Tough love?

LrgWord_FamilyIn a public facebook post, David Sheff rails against “tough love” advice to kick addicted loved ones out of the house:

Like so many others, he’s been indoctrinated by counselors, therapists, and people in 12 step groups. Al-Anon is wonderful –it helped me– but it doesn’t tell us to let a child or spouse or other loved one live on the street. It doesn’t tell us to give them ultimatums or cut off contact with them. Yes, in those meetings we can learn from one another’s’ experiences and we can support one another, but we in those rooms are people like us, not addiction professionals. Some may have been lucky and that sort of touch love may have worked for them. But it’s dangerous.

Over and over, in program after program, we’re told that we must kick our loved ones out in order to get them into treatment, that they must hit bottom and drag themselves into treatment if ever they’ll fully embrace recovery. This warped and dangerous definition of tough love is killing people.

. . . within the limits of our own sanity, resources, etc, we mustn’t give up on someone we love who’s ill. As I’ve said, I don’t believe in tough love. I believe in love.

Maia Szalavitz offers a few critical points.

What people are misunderstanding here is the purpose of kicking a child out or cutting them off. Parents may have to kick a child out for their own sanity or to protect other family members— that’s reality and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the reality is *also* that this is more likely to hurt the addict than it is to help them. If you want to help a person get into recovery, you need to take positive, specific steps to do so, such as using techniques like CRAFT, motivational interviewing, harm reduction, etc. You can’t take those steps if you’ve cut that person out of your life, although you can try to ensure that they have access to people who do this. Again, you may need to cut ties *for you*— the point here is don’t pretend it’s for the addict. If you do that, you risk the outcome that happened to Terry McGovern— she died drunk in a snowbank after her parents cut her off and they never forgave themselves for taking the advice to do this. Again, it’s not selfish to try to save yourself and other family members— the harm comes from pretending that leaving addicts in prison or on the street *helps addicts*.

If you reach the point where you need the addict out of your home, it’s ok. But, be clear that you’re doing it for you (and the rest of the family), not them. When done to get the addict sober, it’s really just a high stakes gamble rooted in an illusion of control over the addict’s behavior and the illness.

The lives of addicts families often drift into being organized around the chaos, crises, secrets and shame that the addiction brings. What often gets lost are the goals and values family members. Deciding to reorganize personal and family life around healthy goals and values can be traumatic and lead to difficult choices.

However, one option left out of her list is family intervention–not the hit and run tough love interventions that you see on TV. Rather an intervention that’s rooted in love and honesty.

Here’s George McGovern on the subject:

Perhaps more to the point is the manner in which the Jays’ work through the mistaken views frequently held by an addict’s family. During the years of Terry’s drinking with its frequently sad results, she did seek help in treatment, counseling, and Alcoholics Anonymous programs. But we were repeatedly told by well-meaning, supposedly informed friends, that we would have to wait until Terry really “hit bottom.” The trouble is that when she “hit bottom,” she died.

Intervention is a way of erecting a “bottom” before such a tragedy.

Jeff Jay describes family intervention here. Note that he had been out of the house and on the streets. That didn’t get him sober. A loving family intervention was the beginning of his recovery. The Love First website is full of great information and resources.

6 thoughts on “Tough love?

  1. Jason, beautiful newsletter as always. So full of good information and help for families and addicts. Our work with families in the Daily BALM (Be a Loving Mirror) network is about helping families get their lives back WHILE encouraging their loved ones to get help in every way possible. This difficult, heart-wrenching journey of loving a using addict is filled with so many roadblocks and obstacles, at times it feels like driving down a pitch black road without headlights. Families beg for people to tell them what to do and tough love sounds like it could work. I agree with the person who said, it’s not about tough love, it’s about LOVE. Allowing Love to lead the way, while taking best care of family members. I will share this post with my families and I hope you will let those you know about the Be A Loving Mirror work as well. It is so in sync with the idea of finding resources to help our loved ones, not just leaving them to fend for themselves, unless we have absolutely no other options due to our own safety or well-being concerns. Too many have died deserted or left to fend for themselves when there are ways to help that have not even been tried.

    Beverly A. Buncher, MA, PCC, MRLC, CTPC
    Family Recovery Coach/CEO
    Family Recovery Resources, LLC
    786 859 4050

  2. Funny I was just listening to a chap last week who said the turning point for him was when his parents refused to let him come home unless he addressed his substance use problems. I wonder if we risk reducing the issue to a binary choice: love as normal or tough love.

    What about love with appropriate boundaries? We’re complex creatures in complex social networks. We probably need complex and varied approaches.

    1. Sheff did get a little more nuanced in his post.

      I was saying to someone earlier that I was uncomfortable with the implication that letting them stay helps them.

      I agree that boundaries are important for everyone. One goal would be shifting responsibility to them for their own well-being while doing what you can to make sure they have access to the help they need to be successful in doing so.

  3. I read the “Though Love” book, and wish there were chapters here in my city as there once were. The point was that parents could get help from other parents with their teens. As a disabled widow, I need help with an unruly only child who is 6ft. tall and can bully me. I’ve heard success stories (personally), and no negative outcomes. Personally, I know it is HELL to live with a teen who won’t respect your boundaries. What happened to all those “Tough Love Parent support” groups???

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