Should Families of Drug Addicts Try Financial Tough Love?
Two years ago, Erin Brockovich, the environmental crusader played by Julia Roberts in the 2000 movie of the same name, faced a similar situation with her own daughter, Elizabeth, who was addicted to drugs and alcohol. The then-16-year-old’s $500-a-week drug habit was funded by money she stole from her family.
"As a parent, you want to believe your kid, yet you know something's wrong," Brockovich said. "I've cried myself to sleep. And I've honestly sat and shook in a corner."
Elizabeth refused to admit to her mother the seriousness of the problem, but Brockovich knew she had to take action.
Brockovich continued to offer emotional support to Elizabeth, but cut her off financially.
Experts say that this kind of financial tough love approach is one of the best ways parents can reach out to a child in trouble. But many parents are afraid to cut off their troubled child. Parents often think they're helping their child by supporting them, but experts say that safety net may actually be hurting their addicted son or daughter.
"Many parents hold off taking action or getting help because they feel like anything they do is dangerous. What they forget is that the situation they're in is terribly dangerous," said Dr. David Sack, addiction psychiatrist and CEO of Promises Treatment Centers. "How can you look at a mother whose child is smoking heroin and say, 'Yes. It's OK. Don't do anything. Nothing's going to happen to your child.' That child is at risk of overdose."
Dr. Sack advises that the time to use tough love approach is when the person is ignoring you. "Then you have to say, 'We love you very much, but we're not going to spend money so you can go buy drugs and end up in a worst predicament. We're not going to support your habit,'" Dr. Sack said. "So it means no money, no car, no food, no shelter because ultimately those are the things that can be converted to drugs."
But what if no more money means the child goes without food, threatens to harm themselves or ends up on the streets?
Experts advise parents to follow a few key guidelines including giving the child a new set of rules for what's no longer acceptable in the home, making it clear that you are serious and will follow through with consequences, and finally getting professional help.
"That's pretty bad, putting a lock on your door," Brockovich said. "But I had to, otherwise it was just going to continue on and she was just going to get worse and I was actually contributing to the problem."
Dr. Sack stresses that cutting off financial support is not by itself treatment, and won’t fix the problem, but "it's a first step toward moving that addicted individual toward reality." The goal is to make it clear you will support them in getting treatment, but you will no longer support them in continuing to use drugs and alcohol. You can offer to help them choose the right treatment center and offer to pay for treatment. Again, the focus is on moving toward recovery rather than financing their addiction.
David Sheff, a journalist and author, had to take more severe steps with his son Nic, who struggled for years with an addiction to methamphetamine. The 27-year-old started experimenting with drugs and alcohol at age 11.
Sheff told Nic he would only talk to him or give him money if he was willing to get help.
"When it became clear to me that if he didn't get into treatment he was going to die, everything I did was about trying to get him in some place where he could be helped," Sheff said. "It was hell because I always worried about living to regret that decision because it would lead him to some catastrophe he would never recover from."
Although not the first option parents should consider, Dr. Sack said Sheff's tactic is sometimes necessary. "It's very hard to move them emotionally when their best friend is their crack pipe, so the emotional strategies frequently fail," Dr. Sack said.
The Brockoviches stayed on top of all of Elizabeth's spending, only giving her $20 a week. They also made Elizabeth bring home receipts and checked her change. Elizabeth says the approach helped save her life. "I started to get serious when I saw that (my mother) was," Elizabeth said.
After multiple stints in rehab, Nic is two years sober. "If I had had any other option besides having to get into treatment, I would have kept using," Nic said.