When it comes to treating the disease of addiction, some say you must exercise “tough love.” But a sponsor I had years ago told me something I’ll never forget, “Love is never tough.” My experience has been that this is very true.
Some people define “tough love” as being mean to the suffering addict or alcoholic to get them into treatment. Based on my experience, such an approach rarely works. People suffering from addiction are full of fear, and their self-esteem is at an all time low. These people feel extremely bad about themselves. They have a self-image that is often indescribably negative. Being mean or yelling at someone in this state usually makes things worse.
You may ask, “Things are so bad now, and I am so very angry at this addicted person, why can’t I yell at them? Nothing else has worked!” But a person in active addiction has a brain that is malfunctioning. They cannot differentiate the truth from the false. Areas of the brain responsible for judgment are blocked.
By Nick Cuneo, President, Clean Recovery Centers
Flight or fight
The primitive areas of the brain are running the show, and these areas have only primitive responses, which are typically flight or fight. If you start yelling and screaming, chances are the person’s brain is going to choose flight, bolt out of there, and go use even more of the addictive substances. And, of course, the outcomes will continue to get worse.
Let’s go back to what my sponsor told me – Love is never tough. But loving a suffering addict or alcoholic does not mean “enabling” them. Caving into their demands and desires, much like yelling and screaming, will likely only make the situation much worse.
Addiction thrives on manipulation. The primitive areas of the brain running the show will have the person saying and doing almost anything in an effort to keep using. So now you may ask, “If I shouldn’t yell or scream at them, and I can’t continue to help them with financial resources, what can I do?”
Take a stand
What often works is trying to “put the disease in a corner” where there are few if any options that allow the active addiction to continue. It is important to realize you are not trying to put your loved one in corner. You are trying to corner the disease. This normally entails shutting down, if possible, access to financial resources, vehicles and so forth. It also requires family and friends to take a stand. You are not taking a stand against the suffering individual. You are taking a stand against the disease.
Collectively something along these lines is usually communicated: “We love you, and we are here to support you. That said, we are no longer going to sit idly by and watch you destroy yourself and those who love you the most. If you get help now, we will do all we can to support you. If you choose not to get help, we can longer have contact with you or support you in any way. We love you far too much to enable your addiction any further.”
Love, not tough love
This is love, it is not tough love. It is not easy. In fact, many family members, spouses, children and friends have a difficult time doing this. Unfortunately, because it is not an easy approach, it is often put off or avoided completely, and the enabling continues. Not surprisingly, I have loved ones of the suffering individual ask themselves, “What is the alternative?” Most often, asking this question helps them understand that there are few, if any, alternatives. Usually, nothing has worked to this point, and they realize this.
When a person is in active addiction, it is no time to avoid hard feelings for yourself or your suffering loved one. Most often this is a life or death errand and is usually worth a few moments of direct, albeit uncomfortable, critical conversation.