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My Daughter’s Struggle Isn’t Just With Substance Use

Photo credit: Joyce Dias

Shame and stigma are all-too-familiar aspects of many people’s struggle with substance use. Allies’ member Sferguson has watched her daughter confront both, even from members of the medical community. Fortunately, CRAFT can equip us with the skills we need to be our Loved Ones’ best allies. It begins, as AiR’s Laurie MacDougall explains, with compassionate listening.

Trying to get my daughter to engage in some sort of treatment has been very difficult, and a big issue for her is shame and embarrassment. Even when talking to her therapist, she admits that she hasn’t always disclosed when she has been drinking because she is ashamed. Any ideas on ways to make her understand? Any literature for her that might be helpful? I try to assure her that I am not ashamed of her, but even if she believes me, she believes the rest of the world does not feel that way. In her one experience with an outpatient treatment, she felt very ashamed. Looking forward to any input. Thank you!

Hi Sferguson,

As a mom myself, I understand how important it is for us to show how much we love our Loved Ones (LOs). We want them to know that they need not be embarrassed or ashamed, especially if they are working hard on improving their situation. We really do have unconditional love for our children, whether they are youth, young adults, or adults experiencing addiction. Clearly, Momma, you want with all your heart to help your daughter. The good news is that there are ways you can help.

Stigma is all around us

It’s very disheartening to say this, but it’s true: the stigma associated with addiction is pervasive and everywhere. People cannot escape it. It exists in the medical world, in the community, with family and friends, amongst people of differing pathways to recovery, with first responders, the media…you name it.

Deep shame, self-blame, embarrassment, dread, and pain are all major components of addiction. Add in stigma directed at our LOs and you have a big fat barrier to reaching out

for help. The response of many people is to isolate themselves. So, it makes sense to me that your daughter would struggle to get beyond any difficult experiences she’s had with the medical profession.

We do not have the power to keep our LOs from experiencing stigma, or discrimination as a result of stigma. We also do not have the power to convince them not to feel the way they feel because of their experiences. Happily, there’s a lot we can do to help. We can be compassionate, understanding, and supportive. We can validate those thoughts and feelings and let our LOs know we are walking beside them. We can encourage them to learn to manage those thoughts and feelings. We can create a safe space to come to when things get difficult.

“People start to heal the moment they feel heard.” ~ Cheryl Richardson

The above quote (from writer and self-care specialist Cheryl Richardson) is key. Listening and being there can offer a pathway to healing. Try to use empathetic statements: “It makes sense to me that you would feel frustrated and deeply hurt by clinic staff when they treated you in a negative way. That sounds very difficult to deal with.”

If we try to convince our LOs that they shouldn’t think and feel a certain way about those negative experiences, it sends the message that we think they are wrong. It also indicates that we don’t understand their perspective. When we make validating statements, by contrast, we are sending the message that they have the right to think and feel their thoughts and emotions. It shows that we can empathize. We become a trusted confidant with whom they can share their deepest fears. They don’t have to convince us to feel compassion. They can feel less alone.

Any crack in your LO’s defensiveness, any de-escalation of emotion, can start the process of developing more open communication between you two. When she expresses frustration, shame, or embarrassment about her experiences with the outpatient program’s staff, you can view this as a “dip” (see Module 8). Take the opportunity to offer support and take baby steps in a new direction. It might sound something like this:

It makes sense to me that you would be sad and embarrassed by that treatment. What are your thoughts on talking to someone about your experience? Someone who might be able to help? Those are some difficult feelings to manage, and you shouldn’t have to do it alone. What do you think of that?

If she is not receptive, back down, and just let her know you are there when she needs you. This will give her time just to think about what you said. No pressure to do anything, just thoughts and ideas. If she is open to talking to someone, offer to help. You might say, “Would it help if I looked for a counselor for you to speak with?” and/or “We could make the call together if it feels stressful.”

To repeat: this process is about listening, validating, influencing, and being patient. It’s the listening that starts the healing so that she can move forward. Once a person feels like they have been heard, they don’t feel as much need to battle the world for understanding. This in turn can lead them to being a little more open to what others have to say. That’s especially true when your messaging includes a recognition that they can determine their own path: “I don’t want to put any pressure on you to do what I think you should. These are just thoughts to inspire more thoughts. You need to find what will work for you, and I believe that you will.”

We’re here for you at Allies

Remember that there are a lot of resources and forms of support here on the Allies in Recovery website. The foundation of our approach is expressed in those CRAFT learning modules. As you work through them, consider joining one or more of our evening meetings. These groups offer support in a multitude of ways: through community, education on all thing’s addiction, digging deep into CRAFT communication and interactive skills, brainstorming on the applications of newly-learned skills and strategies, and so much more.

I hope that what I have written here helps. Momma, you clearly love your daughter and want to shield her from the awful pain and damage caused by stigma. What you absolutely can do is be there for her and help her work to manage her feelings and head towards a better space. You are on your way.

Please keep us updated, and reach out when you need us. Wishing you and your family all the best.

Laurie MacDougall


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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"...)