Confronting your loved one about substance abuse is difficult. But taking a firm stance — and not backing down — may be the best gift you can give them.
At 22 years old, Grace Shober was shooting heroin and snorting cocaine when her parents told her that they were closing their doors to her once and for all. After about half a dozen admissions to inpatient addiction treatment, and years of tumult at home, they were tired of Shober’s belligent behavior — chasing her mother around the house with intentions of physically assaulting her, threatening suicide, hurling cruel insults, and making no efforts to change.
Finally, her parents said, they’d had enough; they would support their daughter in recovery – but not in addiction. Unwilling to change and lashing out violently, Shober was livid with her parents. Nevertheless, they offered to care for her two young boys till Shober eventually went into treatment and now, the young mom from Redding, PA, was homeless.
“We love you, and we’ll take care of your boys, and we’ll let them know that you love them. And we’ll just be praying that you find the peace you’ve been looking for,” Shober, 28, recalled her mom saying to her through streaming tears before she walked into the night alone.
Living in the streets was one of Shober’s most painful experiences, she told Retreat. Without shelter or a working cell phone to call for help, she roamed Redding’s streets during a brutally hot summer, until, for a six week stretch, she found an empty attic in an abandoned house, like something out of a ghost story.
“A bunch of addicts stayed (in the house),” she recalled in an interview. “We would go the bathroom in the bucket in the corner of the house… I would wake up in the morning in the attic in 120 degrees, crawl to (my stash of drugs) just to get high, before I could even stand up… I would get so high that I passed out at night, and (would) continue the cycle the next morning.”
Meanwhile, in order to make extra money to pay for drugs, Shober resorted to prostitution. Eventually, with nowhere left to run, Shober reached out to Retreat at Lancaster County, PA, where she entered a successful inpatient treatment stay and has managed to turn her life around. She now works for the organization as an intake coordinator, and credits her parents’ tough love for pushing her to finally get clean.
“It’s the only thing that saved my life,” she reflected. “Once you are sober and you have a sober mindset, you realize that everything that happened was for your well-being and to save your life – even if you didn’t feel like it at the time.”
It’s impossible to quantify how many people have walked in the Shober family’s shoes, but it’s safe to say the number is sky-high. Every year, CDC statistics paint a painful picture of the growing number of overdose-related deaths, and recent studies suggest that American youth are developing a more laissez-faire outlook on drug use.
Parents, too, are misusing drugs, often putting their children at risk: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency found that nearly nine million US kids ages 17 and under are growing up in households where at least one parent has an active substance abuse disorder.
The strain this puts on families is often unbearable, leaving loved ones with no idea where to turn for help.
Resistant to change
In Shober’s case, the struggle of living in the streets finally convinced her she needed to change, and experts credit something simple for explaining why: Human nature.
“We seek out comfort and we run from uncomfortable feelings,” explained Kate Ramsey, a Clinical Supervisor for Retreat at Lancaster County, PA. And it makes sense: When a substance abuser can find any path to satisfying their addiction, they’ll do it, even if it comes at the expense of a loved one’s well-being. It’s not personal: It’s the disease taking over.
That’s one reason why parents “have to know there is something called ‘tough love,’’ said Dr. Scott Krakower, assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glenn Oaks, NY. “If you are too (coddling) and too enabling, you’re not going to get them the treatment that they need.”
After all, substance abusers often find pathways to lying, manipulating, stealing, and deceiving in order to get ahold of drugs or alcohol. They might even try to pin the blame on a family member in the hopes of appealing to their sympathies. Giving in to these requests might feel like the right response in the short term, but may only serve to sustain the addiction down the road.
Facing down guilt
For any parent, telling a child that who is in active addiction they can’t come home is unimaginable: What parent can survive the terror of wondering if their child is huddling under a highway underpass, or passed out somewhere, or dead?
However, experts say the struggle of saying goodbye to your child – if they are completely resistant to treatment – may be the only way to protect yourself from a destructive vortex that could consume your life, too.
What’s more, giving into a substance abuser’s pleas could exacerbate the problem. For instance, “several times I’ve had family members who have bought their kids heroin because they can’t bear to see them go through withdrawal,” Ramsey said. “These are loving parents who cannot bear to see their children in pain; it becomes about them.” Experts warn that that approach should never be the answer.
Here’s what to do instead
If your loved one is actively abusing substances, experts recommend a few strategies.
- Talk to your loved one: Here’s what to say. “I’ve learned that this is what you are doing; I want to help you stop doing it. Is that something you are willing to talk about?” Ramsey proffered as an opening line. It’s impossible to force someone to comply, she noted, but you can set consequences that can influence their thinking. “You may choose to continue to use, but know that I will take the car back because I don’t want you driving… I love you; if you choose to use, this is what will happen,” she said.
- Make a contract. As part of that early conversation with your loved one, make a simple contract to govern your next steps together. “You’re going to do A, B, and C, and we’ll do A, B, and C,”explained Patti Weisbrod, Director of Family Engagement and a longtime clinical therapist at Retreat. Among the terms of the agreement might be inpatient treatment. If you suspect that the contract is being violated, it’s your responsibility to enforce the consequences.
- Offer to drive them to treatment. “You want to make it so that (your loved one) isn’t only going in for treatment, but that you’re a part of the process,” Krakower said, adding that having a parent or loved one transport them to the physical treatment center is often safer and reminds them you are on this journey together.
- Seek counseling for yourself. Don’t forget to take your own mental health needs into account, all three experts agreed. The pain associated with having a loved one in active substance abuse is acute and taxing, they warned, so consider consulting a psychologist or counselor to have a support system of your own.
- Eventually, enough is enough. Weisbrod says that sometimes the last-resort option of entirely severing the cord between yourself and a loved one in addiction may be a nuclear option you’d rather not invoke — but sometimes you don’t have a choice. “If this is the second or third time that (the user has promised unfulfilled change), you need to make changes,” she said. If they “didn’t follow through to after-care, didn’t go to a 12-step meeting, didn’t get a sponsor, yeah, you need to try something different.”
- You’re not alone. Above all, remember that you’re not the only parent or loved one who has faced a struggle like this — and you can’t allow it to overwhelm your life.
“I met a mother once who talked about being behind the locked front door of her house, just sobbing with her son on the other side of the door, screaming to be let in,” Ramsey said. “She was brokenhearted, because all she wanted to do was let him in – but she knew if he had a soft place to land, he’d never get better.”
This woman, Ramsey recalled, held her ground, and eventually her son walked away. She had no idea if she’d ever see him again.
Asked what became of him a few years later, Ramsey concluded: “He’s actually in recovery.”