When life becomes one crisis after another, when emotional pain and endless drama become “the norm” what am I supposed to do? Over the past few decades I’ve received this question a lot. Recently it has become the #1 question. Why is that? What do I suggest to families who have arrived at this place? How about this: My suggestion is to do NOTHING! Stop “doing.” Quit “doing.” No longer “DO” anything.
Let’s talk about letting go and what that looks like (sometimes referred to as detachment). So there—I’ve said it; The “D” word, The Ultimatum, The Nuclear Option.
When to use it
Let’s start with “when to use it.” Detachment is usually the last resort—although it doesn’t have to be. This is most effective in the life of an “adult” loved-one who has demonstrated that they no longer have any ability to control or stop substance use on their own.
This person has a boatload of extremely negative consequences piling up all around them, but they continue to drink and/or drug. Often this pattern has gone on for years and gets progressively worse. Perhaps there were a few “okay” periods of time, but they didn’t last.
Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.
~Robert Louis Stevenson
This person may or may not have a job (approximately 77% of all substance dependent men and women get up and go to work most days). They may function well enough on the job to be able to keep it. Many will even point to this fact as proof that they are not addicted. In reality most perform poorly on the job, miss work, and generally have a negative attitude about almost everything. This in turn, leads to “pour me another drink.”
Others move from job to job and eventually become unemployable. Some will tend to isolate and spend most or all of their time with their first love, AOD (alcohol and other drugs).
Family life, parenting, being the father, mother, spouse or sibling they once were is no longer a priority. In fact, it’s probably not on the radar screen at all. Borrowing money, promising to quit, burning bridges, causing heartache to anyone who comes close to them is the “new norm.” When small children become part of this picture it gets more ugly. This is not sad; this is pathetic. If not now—when? When do the family members say, “We’ve had enough?”
This, dear reader, is the time to detach. This is the time to “do nothing.”
I also like to remind people of “The Three C’s of Al-Anon” which are: “you didn’t cause it, you can’t cure it, and you can’t control it.” What you can do is help the person to “want to” quit. If the “want to” is there, anyone can have recovery.
What does detachment look like? How do I do it?
Before I explain how it works, I need to add one caveat. I was recently in San Antonio conducting a workshop for The Palmer Drug Abuse Program (PDAP). The Program Director of this wonderful facility, a woman named Trish, reminded me of something important I sometimes tend to overlook. She said the family needs to be totally prepared for this step (intellectually and emotionally) and that for this to be effective, all family members need to be “on board.” Having emotional support and guidance regarding the necessity for such action, what to expect and being prepared is critical to the success of this step. This is not going to be a “walk in the park” and having good support is crucial.
So, how does one begin to do this? My first suggestion is to get a pen and paper and write out a plan (there is much more about this in my “Ten Toughest Questions” DVD and the link provided at the end of this article**).
Everyone’s situation will be unique, and obviously I can’t tackle each one here. Having said that, I suggest, at a minimum, that you jot down some bullet points you want to cover when you share your concerns with your loved-one. Even writing out what you want to say, word for word, is perfectly fine. Anticipate what the person will say or object to beforehand. Keep in mind that detachment is rarely forever. In fact, when you confront the person you have decided to detach from, put a timeframe on it (let them know how long it’ll be till you are willing to regain communication). Once you have reached this point, you need to remember that it’s too late for another broken promise or a few days of abstinence to mean anything.
So, here we go. You’ve prepared—both mentally, and you have a plan on paper–and you are ready to have a firm, but loving discussion with this person. A time to confront/talk with the person has been set and agreed to. You’ve asked this person to let you share your concerns and you simply read what you want to say or speak to them based on your written bullet points.
My suggestion is to determine a minimum period of total abstinence you are requiring from your addict or alcoholic—before you are willing talk to or see them again (thirty or sixty days should be the minimum). Begin by emphasizing to them that you love them very much and that it breaks your heart to see them continue with their substance abuse. Let them know that you (and all family members involved) have made this decision. You can list possible living options for them on their copy of your letter. Tell he or she–they must decide which relationship is the most important—the one they currently have with their alcohol or drug use, or their own family. You must make it crystal clear that they have to choose–because they can’t have both.
There is so much more I could write on this topic—especially when I think of all the different scenarios possible. Please do your homework before attempting this, seek wise counsel*, read all you can and get a second opinion.
When it’s all “said and done” this tough love approach often works when nothing else will. Addiction, left alone will only get worse over time. What I remind people about in my book and in counseling is that “recovery is a process—not en event.”
This is why I sometimes suggest that you “do nothing.” The phrase “let go and let God” applies to the family members and friends–as well as the person seeking recovery. Detachment is one of the most difficult things that a person (especially a mom) may ever need to do.
Stay strong, seek support and know with confidence that no matter what happens—you have “done” everything you know to do.
* Have you “tried everything?” Learn about affordable phone counseling for family members dealing with addiction.
**To order "Why Don't They Just Quit?: http://www.whydonttheyjustquit.com/
MORE ASK JOE:
> Is a relapse—failure?
> If someone can stop using drugs or alcohol for weeks at a time, they “aren’t an addict—correct?
>Chronic Pain Management & Pain Pill Addiction: What to do?
>How can I know if my addicted friend or loved one is telling the truth?
>”I need help because I’m not able to deal with my live-in Fiance’s need to get drunk every night.”
>Should my husband “back off?”
>Gambling vs. Drug Addiction? What is your opinion?
>How can I tell if someone is an addict/alcoholic or just a heavy user?
>What is Methadone? What is Harm Reduction?
> Self-Tests: Codependence
> Self-Tests: Alcohol and Drug Addiction
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