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 motivationandchange.com along with Dr. Dominique Simon-Levine, founder of AlliesInRecovery.net (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.