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Our Loved Ones Need Us to Listen. Even (Or Especially) When Their Behavior Is at Its Worst.

Photo credit: George Becker

When Sweets1997 and his family allowed their adult son access to their home while they were away, it was a simple act of love. They returned to a trashed home and missing belongings. It’s just the latest difficult chapter in an 11-year journey with their son’s addiction. But not all the signs are discouraging. Laurie MacDougall remarks on the points in this family’s favor, and explores in detail how focused listening and other communication skills can build a relationship of trust with our Loved Ones.

Good day. My eldest son (we have three) and the rest of our family have been in the throes of addiction for approximately 11 years. My eldest son is almost 26. He currently lives on his own; he rents from his grandmother. My son has been on a methadone treatment plan for about 10 months. It has not been without its ups and downs. He recently turned to using again, to our knowledge cocaine, alcohol and methadone. There could be other substances as well. And he recently lost his job.

My wife and I, along with our other two adult children, were recently on a trip to visit family. My eldest son could not come because of methadone treatment and his latest setback. While away I made the mistake, with loving intentions, of allowing him access to our home. We came back to find our house trashed, damaged, items missing, etc. My son is suffering from severe paranoia and hatred towards us. He has had trouble with the law in the past due to his substance use, and no interaction ever made things better, only worse.

My wife and I are at a loss for what to do. We are terrified for his safety and are trying to practically apply what we have been learning though the CRAFT program.

Hi sweets1997,

I hear the worry and anxiety for the safety of your son. But I also hear some incredible dedication and persistence in your efforts to change the trajectory to a more positive direction.

I am going to dive right in and point out the positives in your situation. First, your son has you, his parents, as support. You and your wife staying focused on CRAFT and continuing to try to support your son are expressions of how much you love him. Through this incredibly complicated and discouraging journey, that you are still working and staying resilient is amazing.

Second, your son has been taking methadone for 10 months and did fairly well before experiencing a recurrence. Ten months is a long time—and a REALLY long time in early recovery. It’s important to recognize that and point it out to him. Recovery from any illness is not a straight-line process. There are going to be ups and downs. It’s critical to the recovery process to take every opportunity to focus on the positive steps forward. Reframing the story and keeping his accomplishments front and center can change attitudes for both you and your Loved One (LO) and influence the outcome in a new direction.

Encouraging him to continue this part of his program (methadone) is important right now. Just as with medications for other health conditions, it can take several attempts before someone settles into understanding the role of medication in their recovery plan.

His use of new substances is understandably troubling. The addition of new substances is an indication that some of his behavioral issues that drove him to use in the first place are not being addressed. The methadone may have reduced cravings for opioids, and he may be attempting to avoid opioids as much as he can. But if the struggle is overwhelming for him right now, he may be turning to other drugs.

For now, the family focus should be on finding ways to encourage him to seek out additional services and activities (both recovery focused and nonrecovery focused). Let’s look at a few ideas you might consider:

  1. Improving communication. The key to influencing and encouraging our LOs is how we communicate with them. The goal is to communicate in a way that builds on our relationship. I would encourage you to start with Module 4 (How Do I Talk With My Loved One?) on the Allies website. Begin with the very first video, which emphasizes no negative talk, and work through the accompanying activity.I know this is hard to see, but the very first step in communication is to listen, listen, listen. Most of us listen with our own agendas, or to figure out what our response is going to be. We’re often not truly focused on what the person is trying to tell us. Listening with curiosity and the desire to learn about someone is difficult.

    To get started, I would encourage you just to listen to him without offering answers. Respond in a way that gives you time to think. Developing your communication skills in this way can help you build on your relationship with your son. Try to say things like, “I’d like some time to think about that…” and/or “That sounds difficult. I can see why your upset about that, I need some time to consider what you’ve said.” Respond with validating statements, and then create some space to step aside and think things through. When you do take the space and time, start working on other communication skills. I know this is difficult to understand, but even in those times when we are in crisis and feel that an immediate reaction is needed, slowing things down make a difference.

    You expressed that your son is, “suffering from…severe hatred towards us.” This is why working on your relationship is so important. Building on it through better communication is a way to create a safe space without judgement. The kind of space in which your LO is able to trust and be open to new ideas. Healing begins when people feel heard, and that’s why listening is so important.

  2. Find ways to reinforce and reward (with encouraging words) the fact that he has stuck with the methadone program for 10 months. It takes up to a year for a person to become somewhat stable on a medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD), Encouraging him to stay with it while adding in other forms of treatment may help. It might sound something like: “You have been very consistent with your medication, and I know that can be difficult. I wonder if it would help to add something else to the program. What about a counselor? What are your thoughts on that?”

    Then just listen to him. Invite him to solve the problem. “What do you think you could do to change things up?” Again, listen. Step back. Give him the space to think. Expect this to be an ongoing conversation. Your goal is to inspire him to think about what he can do and then to support any steps towards a next level of treatment.

  3. Encourage him to engage in other positive activities. Anything that you can inspire him to do that redirects his mind away from his challenges and addiction is a good thing. What are his interests? What are things he used to do and like and hasn’t engaged with in a while?

    Let’s say he used to like to exercise. You might offer to buy him a gym membership for a casual birthday gift. Just something that occurred to you—no mention of addiction or how he needs to get out of his room and do something else. You just thought he might like it for his birthday.

    Or maybe he used to like hiking? “We haven’t been out hiking in a while. How about I pick you up and we go for a quick hike in our old place? What do you think? I could pack us a lunch.” And when you go for that hike, no talking about his issues. Just be there and spend time together. If he starts talking about his issues, this is a great opportunity to practice listening and to build on the relationship.

    Of course, these are just suggestions. You will have to figure out the specifics with your son.

  4. Create small moments where you can reward your LO’s behavior. Example: you’re carrying groceries into his grandmother’s place and your hands are full. Ask him to carry your drink so it won’t spill. Once you get inside, quick moments of praise can show him he has purpose, and he’s needed: “Thanks for carrying that. You’re a life saver.”
  5. Address the vacation struggle in a positive way. Could you also plan some sort of vacation time with him? Something in his area, so that he can still make his clinic appointments? Longer vacations, farther away from where he’s living, might not be the best for either of you right now. What about planning short and fun activities that can be ended easily if things go off the rails, but that still create meaningful times to connect?

There is a lot more I would love to share with you, but this is already quite a bit of information. Start with the communication skills, and work hard on them to build that stronger relationship. It may sound crazy, but again, the first step is to get really good at listening and hearing him, while keeping your own agenda out of it.

Something I’ve learned and would like to share with you is that CRAFT-ing is a form of healing in and of itself for us families. Starting to implement CRAFT changed who I am and helped shape me into a better communicator, with better understanding of others. After years of practicing and implementing CRAFT skills and strategies and working with so many Allies families, I can truly say that CRAFT has been a form of healing for me. I wish with all my heart that CRAFT can bring some healing to you and your family.

Take a deep breath. Lean on each other, and know that we at Allies are also here to support you. Please let keep us updated, and reach out if there is more that we can help with.

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"...)