One of the most widely repeated pieces of advice on dealing with addiction in a loved one is that “tough love” is the best approach. He or she has to hit “rock bottom,” you’re told, and when that happens, there will be a tremendous transformation. The son or daughter who once wanted nothing but to abuse substances will suddenly realize the error of his or her ways and commit to getting clean. This is the advice Diannee Carden Glenn was given by her son’s therapist, but in an article for The Fix, she points out that the reality of this advice is far from pleasant.
Tough Love and Hitting Rock Bottom in Addiction
The theory behind practicing “tough love” is that protecting your son, daughter or loved one from the effects of their addiction effectively enables it to continue. Without negative consequences, there is no motivation to make a change, and therefore many parents are advised to practice tough love until their addicted child reaches “rock bottom.” This is an ultimate low point (usually being jailed or suffering a near overdose) that shocks them into realizing they need to get help. Diannee was told that her son would eventually come begging for help, at which point his recovery would begin.
Diannee’s Story – Where Is the Rock Bottom?
Diannee tells of two times she thought her son had hit rock bottom. At one point in 8th grade he had his pants pulled down in the boys’ locker room, and the gym teacher merely looked on laughing, brushing it off with a “boys will be boys” justification. But soon after she received a call from school to say he’d gone missing. After searching the long route home in the pouring rain, she eventually found him lying in the mud, crying and humiliated. “Is this rock bottom?” she wondered. It apparently wasn’t; four years later, she received a phone call from him—he said that he loved her but didn’t want to live anymore. He’d taken two bottles of pills in an attempt to commit suicide because he thought God had deserted him. He was rushed to a hospital where his stomach was pumped and then placed in a suicide psychiatric ward. “This has to be rock bottom,” she thought. The advice from her son’s therapist started to seem more ridiculous to her. She eventually rejected the “tough love” approach, instead aiming to support him and try to help him whenever she could. She writes “I will love him unconditionally until he feels like he is worth saving … I will cover him with blankets when he shakes uncontrollably and use cold packs to keep his fever down. I will spoon-feed him vegetable broth when he can’t keep solid food down. I will buy emergency one-way plane tickets. I will do it because I love him unconditionally.” She was always there for him, but the result was the same as for many who practice the “tough love” approach diligently. He hit the absolute rock bottom, and she was left to make funeral arrangements and design his headstone.
Is Tough Love the Right Approach?
In many cases, the overdose that is supposed to be the “rock bottom” moment for those practicing tough love is fatal, and as Diannee’s story shows, the result can be the same when you reject tough love, too. So what’s the right thing to do? The answer isn’t really clear, with even experts disagreeing about the best advice. However, there are elements of both approaches that have merit. Being an “enabler” isn’t a good thing. Being insulated from negative consequences of addiction because of overly protective parents gives you a distorted view of the impact of your drug abuse. You might not even realize how much trouble it causes. But as Diannee understandably felt, it’s not right to abandon your child and silently hope they hit a rocky enough bottom to make them decide to get clean. Showing support and unconditional love is beneficial. Like with many things, you must strike a balance. You have to be consistently loving, but you can’t mistakenly believe you can protect your son or daughter from everything. You should try to show your loved one the value in getting help before they reach rock bottom, but if they’re hurtling uncontrollably toward it, you need to have the courage to admit that you aren’t in control of their behavior. As Diannee’s story shows, both the caring or tough love approach can lead to tragedy, and sometimes there just isn’t much you can do about it. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers when you’re trying to help a loved one overcome addiction. The only thing you can do is try to offer support in any way you can, while remembering there’s ultimately only one person who can help your loved one get better: the addict him or herself. You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it.