Renee’s son has been struggling with substance use for 15 years. He’s fighting hard for his own recovery, and that includes rebuilding his career. But lately, he appears to be slipping. For his parents, and for Allies writer Laurie MacDougall, this is something of an alarm bell. The good news is that Renee’s there to support him—and reaching out to Allies for the skills and support to do so.
Hi, I need advice and guidance about how to use leverage in a positive way in my 30-year-old son’s life. A little history: it’s been a 15-year journey in addiction. He has had clean time when he went cold turkey in jail. He did two short stints. He also tried around five rehabs and two detoxes. Each rehab lasted from 24 hours to two weeks. Since coming out of prison at the end of May he has been living with my husband and me. At the moment he’s working full-time with a former boss, plastering. He has re-signed up to finish his apprenticeship. He gets his license back in the next couple months.
The last six weeks I feel he is slipping on the weekends. Now he stays away the whole weekend. I know getting his license is very important to him. Also getting a place of his own is his dream. How can I leverage what he would love to have in a positive, effective manner?
It sounds like this has been a long and complicated journey. I must tell you, though: there seem to be quite a few positives to draw from in your son’s situation.
He went to detox twice and attempted residential treatment five times, which is great. Regardless of whether they were short stays or not, he made the attempt, and this is progress. He has some solid support in Mom and Dad and has stable housing and a job! These are all important forms of recovery capital for him to draw from. He has goals and ambitions, and re-signed up to complete his apprenticeship. He’s working towards getting his license back. And again, he has concerned, loving parents who are looking for ways to encourage and support him on his journey.
Regardless of all the wonderful goals and work towards his recovery, there are some concerns. It sounds like he is starting to engage in old behavior patterns. Spending less time at home on the weekends is a signal that all is not well. Mom and Dad are searching for ways to intervene, to try to redirect the challenging behavior and tap into the positive, steering their son towards continued progress.
You’re taking action now. Bravo.
I would encourage you to intervene early when your Loved One (LO) starts engaging in old behavior patterns. Pay attention to the feeling that something is off, and plan out how to address it. Using the positive communication skills covered in Module 4 (How Do I Talk to My Loved One?), try to find ways to express your concerns in a collaborative, loving manner. For example:
Good morning. Join me in the kitchen for a bit? Let’s have a cup of coffee together.
The idea is to find a time when both parties are in a calm state of mind to sit down and have a quick check-in.
I noticed when you first came home that you were spending a lot of time here on the weekends. Recently we have not seen you around on the weekends. We love you and are concerned. What’s changed?
As the wise Kayla Solomon advises on our podcast Coming Up for Air, observe and comment on your LO’s behavior. Stick to “I” statements, and make sure to include feeling statements. When expressing your feelings, be careful to keep them nonjudgmental and focused on that actual emotion: “I’m sad/frustrated/angry/happy” vs. “I’m heartbroken/disappointed in you/can’t take you anymore.” Nowhere are you passing judgment or making any accusation that he’s using.
I know he may not respond the way you’re hoping. He may get frustrated and feel like you’re trying to be too involved. You may well hear cries of:
I’m okay! Stop doing this! Stop trying to get into my life and control me. God, you always do this. I’m an adult. I can figure it out.
If this happens, be prepared to step back.
Oh no, no, no, we’re not trying to get into your business. We’re just expressing concern and wondering if there’s something we can help with. We are here if you want to talk, and what you have to say is important to us. We are not going to tell you what to do.
Then back away. I know you might feel that you got nowhere in this type of conversation. But this is just planting seeds. It lets your LO know that you respect his agency and his boundaries. It lets him know that someone is noticing what’s going on, and may lead him to start thinking about what to do about it. It can help him see you and Dad as a safe space to come to and share with when there are difficulties in his life.
Keep him engaged, and keep it positive
His response may not be as combative as this. Maybe he’s open to a discussion and starts to open up. If this happens, use open-ended questions to keep him talking out loud about his thoughts. Show him you believe he’s leading this process. Those questions might include:
What do you think the result will be if things continue as they are?
What is the most important reason for you that things need to change?
You could follow these up with:
What are one or two things you think you could do right now to change things up and get on the track you want to be on?
This may be a difficult conversation to have. But however it goes, you will have expressed your worries and concerns, and you’ll be creating an environment that supports him working through his own issues.
On the other end of the scale, you can be reinforcing positive behavior. Start talking to him about his upcoming apprenticeship. Just expressing interest and being curious about it can be very rewarding to both you and your LO. Validate how difficult it must be to be working on his recovery and holding a job. Make it clear that you recognize and appreciate all of his efforts. Find ways to affirm and validate any of the steps towards getting his license back. Ask him questions that get him talking about his goals around having his own place:
Hey, let’s go for a sandwich at the café you like.
Once there, get him talking:
I know you have wanted to find your own place. What are your thoughts on this? How’s it going?
Add in that you would love to help:
When you’re ready and want to start furnishing your place, we could go to some garage sales together and see if we could find some inexpensive furniture. Would you be interested? I would love to do this with you, let me know. It’s great that you’re making this happen.
Reinforce and reward, reward, reward, any and all behavior you would like to strengthen and see repeated.
It’s really a balancing act. Hold those difficult conversations as they come up, and expect them to be heated. Try to keep yourself calm yet concerned, and without anger. Draw him in to work towards a solution—but don’t just tiptoe around it. Throw some sort of positive wrench into the mix. Break up the pattern. Make sure he knows that his struggle to get back on track is not going unnoticed. Being able to take action on the positive side of things can help you manage your own feelings as well. It’s good for both of you.
Prepare for harder outcomes, too
Remember that despite all of this, he may still spiral out of control with his using. This is where using leverage could be helpful. One way to do this is to express your needs in order to continue to live together. It might sound something like:
We love you very much, and right now Dad and I are concerned about the level of use going on. We recognize that you have put a lot of effort into your recovery, but also want to know what you think should happen if things stay on the same path.
After he speaks, your response could be,
In order for us to live together, we are all going to have to go to family counseling. Dad and I are also going to need to see some sort of effort towards treatment. There are Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOPs) in the evening to enroll in that would allow you to continue to work. There are individual counseling sessions, and there are medicines that might help. What on this list of options do you think would work for you?
Now he might not be thrilled and might respond negatively, but stick to it. Give him the time (like a day) to walk away and think about which options he would like to try—but when he decides, act on it quickly.
OK, so you chose an IOP, great. I did some research and found a couple of programs in our area. Here’s the list. I know there can be anxiety around making the call. Would it help if we made that first call together, or do you want to do it yourself?
Depending on his answer, either help with the call or give a time frame for an update (like the next night).
If he refuses any of the options, can you be prepared with a list of recovery homes where he might stay? Or could you make it your policy that when he’s using, he can’t come inside the house? Perhaps he has to stay in the garage with a blanket and pillow? Or he can come home a day after stopping use?
It’s important to stress that none of this is punishment. It’s simply Mom and Dad’s boundaries. It’s because Mom and Dad are being affected and have to protect themselves.
What I have outlined here is a lot. I don’t want to overwhelm you. Starting with these three strategies may sound easy, but it won’t be. Addiction is complex, and the response to it is also going to be complex. Continue to watch the Allies modules, and practice what you are learning. And keep reaching out for support. We want to help in any way we can. Clearly, Mom and Dad are dedicated to supporting their son, and that’s wonderful to hear. Update us on your progress. Remember, you are not alone.