(This is long. I apologize for that. But I couldn’t write this without the length. This is what I have learned about tough love and what has worked for me. Each of us has to find what works for us and define what “tough love” means to us.)
I have been asked a lot of questions over the years about what I have done when it comes to my son and how I did it. And I have been given a lot of advice about how to handle everything….from advice that we should send our son to a military school when he was very young to recent advice that we should have no contact with my son at all…you know “tough love”.
And I have learned a lot about myself over the past few years and about my family. I have had to question the things I believed about mental health illnesses and addiction. I have had to challenge my beliefs about family and tough love. I have had to adjust my thoughts and have had to really look inside me to see what is behind my decisions and actions, what really drives them. I have learned that tough love can come in many forms. It is not black and white…..there is gray area there too. And I have learned that what works for one person, may not work for another. And that means finding what works for me and for my family, while making adjustments to actions, thoughts and beliefs along the way. Tough love to me, still means loving my child, unconditionally. It means letting love and compassion rule, instead of anger.
It has taken me a long time to get here to this place of understanding and compassion. Am I perfect at it? NO. I continue to learn. I continue to challenge myself to see things differently, to understand differently and to be compassionate toward my son, my family, strangers and myself.
So, how did I get here to where I am today?
A lot of soul-searching! A lot of research! A lot of talking to my husband and to myself! And a lot of listening!
I started to question my thoughts and beliefs surrounding tough love and began searching for answers within me when my husband and I attended a parent support group for addicts one night in the midst of our son’s active addiction. Our son was missing and had been gone for some time and I was looking for support from those who “got it” and would not judge.
This meeting was filled with parents from all walks of life and led by a man who lost his son to an overdose. They would understand. We were all their because we had a child, an adult child for most of us, who was an addict. And tough love was the topic discussed most that night. Each parent took a turn sharing a little of their story and where they were at the moment. We listened to the others share and listened to the advice the experienced parents had for those new to the group. Every single parent there that night said that tough love was the only way…. Even after their kids entered treatment. They told us how they refused calls and letters from their sons in jail, telling the kids that they were on their own to deal with their consequences and would not accept any communication from them. Not ANY! And many would not accept communication from them even when they were out of jail and through treatment, telling their kids that they would not talk to them until they were succeeding in their own life. Then they told us that they would not help their sons or daughters who were in treatment. When it came time for their kids to transition out of in-patient treatment, the parents told us that they would not let the kids come home, instead they had to figure out where to live on their own. The parents encouraged each other in their tough love and encouraged the newer parents to cut off ties with their addict children and to set boundaries that the kids had to follow, with no middle ground. I got it. We were there, having asked our son to move out of our house and not giving him any help while he was actively using….. yes, I got it!
I heard their words and the emotions behind them. And what I heard from these parents was anger. Anger with their child for becoming an addict. Anger that their kids did this to them. And they told a new mom to stop accepting calls from her daughter who was living on the streets and using drugs. They told her to stop letting her come home to shower and stop buying her meals now and again. They said that doing those things would keep her daughter in active addiction… the mother cried. I cried.
I GOT their anger. I felt that way too. I was so angry with my son… and heartbroken… and scared….. and maybe this version of tough love worked for them and for their families…. But I couldn’t help but worry that anger controlling my choices was not the way to help my son….. that there had to be a middle ground that included love and compassion. I realized much of how I reacted to my son was out of anger and I was tired of reacting in anger.
Though glad we went to the meeting and grateful for my new awareness, I knew as we left that this was not the support group I was looking for.
I started to realize some things at this point—
—that tough love means still loving my son while not actively participating in his addiction. It means helping when I can and doing everything I possibly can to help him to be sober without abandonment and it means walking away without anger when I need to.
–that tough love also means that I am not responsible for my son’s addiction or his sobriety, something very hard for me to face and accept….but I was getting there. Tough love means letting him be responsible but supporting and helping when I am needed.
–And it meant letting go of the anger. Separating the anger from our support and love was important in our ability to help our son.
I was asked many times from well meaning “friends” and “family” why we would accept calls from our son when he was arrested and why we would pick him up from jail or even bail him out of jail. Well, to set the record straight, most of the time when he was arrested he was released on his own, no bail needed. And the majority of his arrests, we were never called. He found his own way. Some of his arrests we did not know about until the charges were filed and he was notified of those charges… talk about a shock to this mother’s heart!
But the two times we did post bond, I would do it again if I had to go back in time. The first bond we posted was the last time he was arrested and the time that turned it all around for him and got him into treatment. What if we had left him in jail? What if we had told him he was on his own and refused calls from him? What if we let anger continue to build and let the anger rule our actions? I am not sure we would be where we are today. We bailed him out on condition he seek treatment and he knew that if he were to use heroin or meth again, he would not be living in our home. We had already made him move out and he had been living in his car at the time of his arrest. So, I knew we could be tough. We loved him unconditionally but we would not participate in his active addiction any longer.
The second time we bailed him out was after he had self-surrendered on a probation violation and his meds were withheld from him. It was a decision we did not make lightly and one we would do again because it was his life that was at risk. And he was clean at the time. Why wouldn’t we continue what had been working and get him back home to continue treatment?
So yes, we bailed him out twice. And yes I accepted calls from him when he was arrested. I had to do everything in my power to help him get his life in control…. Because the guilt if I didn’t and we lost him would have been too great to bear.
You see, my son had a friend who was with him for months, living in my son’s car and staying with my son on couches when and wherever they could. They were together when my son had been arrested in Yavapai county. His friend was the one who answered my sons phone and told me he had been arrested and then released in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. (I wrote about that experience here.) When we finally made it north to pick up our son at the hospital, he asked if we could give this friend of his, a ride back too. During the 2-hour drive back home, we talked with this young man. He was a son, a brother and a father. He grew up in another state and ended up out here with his ex-wife and kids. He told us about his kids and how he hadn’t seen them in a while. He told us that his parents would not accept calls from him, only letters. And because he was homeless, they could not write to him. He hadn’t spoken to them in a couple of years. He had gotten out of jail not too long before this. And having no place to go, he was back living on the streets and back to drugs. My heart broke for him and for his family as he told us his story. He was such a sweet young man.
And I say was because 3 months after giving him a ride back here, he was found in an alley, dead from an overdose.
My son at the time was clean and getting help for his addiction. And they had not seen each other since we had given him the ride back and dropped him off. They had spoken a few times on the phone with my son encouraging him to get into treatment. This young man even sent me and my husband a thank you message through Facebook. He thanked us for our kindness and for loving Josh and helping him. And he thanked us for giving Josh the hope of a life without drugs, just by being there for him, a hope he didn’t have. My heart broke for him.
This young man’s death sent my son reeling….and me too. This could have been my son….. And his friends death led my son into a relapse that eventually had him living in his car and the final arrests that would finally get him some help.
I often think about this friend of my sons and how things might have been different if he had had someone he could have turned to, someone who could have given him the chance at a sober life. I saw messages his family posted on his Facebook page and each message had me in tears…. They expressed their guilt over not communicating with him and their guilt for not being there, just one time for him. And they shared the anger that kept them from talking to him or helping him. My heart broke for them. I could feel through their messages how heartbroken they were and the regrets they had. I KNEW I needed to do everything I could to help my son.
This young man’s story and tragic ending of his life, led my husband and I to be there that last arrest and post that bond. Because we needed to know that we did EVERYTHING we possibly could do to help our son get better, to give him that chance at a sober life and then if he went back to the streets and if we lost him, at least we would know we did our best…. we tried everything…..
I have learned a lot about how I participated over the years in my son’s addiction, the excuses made, the reactions out of fear…. he was a master at finding the right words, the ones that would guilt me into doing what he wanted. And how turning a blind eye and ignoring the signs, hoping against all hope that I was wrong in what I was seeing and making excuses for his behavior, only added to his ability to continue his active addiction. And I realized that the buttons I pushed in him, through my anger and the reactions it created, were also ways I participated in his addiction and helped to keep him stuck, giving him the excuse he needed to continue his self-destructive behaviors. Realizing my role helped me to challenge and change those thoughts and beliefs so that I could stop aiding his addiction and begin to help him recover.
I began to realize just what tough love was to me….
To me tough love doesn’t mean reacting in anger.
To me tough love doesn’t mean punishing the addict.
To me tough love doesn’t seek revenge.
To me tough love simply means loving my son but not participating in his self-destructive behaviors.
To me tough love means loving him unconditionally, but also loving myself enough to not let the addiction control me as well.
To me tough love means setting boundaries that keep me from participating in his addiction, while still giving me the room in my heart for forgiveness and compassion.
Tough love to me means reacting out of love and compassion rather than anger.
It took me a long time to get to this point. I was far from perfect and still am far from perfect. Sometimes turning a blind eye was easier than facing the truth. And anger did rule things at times for me. Anger with my son for the lies and so much more. Anger made some of my decisions when it came to dealing with my son.
But love and compassion took control.
Love and compassion was the driving force when we asked our son to leave our house and told him he could not live here until he was ready to get treatment. Love and compassion led when he called wanting to come home to pick up some things and take a shower and we said he could. Love and compassion ruled when after the shower and a hot home-cooked meal, we told him he could not stay the night, not unless he was ready to get into treatment. Love and compassion took over and kept us from running after him as we watched our son leave in his car, not knowing when or if we would see him again. And when he was finally ready to get help, love and compassion drove me as I searched for treatment options for him. Love and compassion drive me now, as I continue to help him travel this recovery road, as I take him to all of his appointments, and as I work through the anger I still have.
Being a parent is NOT easy. Being a parent with an addict son is NOT easy. Being a parent and loving my child has NOT always been easy, but it IS easier today.
Unconditional love is the key.
My mom taught me to love unconditionally. And I know that she is with me as I walk this walk and travel this unknown road. And I know that God is with me, every step of the way.
This journey is still difficult. This walk is not perfect. I am not perfect. And it is not about a one-size-fits-all way of dealing with our addicted loved ones. We each need to find what works for us, define tough love for ourselves. I am still learning and discovering and challenging my beliefs as I continue to become the best version of me that I can be and as I help my son, rather than hinder him, in becoming the best version of himself that he can be!
This journey has required quite the leap…. A leap of trust…. And a leap of faith.