we don’t intervene. And I realize that the title of my book will be controversial. But if you boil down the work that I do with families, I help them change their loved ones. And, in most cases, the help is appreciated. People want to live, people want to love. People don’t want to be sick.

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Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a writer with The New York Times Magazine and the author of America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life. His new book, American Voyeur: Dispatches from the Far Reaches of Modern Life, a collection of his writing, is out this week. Visit him at