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Don’t Tell Me to Detach!

Leaf - Detach

Please don’t casually tell me to just detach from someone I love who is actively gripped in addiction. Seriously. Please. Especially when crisis is hitting —I’m probably raw and emotions are most likely raging.

There is a hopeless, sinking feeling that comes with well meaning, yet unsolicited, advice when you have a loved one on a roller coaster of addiction. Often suggestions such as “Let them hit rock bottom” and “Don’t enable, give tough love, just put him/her out,” are easier said than done; they also add weight to a heart already heavy with bewilderment and grief. 

As a nation, we are in the midst of an addiction crisis that is not stopping. It’s not even slowing down. At this point, we all know someone caught in the grip of a battle with opiates, heroin, other substances or alcoholism. Or, we know someone who knows (and loves) someone battling. No one is exempt. It’s become clear that we need a new way to view and manage those who are struggling.

So, what do you say to someone in this storm, who has deep love and concern for an addicted son or daughter, mother, brother, girlfriend, spouse…etc.? Tread lightly. This is an area of pain so deep and frightening, you can’t imagine what added suffering your words might cause. So tread lightly

And if you are the bystander watching this brutal disease from the front row, what do you do? Detach from someone you love as they are spiraling? What does it look like to detach? How do you abruptly cut them off? We hear "you have to detach" a lot, but what does it actually mean?

Robert Meyers, Ph.D, from the University of New Mexico and along with Dr. Dominique Simon-Levine, founder of (whom I have the gift of knowing personally) have taught me a whole new way of looking at it, using the CRAFT method.

Description of CRAFT: 

CRAFT was designed for Loved Ones struggling with addiction who are resistant to stopping or to getting treatment help. CRAFT is based on the belief that family members can play a powerful role in helping to engage the Loved One who is in denial to submit to treatment. CRAFT is designed to teach families how to communicate effectively and how to behave around someone who is actively using drugs or alcohol. Learning these skills not only engages 70% of Loved Ones to enter treatment but helps a family member to lower depression, anger and anxiety around the situation. It cleans up the mixed messages, the anger, and the frustration, by using positive reinforcement and steers clear of any confrontation. Family members know their Loved One best. In addition to teaching families how to intervene, by applying the skills of CRAFT, families decrease the stress in the relationship and provide a way forward towards recovery.

Those who are actively addicted usually came to this condition one of two ways; due to a medical need after an injury, or because they were seeking the hope produced by connection to someone or something. Therefore, how disconnected have they, do they…already feel? Being cut off from love and support when they are in dire need of it is no solution. Cutting off those we love only adds to everyone’s misery and shame.

What if instead of detaching we were to…attach? Attach kindness, love, comfort, positive reinforcement? To someone who has become untrustworthy? Who has brought chaos, upset and drama into our lives. How? That is counter to the advice most of us have received.

The common misconception is that attaching puts us in the line of fire. That is not my take at all. I don’t have to pay off anyone’s debts or clean up their consequences. Instead of tough love, I prefer smart love. The boundaries change according to the circumstances, different access to my home, my time, etc. But there is still a strong show of love, support and concern. 

When we were in our hurricane season of opiate dependency and my son needed to recover, all I ever heard were things like the above advice. I tried these suggestions, but with a bitter heart gushing with fear and sorrow. The truth is, I couldn’t bring myself to cut him off completely. There were even times I hid conversations with my son from those around me who’d exasperatedly advised me to go silent. I wasn't withholding the information because I felt it was wrong to call him and tell him I loved him dearly and would always wait for him to want better. I held back in sharing news of these calls because I didn’t want to hear their disapproval. My contact with him would mean I was “doing it wrong.”

Ugh. What garbage that was! Even if it was well-meaning. How could a person who hadn't been through it possibly know what I should be doing? We were all winging it based on knowledge stemming mostly from reruns of the sensationalized Intervention TV show. Nothing I was doing (or not doing) was working. Harsh tactics were driving a painful wedge tightly between my son and me. 

As Dr. Simon-Levine mentioned in our recent interview for the AiR podcast, Coming Up for Air, rather than methods of “surprise party interventions” where loved ones are deceived into a gathering, group shamed about their life and given ultimatums, maybe try a softer, less threatening approach. A better way of asking a loved one to please go into treatment would be in a safe, loving environment. Such as two people sitting across a table from one another. With kindness and compassion, yet firmly outlining expectations, suggestions and boundaries.

Detaching from the chaos, conflict and consequences your loved one may reap is one thing. Detaching from the person, to the point of no contact, is another. I can have my addicted Loved Ones present in my life with safeguards and limits in place. Things will move at the speed of trust. I can reach out as often as I want to let them know they are precious to me, but I choose not to be around the chaos, conflict or consequences of this disease.

We need each other. Disconnecting is miserable. Connecting is helpful and healing even if that’s not immediately seen.

In that I find relief and great hope.

I am some years past the most traumatic of those days. Even still, I am more than glad I never told my son, when his life was at its most desperate, “you can’t call me, you won’t hear from me, you won’t have your Mom in your life.” As bad as our disputes were, as much as I cut off access to comforts, I could not, I would not, cut him off from me. And I never will.

If that is viewed as wrong, I don’t need to be right. 

Annie Highwater is a Writer, Speaker, Podcast Host and Family Advocate. She has a particular interest in family pathology and concepts of dysfunction, addiction, alcoholism and conflict. Annie published her memoir, Unhooked: A Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction, in 2016. Her story sheds light on the personal challenges facing the affected parents and family members, and illustrates how family dynamics both help and hinder the recovery process. Annie’s second book, Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache was published in August of 2018. She resides in Columbus, Ohio and enjoys writing, long distance running, hiking, the great outdoors and visiting her son in California as often as possible.



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"...)

  1. Detaching is so difficult. And I agree with you, no matter what, I will NEVER EVER tell my daughter to leave me (us) alone until she straightens up. I will always be here until the day I die. However, I WILL NOT continue to let her disrespect us, manipulate us, or use our home for her use of coming home once a week, to get a good nights rest or do laundry. I will talk to her, when she will talk,which is seldom and that has been my biggest hurdle with her. She WILL NOT give us five minutes to start a conversation with her. Its so challenging for us. So we just continue to be patient and hope she will,someday sooner than later, say “Mom I need to talk”. I don’t know what her life will become. What I do know, like so many parents on this site, we have provided our children with good homes, surrounded by brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins who love them and care about them very much. They have made these decisions for whatever reasons. My daughter has every possible solution at her hands with the help of her family,and chooses this life. I cant help her anymore, its her decisions. Ultimately there are consequences she will have to face for choosing this lifestyle. Right now, she thinks she is invincible. She thinks she is above the law, no-one is going to tell her what to do. She can handle it, so on and so on. Heartbreaking isn’t even close to define how we feel. I’m hurt, angry, disappointed, question WHY, frustrated, baffled, mad, all the feelings we go through. But at the end of the day, that is my baby. I thank God I still have her even though she is not whole. I believe in faith she will be someday. And if not I have to give her to God. Hang In There Parents and Lets All Continue to Pray for one another.

  2. I have a 23 year old son that everyone told me to just cut him off. I couldnt do it but I did have him sectioned. (which means I go to court and tell the judge how my son is addicted to drugs and he decides whether to put him in a facility for 30 to 90 days)…He decided to send my son to a prison where they have drug addicted people and treat them and make them go to classes The cops came to the house and took him away and when i went to court he didnt even look at me My heart was broken. He has been there for 27 days and is up for a review to see if he can go to a half way house but…. He is begging me to come home Says he learned his lesson and he never wants to be where he is.again. I want to believe him but the counseler says she is worried that he just doesnt get it. He calls me all the time begging to come home and saying to give him a second chance; I want to believe him . He told me he would leave the halfway house as soon as he got there . I told him i would tell them he could come home. I hope I am doing the right thing. Please… any advice would be appreciated!! Its coming soon . Its Saturday and he is up for review on Tues.

    1. Dear Jezabelle, I can relate to your anguish. I thought back to moments when my son would plead with me out of so much desperation that I thought my heart would explode with pain and sorrow. There are days you don’t know how you can endure another hour of it. We went through this cycle again and again until finally the pattern was interrupted and my son decided he wanted a different life. It was a process that took time and certainly involved a lot of wrong turns and misery. My heart hurts with you, we grieve hard through this. Having been there I know exactly how you are feeling. If you can read my book Unhooked you will you find some very relatable moments. What I learned to do in these moments of desperation when I needed clarity was to fall upon my faith and pray for wisdom and direction. I would then get quiet until my mind began gathering sense and in the stillness things became more clear. In these times I also found that breathing deeply and exhaling everything in me, calm would come. I would then reach out to professionals, trusting their knowledge and wisdom over my emotions and I would come to a decision. Sometimes my intuition trumped the advice of others and that was important to learn. But when it was fear, torment and emotion calling the shots I knew to get quiet, pray for peace and wisdom and seek counsel. I did this over and over until answers came and we found our way through that set of circumstances. I am praying with you, you are not alone. Annie

    2. Hello Jezabelle: It’s awful but when the state of Massachusetts doesn’t have room in its treatment center contracted to take section 35 men, they send them to Bridgewater, a county jail. There is some treatment in the jail but men live out their stay in the general population. It must be hard to bear knowing your son is in a jail, when your aim was to get him treatment for addiction.

      He is safe though, which might not have been the case had you not sectioned him. When a judge sections someone, it means there is ample evidence of danger.

      Read Dominique Simon-Levine’s full response here: