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He’s Back in College But Is Still On Shaky Ground


saddeneddeeply reports to the Allies community about progress made with his college-aged son…but feels there is still a lot of arm-twisting in their agreement. Below, we offer some modifications that can be made to lessen the pressure on both the parents and their son, and help them readjust expectations around recovery.

"So I have a little bit good news to report. My 18-year-old son who failed his first semester at Cornell last fall went back to Cornell 8 days ago. When he failed last year, he played a lot of video games and vaped nicotine. He might also do marijuana, LSD and other stuff. But we are not sure.

He is still on a very shaky ground. 3 weeks before he went to Cornell, he quit vaping nicotine again for the fifth times (I lost exact count). But he is too lonely at home. We had him signed a contract that he will not do any addictive activities including video games, nicotine, alcohol, marijuana and other chemicals or we will stop paying his tuition and bring him home for treatment immediately. We did 2 drug tests after he went to school. Both are good. There is no way to test games. So we blocked his computer and iphone using Qustodio software. We are holding our breath. We really don't know if he can make it work this fall but we are hopeful.

Assuming this will be a successful story, we found what really helped him to quit is his desire to go back to Cornell which he worked hard for during his high school years. That is an investment on his part. He did not want to go to local colleges. We told him we can't pay for his tuition/room/board unless he quit all addictive activities and I will drive 254 miles one way weekly to drug test him. A lot of technique you shared with me really helped too. For example, the reflective listening made him want to communicate with us. When we blocked his computer/iphone, threathened not to pay tuition when addiction is found and told him we want to drug test him, we emphasized to him at the same time we are at war with addictions not with him.

In the end there are still a lot of arm-twisting. He is still not happy with us. We are not sure if this is going to work long term. But we are happy it's working at least for now.

Thank you so much for your caring and the expertise you provided. We would not know what to do with him without you."

Dear saddeneddeeply. Thank you for sharing the good news. I so hoped your son would make it back to school. It sounds like you were able to reach him and to work a plan he agreed to follow. He sounds motivated and you sound relieved.

The bar you set may be unrealistically high in terms of your expectations. Individuals don’t stop all addictions at once. They test out reducing use in different contexts, thinking it is easy, but finding it actually a good deal more difficult. Chances are, your son has the best intentions but will find it very difficult to meet the goal of total abstinence from all his subject issues, all at once. The drug test will probably dictate how he moves forward, avoiding the marijuana, but perhaps drinking some and playing video games, since neither of these will show up in a test.

To help your son succeed, you can suggest he attend outpatient treatment in Ithaca: at least a therapist, perhaps an early recovery group… either or both linked to regular drug testing. (AA, at one time, was very good in Ithaca with lots of young people during the school year.) He would sign a consent allowing the treater to test and share the drug test results with you. I looked online for Cornell and found this:

Looks like Cornell refers out, but your son should start with counseling services at the University. Hopefully they know the lay of the land, when it comes to who is good and what will be appropriate for a young man. Many institutions of higher education now have dedicated staff responsible for helping students with substance issues. Perhaps you can call and ask about this.

Drug testing can be useful for parents and other family members, when it is used as part of information gathering. A positive drug test is only part of the picture. If your son were to relapse, and if he were willing to seek further help and support, and only at this point, I would ask him to sign a consent form with the therapist or group facilitator, to get their opinion about your son continuing in school despite the relapse.

We’ve written elsewhere about paying for tuition and creating a supportive environment for a young person who's newly abstinent. Here's one example.

The difficult but important part is to find ways to meter out the reward of paying for college with your son’s efforts at staying abstinent, perhaps doing it a semester at a time. He may slip and use, but there are steps he can take to get back on the beam and show he is willing to keep trying to address the addictions. In this way, you don’t completely cut out college at the first sign of use.

CRAFT talks a lot about putting rewarding things into the lives of your Loved Ones. School is one such reward. Not only is college rewarding but it provides a positive structured substitute for bedroom gaming and being stoned. Getting an A on a test can really cheer one on.

Thank you for checking in. I am so glad some ideas from this site are proving useful.



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. I have a bit more good news to report. My son survived his last semester at Cornell University without failing a class. He got almost 3.5 GPA for the semester. Not as much as he should be capable of getting, but a world of difference from where he has been. He still plays video games, sometimes 6 hours in a row, which sucks all his “spare” time away. He only does things in school to the extent to make sure he is not getting kicked out. He does not take care of things that are not “urgent”. For example he did not bother to look for summer intern. He still skips classes. He still does not sleep well. He does not send his tennis racquet out to restring. He does not fix his broken iphone screen or send it out for fixing. Much smaller things compared to the challenges a lot of people in this community are facing. Yet he is not normal. He is not free of addiction and he does not want therapy. I guess I should be grateful. Yet I don’t know how to get him completely off video game addiction.
    As far as what worked for him, I think first is his desire to go back to Cornell which he earned himself (he spent a summer at home to prepare for the standard tests and my wife drove him all over to see almost all the ivy league schools and beyond which motivated him), the technique we learned here to reflectively listen to him and love him no matter what which is not easy to do when he is out of his mind. But we often reminded ourselves: if we don’t love him, who will.

  2. This is a great reminder that sobriety brings with it a change in attitude and behavior and mine should adjust as well. My LO just passed the latest drug test I gave and yet this could have been a disaster if I wasn’t prepared spiritually and in terms of controlling myself and coming up with a plan to not allow the result to affect my internal state of mind and peace towards my LO. This is the reason I waited until I was sure the morale was super high and our connection strong before I did testing and even then I told the LO that it was random and the software telling me when to test so as not to make it too attached to trust and immediate signs that might put up guards in our relationship/connection.

    I think of the most demoralizing thing I can do or attitude I can have and it would be to treat my loved one in a cold way when they should be treated with respect for their participation with me as their ally in “being in the process” with me and changes they’ve already made or are making. Not so much of a hardcore focus on black and white results and yet mainly on the process and the morale and things we each may need along the way. The piece/peace on ambivalence is key for me. I don’t want to muddy the water by adding variables in my own misbehavior towards them. I would rather make sure my conduct is very centered on my own control of my intrinsic spiritual power and not based on the whims of external events in my sphere or theirs.

    This seems real easy until you give a drug test and you find that you didn’t know how to interpret a faint line as a negative. Example being a lapse found via a test or my own clumsiness confronting an ambiguous test device and a faint line that upon due diligence I discovered is an indicator of a negative(and not as a novice might assume is simply very little of a drug in their system or as a fearful person would think of as a catastrophe).

    I am so glad that I did two things before the test: 1) Tell them that testing is one of my conditions 2) Have a plan in place to handle a negative or a positive in a certain positive way(telling them upfront that I know this is a process and no matter the result I’m not going to react in any way and yet I am doing this test for information that I need to know for clarity sake and I was prepared to not even share it with them unless they wanted to know so as to ensure my attitude is sincere). 3) Give the test (I was stalling because I didn’t have a plan in place to handle a negative or positive 4) Study the test result indicators ahead of time and be clear that if there’s ambiguity that can creep into any situation it seems to find me every time. 5) Think of testing as a chance for them to prove something they’ve been working on and not as a chance for me to stick their nose in their failure they’re already far too aware of in terms of which side of their ambivalence I am on.