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Can You Leave Tough Love Behind?

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Journalist Johann Hari spent three years researching our society’s response to addiction. He came away from the experience saying that most of what we think we know about addiction is wrong. In a recent TED talk he said, “If we start to absorb the new evidence about addiciton, I think we’re going to have to change a lot more than our drug policies.”

The idea of changing our whole mindset can seem daunting. Yet as the family of an addicted Loved One, there are some basic, and fundamental shifts you can make. It doesn’t mean turning your whole life upside down.

So much of the popular wisdom when dealing with an addicted Loved One has to do with detaching. We hear so much about “tough love” or “detaching with love.” You often hear people say “there’s nothing to do until he hits bottom.”

It’s the type of approach made popular on the show Intervention. It centers around threatening to cut off your addicted Loved One from family and support should he refuse help. It’s like a small, family-sized version of the countries that decide that drug use makes you a criminal, and merits getting locked up for months or even years.

You are tired. Tired of trying and failing.  Cutting off the addict can sound like a safer place to turn emotionally when nothing has worked and you’re exhausted. 

But what if the antidote to addiction was connection? Hari explores new evidence in his fascinating talk:

He argues we should stay connected. He rejects the idea that addiction is primarily about our body becoming hooked on chemicals. He says addiction is a response to feeling disconnected and alone. In Video Modules 5 and 6, (what to do when you see use or you don’t see use), we talk about staying connected.  Even when they are using, stay connected.

When you see use, step away momentarily — but don’t stray far.  If you are going to be influential in getting your Loved One to accept help, you need to be there with the list of resources in hand.  You need to keep that bridge between you open. You want your Loved One to feel safe and loved enough so they’ll come to you and ask for that help when they are hurting. 

Even if the decision is to have your Loved One move out, do it with love. Have a list of alternative housing and treatment resources in hand.

And when they’re not using, reward them with affection. Remind them how it feels to experience the love of family. Connection and bonding is what we desire. It’s what we’re built to want and need. As Johann Hari suggests, the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it is connection.

This new evidence about the power of connection is extremely encouraging. It puts you, the family, right at the heart of what your addicted Loved One needs. Allow yourself to take comfort in this, and know that what you do can, does, and will matter enormously.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)