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What Is Our Role? Underlying Feelings and Beliefs We Have About Our Loved Ones

Photo credit: Meaning Full Life Center

Like many of us who have Loved Ones struggling with SUD, Allies member Binnie knows that trust is a delicate matter. Can we trust our Loved Ones to take care of themselves? Do we believe they have the capacity? Or do we think they’re so damaged that they can’t function without our stepping in? Isabel Cooney reflects on how trust is explored in a recent Allies podcast, and offers her own insightful take on this vital subject.

“My son is in intensive outpatient from an inpatient for 2.5 weeks. I’m worried he will use again. How do I start to trust? Friday-sun no meetings.”

Hi Binnie, thank you for writing in and sharing your concern. We can certainly relate!

We address the fundamental question of trusting our Loved Ones (LO), despite all of their bad choices in the past, in the recent podcast episode Giving Your Loved One Trust & Agency. In this episode, Laurie MacDougall and Kayla Solomon point to some of the ways the CRAFT model invites us to move into a more trusting dynamic with our Loved Ones. This blog post takes its cues from that conversation.

It is completely understandable that we lose trust over time: after all, we’ve dealt with so many “bad decisions,” so many dangerous and sometimes near-death situations, such a lack of responsibility and consideration for others. And yet part of what CRAFT is asking us to do is to put on a new pair of glasses when we look at our Loved Ones, what they (and we) have been through, and what they’re facing as they try to move forward.

The Allies in Recovery eLearning Modules walk us through specific ways we can begin to think about the situation differently, pull it apart, and start making a better assessment about what’s happening now. Thinking about our role in all of this. Noticing the ways, we interact and intervene. Is what we’re doing helpful, either short-term or long-term?

If a Loved One has been using substances regularly, it impacts their ability to function. At the very least, they’re distracted, they’re checked out, they’re in their escape mode. And to complicate matters, the substances (depending on the various properties of what they’re using) often mimic their actual underlying diagnosis. Anxiety, depression, trauma—so many of the symptoms are similar. Even for professionals in the field, it can be quite difficult to distinguish the symptoms of SUD from the symptoms of other underlying conditions.

This is good information for a family member to have, and to keep in mind what we think we’re seeing is not always accurate. We may make assumptions that our LO’s using because of certain symptoms that are caused by underlying issues.

What stepping in too often says to our Loved One

Laurie MacDougall points out that if we as family members are always stepping in because we believe our LO incapable of doing something (which she admits she had done plenty, and still occasionally slips back to it), they will never get the chance to step up, have agency, or even persevere if it doesn’t work out the first time.

In a way, this is very similar to parenting a young child: if we’re always standing just behind them, holding their hand, or saying “Don’t do that, you’re going to fall,” they may simply never go and explore their environment, discover what they can do, understand how gravity works, etc. It’s up to the parent to practice stepping back and allowing their learning process to occur. As James Russell Lowell said, “One thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warning.”

Working on ourselves

As family members practicing CRAFT, we are committing to making shifts that empower our LOs to learn about themselves. But as Kayla Solomon admits, “One thing that’s really become clear is [that] change is not fast.” For every single person working the CRAFT program, trial and error are our constant companions. If you start examining the microscopic changes you’re making, you get encouraged to do more. But trying and failing first is often an extremely effective learning tool.

Nothing’s slower, however, than the effort to move without an informed plan for doing so. With the CRAFT model that we teach on the Allies in Recovery member site and in our support groups, there are specific steps to follow, specific changes we’re asking you to make to your part of the relationship with the person who’s using substances.

With CRAFT, just as we are hoping our Loved Ones will do, we family members start to look more honestly at ourselves:

  • How much responsibility are we taking for another human being?
  • How good are we at self-care?
  • Are we communicating well, providing SPACE? Or are we getting too intrusive, “not letting them pull their own pants up”?

A commitment to an evidence-based program like CRAFT can have unexpected benefits. For example, when we family members are struggling to learn new things, to make change, it’s an invitation to develop more compassion and understanding for our Loved One’s progression.

You’re Incompetent. Let me help you.

Let’s be clear: neither CRAFT nor Allies supports the old “Let them hit rock bottom” philosophy of simply disconnecting and disengaging. On the contrary, supportive engagement is an essential part of the puzzle. We do not want our Loved Ones to feel alone or uncared for. Allies’ eLearning Modules 5 and 6 cover this issue in some detail.

But engagement’s also not a blank check. CRAFT teaches us how and when engagement is most effective—for example, when we reinforce positive behavior with small but meaningful rewards—and also about the times when stepping back is what’s needed. Today, we’re focusing on the latter.

Someone who has substance use issues is dealing with shame, self-defeat and not believing in themselves. But when someone who doesn’t believe in themselves has a person at hand (us) who does everything for them, they get the clear message that we’re of the same opinion. They’re incompetent. They can’t do it themselves.

“We’re cutting them off at the knees,” says Laurie MacDougall. “We’re sending the message: Oh, you’re right! You’re totally incapable of doing this. You need me here. So, I’ll do it.” Versus, “I’m sure you’re going to be able to find the solution here. I’m right here, but I’m going to sit back and let you take the reins.”

One phrase, albeit not at all evidence-based, that helped Laurie as she practiced stepping back and telling her Loved One “I believe you can do it” is “Fake it ’til you make it.” In reality, at the beginning, Laurie was saying out loud, “I believe you can do it” while thinking to herself, “whether I believe that or not.” We might not actually believe they’re capable, but we still owe it to this human being to reflect hope, trust and confidence back at them.

A new dynamic

“With CRAFT,” says Kayla, “you’re learning a lighter touch. A dance. When you step in, you step in lightly. Subtle. No bulldozers.” Yes, we can see all the potential things that could go wrong. And yet our LOs cannot learn unless they have the opportunity and the space to do it—even when there is some risk to that.

A family member recently pointed out to Laurie “it seems that every time we step back/step away, things get ramped up and it just falls apart.” Yes, it’s possible that things may get worse before they get better. But if we never step away and allow natural consequences to occur, our LO never faces, and learns from, those consequences.

We totally get it — it is really, really hard to step away from situations that are life and death. And yet, CRAFT still asks us to practice this. And to sit with the discomfort that comes from switching up our modus operandi – our usual way of operating.

A skateboard story

“My Loved One came to me,” says Laurie. “He was in early recovery work. And he said to me, ‘I need a skateboard. If I don’t get a new skateboard, I’m going to relapse.’ And in that moment, I understood I couldn’t get him that skateboard.” Laurie could see he was looking for something to “do,” and that he was putting his agency in her hands. “I knew, I just knew, that he was going to go and use if I didn’t buy it. What I really wanted to do was tie a ball and chain around his ankles and keep him at home for the next month. Instead, I let him know I couldn’t get him a skateboard right now.

“He didn’t get the skateboard, and he did end up using. It was all I could do to contain myself. To understand I needed to sit through this. I waited, I waited and I waited… [it was] so distressful, so painful.

“This one small incident with the skateboard actually allowed me to start processing the fact that he might not make it. And I knew, OK, I’m probably going to blame myself if the worst-case scenario happens. But I’m pretty sure I’m going to have those feelings either way. So, I’m going to go all in and try my best to change things up.”

Changing our own thought process

The Allies in Recovery program walks you through the CRAFT method. Once you align with the CRAFT program, you start looking and thinking differently about things.

How do our thoughts affect how we feel, and the ways we interact? The truth is, our thoughts affect everything! Science continues to show us that our thoughts affect both our behavior and our emotions.

What Kayla likes about the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) portion of the program is that we’re changing our thought process to actually believe that the person is doing what they need to do, even if they’re not in agreement with what we think is best for them.

Suppose they’re out using, and they call you to say they can’t do this—can’t face recovery—alone. When you respond with some version of, “I trust that you’re going to make good decisions,” you’ve taken the blame out of the equation. You’re sending a positive message: I trust you; you’ll figure it out, I love you.

And when the LO is interested in treatment, that’s when you’re available, to actually provide a service.

Why do we step in so much?

Laurie explains what she came to understand by working the CRAFT model: “Everything that I was saying, everything that was driving my behavior, had to do with how I was feeling. For example, thoughts like, ‘I’m saving my LO’ or ‘I’m doing this for him. Doing this to help him.’ But in actuality, everything I was saying and doing was to relieve my own emotions, stress, anxiety. Every single bit of it. Once I knew that I was going to have to sit with some pretty strong anxiety and distress…I was able to make the change.”

Back to ourselves!

Kayla makes a provocative comparison: “Our substance is our Loved One. We’re focused on them, attending to them, figuring out how to interact with them. That’s the same focus that they have on their drug. ‘How am I gonna get it, how am I gonna pay for it, what am I gonna do?’”

Laurie sees it a bit differently. “I see it [our addiction] as the emotions and feelings and thoughts—for both parties! We spend all our time trying to feel better, or not feel what we feel. Our LO has figured out that their substance (at least for a spell) is helping them manage their feelings. And us, the family members, we’re also constantly trying to find a short fix, a quick fix, for the discomfort of our anxiety.”

“The message we’re often sending, unbeknownst to us,” says Kayla, “is, ‘If only you would do XYZ, I would feel better.’ That’s where things get complicated. We look at them and tell them what’s wrong with what they’re doing, how irrational it is, what they should do differently… but there’s something else going on. It’s with us. We have to go deeper inside our wants and needs and expectations, and separate them from our LO’s behavior. Because if we’re hooked in with them, we’re in trouble.”

That’s what our LO’s are doing too, Laurie points out. “They’re experiencing internal and external triggers that make them feel miserable. Then they go and use, and it feels fantastic, more manageable. Then the effect wears off. And the long-term consequences bubble back up. ‘I don’t feel good, that wasn’t a good idea. But I can’t figure out how to feel better without doing the substance.’

“It’s the same for us. We have these feelings and thoughts as well as environmental factors triggering us. We’re asking our LO’s to sit with the pain and distress of their internal and external triggers without the quick fix of their substance. Same for us. We, too, have to sit with our feelings, with our anxiety, this awful distress. We don’t get the quick fix anymore when we start shifting our behavior. With the skateboard example, I would have felt better if I’d gotten it for him. In the short-term.” But then what?

The short answer

The short answer to your question, Binnie, is that we need to practice sitting with our discomfort, just like we’re asking our LOs to do.

Keep sending the message to your Loved One: “I think you can do this. I know it may be difficult, and you may not do it in the way I would choose. But I believe in you.”

This is about short-term vs. long-term change. All change starts with thoughts, with making a commitment. We encourage you to start identifying specific tools and practices you will implement. Example: I trust this person. I’m going to step back.

If you’re starting the process with YOU taking your power back, then you’re changing the vision of your actual power to pull the strings. Look for the tiny, incremental shifts—how your LO is responding, and how YOU are changing. Do this with your whole life, and watch the outcomes. Not just with your Loved One.

And lean on us! Join one of the support groups for family members. Go back through the eLearning Modules and Key Observations exercises. Keep working on your CRAFT skills and knowledge. We’re passionate about the methodology because the evidence is solid: CRAFT produces better and more lasting results than any other behavioral approach to substance use.

Finally, remember that we’re always here for you. Do keep in touch.

Isabel Cooney


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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"...)