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It’s Okay Not to Have Hope

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Rhylie84 is struggling to believe that her Loved One might ever get better. All the recovery talk sounds lovely, but it doesn’t feel realistic for her family. Laurie MacDougall shares here about how hopeless she also felt and how it surprisingly pushed her in the right direction.

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“Good Morning.

I am really struggling with hopelessness and self-blame for my son's struggles, and yes I know the slogan. It doesn't help.

I also can't seem to envision a life for him with friends that practice abstinence. It seems impossible for a young person to build an entirely new life leaving all his childhood friends and most of our family behind.
While it sounds lovely, I am just having a really hard time with how that's really going to happen. One day at a time…”

Is losing hope a crime? Or is it okay not to have hope?

Hi Rhylie84,

I have to tell you: I really understand feelings of hopelessness when it comes to dealing with Substance Use Disorder (SUD). I also remember that often, when I told people I was feeling this way, they took it upon themselves to try and convince me that I needed to have hope. People would go to great lengths about how there was “always hope,” and/or how “I should NEVER EVER give up hope”. People were often invested trying to persuade me that I was wrong.

One time, I confided in my primary care physician and she actually started yelling at me, “I DISAGREE with you, there is ALWAYS hope!” and I walked out of that office feeling worse than when I first walked in. It almost made me believe that losing hope was a crime and that I had no right to feel this way. Well Rhylie84, I am not going to try and change your mind. You are allowed to have no hope. Those are your feelings right now during this trying time, and that is perfectly okay.

It takes greater strength to process your feelings than to pretend everything is fine

One thing I learned on my journey was that difficult feelings and thoughts are all a part of life. Being human is all-encompassing. When life is working well, we feel and think positively. When life is complicated and awful, as when impacted by SUD, thoughts and emotions tend to spiral down. It's par for the course.

While having difficult feelings like anger, frustration and hopelessness may lead one to feel ultimately worse, it can also have a positive side. Sometimes, it can motivate us to change for the better and can launch us in a new direction that we never thought possible.

I was stuck in something I now call “this or that thinking"

We get stuck in the “if it’s not this way then it has to be that way.” Also, when dealing with my son’s SUD, that was the message I was getting from the treatment industry: he either had to give up everything in his in life — his friends, any family members that were a bad influence, all use of any substances, etc. — or he was never going to get better.

He had to attend a residential treatment, to then go to a recovery home and never come back home because we are toxic. He had to attend meetings, create a new community for himself, learn better coping skills, couldn’t have love relationships, and never ever lapse. The list goes on and the pressure is high.

What the world expected of him was very specific and I was buying into it as well. Anytime he wasn’t living up to these expectations, I became anxiety-ridden, depressed and convinced recovery would never happen.

This is an example of what I call pie in the sky hope. I had unrealistic expectations for my Loved One and was convinced he needed to do everything right all the time — never miss a meeting and never go off track.  When he didn’t meet these expectations, it inevitably led me crashing down into hopelessness.

It was during these times of hopelessness that I usually had small revelations

I handled these moments by letting the feelings and thoughts flood in. I sometimes would even let them take hold for a while — it would often take days or even weeks. Not fighting them, just letting them be, gave me time to process things. Once the clouds started to part, I found that weighing what I was hopeful for, versus not hopeful for, was helpful. I call it Realistic Hope. Not “pie in the sky hope,” not “empty of all hope,” just realistic hope that helped me align my hopes for my Loved One with realistic expectations.

Recovery isn't one size fits all, it's different for everyone

This experience helped me broaden my way of thinking about what recovery for my Loved One might look like, and what my role would be. I hear you when you say, I also can't seem to envision a life for him with friends that practice abstinence. It seems impossible for a young person to build an entirely new life leaving all his childhood friends and most of our family behind.”

Could you put these expectations for your Loved One aside for now? Instead, what about listing out all the possibilities that are open to your Loved One and seeing if you can identify anything he is doing or wishes to do that would steer him in a positive direction? Could you then focus on supporting those options?

The list might look like this:

  • Detox

  • Counseling

  • Trying to stop use at home

  • Trying to reduce use

  • Meetings, online or not: AA, NA, Refuge Recovery, Life-Ring, etc.

  • Group counseling

  • Involvement in a religious/spiritual practice

  • Attend a place of worship

  • Intensive outpatient

  • Medically-Assisted Treatment

  • Recovery home

  • Residential treatment (this could be 30 or 90 days or even as long as a year)

  • Support with managing money

  • Family counseling

  • Recovery coach

  • Psychiatric meds

  • Treatment for mental illness

  • Relapse prevention programs

  • Recovery community centers

  • Exercising

The list can be much longer than this, but I think this would be a good start. Then you could go through the list and determine what your Loved One is already doing, what he might consider in the future and what may seem like an impossibility in this moment (what is impossible today won't necessarily be impossible a few months from now). If there is one or a few of these things your son is already engaged in, this is really positive.

He might also have talked about, or have been involved in, similar activities in the past without having succeeded at keeping them up. I know how tempting it is to perceive this as a failure but, in our book, it’s also incredibly hopeful. It means he HAS experienced motivation for change; it means he knows there ARE other ways.

Your influence lies in how you reward your Loved One’s attempts at sobriety

Recovery activities or even the smallest baby steps towards change allow you to have some impact and influence. Anytime you see a behavior you would like to see him repeat, reward it. Some of the best rewards are those that promote connection and strengthen relationships.

Rewarding can sound something like this:

“I know it can be a struggle because of transportation, and yet you really have been consistent with your appointments with your recovery coach. How about I pick you up after your next meeting and we grab a bite to eat?”  or


“I noticed you really have been putting in a lot of effort to reduce your pot smoking, that cannot be easy, and I'm very proud of your efforts. I know you love playing your video game, can I challenge you to a game?”

Validating how difficult the task is, while supporting his efforts can really reinforce positive behavior. The words themselves are a reward and the added incentive of food and/or quality time spent together only reinforces the reward. With this type of statement, you are combining actions that strengthen your relationship, as well as supporting your Loved One’s recovery work.

He’s not ready for any of this? Take this time to train yourself to respond appropriately to the wishes and dips you’ll hear…

He may not be engaging in anything right now but that gives you time to start working on communication skills with the help of Module 4, and on listening for a wish or a dip. Module 8 lays out how to identify wishes and dips, and what to do when you do hear one.

A dip might sound something like:

Son: “I can’t live like this anymore!”

Mom: “Sounds frustrating. I have some options that might help. Can I share them with you?”

A wish might sound like:

Son: “I wish I could get myself back in school.”

Mom: “You’re interested in going back to school. What could you do to make this happen? Is there anything I can do that might help?”

This approach will help manage expectations of what your Loved One can accomplish, and break them down into smaller steps. Helping your son replace lofty goals that would usually set him up for failure by some more realistic goals,  can nurture his conviction that he can and will be successful.  

There are many different paths to a better life

It helped me to move from hopelessness to realistic hope. I also started to notice positive behavior in my Loved One that I had not noticed before. It gave me some sense of satisfaction: I was becoming a positive influence in my son’s life. My view of what recovery looked like was changing and I started to realize that there were so many different paths to a better life. It wasn’t “this or that” anymore. Instead, it became “whatever works”.

I would also caution you to not throw away options that you cannot see your Loved One engaging in right now. We do not know what the future holds, these options may start to feel more realistic as your son keeps evolving.

He may not leave his childhood friends or family members to live a life of sobriety, but there may be other alternatives. He may just need some time away from them in early recovery, but then, as he gains strength, he could start spending time with them again. Or maybe he starts acting more strategically and only spends time with them when there is no use.

I focused on reducing triggers and supporting his efforts

When my son first came home and was very early in recovery, I let other family members know there would be no drinking at my house for the time being. Even though alcohol was not the substance he was misusing, I realized that the social aspect of drinking could be an issue. It could put him in a position to feel marginalized and restricted, whereas having all family members stay sober could, conversely, allow for him to feel loved and supported.

I was the one hosting all holidays in our family (we could write another full blog post about navigating the holidays with a Loved One struggling with SUD) and it was tough to make this call. Yet, I let family members know that I would not be insulted if they did not want to be there, but that my son’s recovery was most important. For me, supporting his efforts and reducing triggers was imperative during that time. All I was asking for was a day. They all had plenty of other opportunities to drink on other days and in other places.

Please know that I am not saying you should, or have to, do things the same way I have, nor that you will find the same results I did. I only hope this can inspire you to find ways of implementing CRAFT that will better suit your situation.

The hopelessness pushed me to shift my thinking

I am thankful I had times of hopelessness. These moments led me to consider alternative ideas of what recovery looks like for my Loved One. They pushed me to open my mind and helped me to manage my hopes, thoughts, emotions and expectations. I know that feeling hopeless can leave you with a pit in your stomach and sometimes bring on feelings of indifference.

We are supposed to have difficult feelings during difficult times. There is a reason for these feelings, and we can find purpose in these feelings.

The result for me was to change my “this or that” thoughts about my Loved One’s recovery to multiple options. My “pie in the sky hopes” that led to hopelessness became more manageable with realistic hope and expectations.

I can really identify with how you feel about your son. I have been there, and I am pretty sure many families coping with SUD share the same thoughts.  I hope that what I shared with you will help, and I would love to continue to hear about your journey.

All the best,


Laurie is a former math teacher, residing in Dartmouth, MA. She's extremely active in the recovery community. She currently devotes most of her energy to REST, a non-traditional support group that offers land and online video meetings, access to training in the CRAFT method, and a crisis toolkit helping families create their own individualized crisis plan. Her work is guided by a desire to improve the communitys response and end the stigma associated with Substance Use Disorder. Laurie loves skiing and ice hockey and is at her happiest when spending time with her husband and three children. Read her articles on our blog or tune in to the podcast she co-hosts for Allies in Recovery: Coming Up for Air.



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. Thank you for this. I’m printing it. We are still knee deep in our daughter’s train wreck, and it continues to careen out of control. The future looks grim when she keeps digging this hole deeper. Laurie offers another way to look at it and reminds me that my tone matters. Practicing it is something else entirely, I am alternately sad or mad and not much else. I appreciate how well Laurie listens and how much compassion is in her responses. I’m going to re-read and reflect on it. Thank you.

  2. Laurie
    Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your response was so very thoughtful and filled me with gratitude, hope, and love. I go forward today with a new perspective and the strength and courage to be all my son needs today and each day to come. I have copied your response and will carry it with me remembering anything is possible and cloudy skies don’t always mean rain. And thank you for the one size does not fit all confirmation. I woke at 2AM and have been up praying and meditating, then I found your response, an angel in the night ((())). You have given me the courage and HOPE to meet the day.

    Truly God Bless You

    1. Hi Rhylie84,

      I am so happy my sharing helped. This is what it is all about. Supporting one another and letting each know how NOT alone we are. Wishing you, your family and your son, healing and love.


  3. Thank you for this post on hope. It helped me to define my expectations much more clearly. I appreciate the encouragement to review the modules that’s been mentioned also. I’ve been reviewing the one on difficult emotions specifically black and white thinking. I know my emotions have been extreme. How you redefined hope is good. It helped me clarify how to step away from black and white thinking towards more moderation. I’ve set aside some of my goals which were just causing me discouragement…for now.
    I also wanted to say the lofty goals you mentioned the LO sometimes has too. Before, I felt like I needed to respond to these over-the-top goals. Or they would anger me. Yesterday I just listened and expressed my appreciation that he was talking to me and wanted to pursue a good idea.
    This led to talking about more immediate needs and a genuine dip expressed. He’s planning on calling the IOP group he was part of to see about medical Rx input and counsel. I’d had this waiting in the wings but the Rx was a way to introduce it in a way he could embrace.

    1. Hi E320,
      I agree, our Loved Ones can also have such high expectations of themselves too, causing them to come crashing down when they cannot sustain them all of the time. Realizing how to be forgiving of ourselves and that we are all just human, is a gift we can give to ourselves and our LO’s.

      It is great to hear about your successes and struggles too! Let’s keep sharing, this is how we can all support one another!


      1. i <3 allies!!!

        Really excited about this success you had, E320. Big applause for you for your determination to keep looking at your part in things, and allow for some "shades of gray" in your formerly black-and-white thinking. Onward and upward!

        Thanks also for this great point about our Loved Ones also having over-the-top expectations of themselves, which in a sense is setting themselves up for failure. I can hear the seeds of subtlety and finesse stirring and sprouting as you pursue this program. We're in it together! xx

        1. Thank you very much for your encouraging and kind words. I am learning a lot these days on how to be circumspect and act with careful thought in the middle of so many unknowns. Words like caution, careful and deliberate are really helping me define my mental boundaries. I am more confident that I know what to think and do, regardless of the challenge in front of me.

  4. I have been visiting AIR for a couple years and I am still amazed by all that I learn here. This powerful post eases some of my own anxiety. I am free to learn, grow, and change in my own thinking. Things are far less rigid than they seem. I am in charge of me and how I think and act. Thank you.

    1. Thank you gptraveler!

      I am also constantly amazed at how I don’t think there is much more to learn, but then I rewatch a module or I read a new post, and something I hadn’t thought about or I missed something the first time around, comes up.

      I also find the Allies community to be a very positive and supportive place to be.