Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Keep Calm...and STOP YELLING!

When my son turned to self-medication and I found out he was addicted, I was heartbroken and mad. Because, at the time, I didn't know any better.

I was mad as hell for quite a while. Not just weeks or months, but a few years. As I've written before, there is no owner's manual for parents of an addicted child. When I first learned of his addiction, I was uneducated and felt like my son was making a very deliberate choice to use drugs. I didn't understand that he was suffering from a brain disease; one that he didn't choose and one that he sure as hell didn't want. (Despite those who still argue that being an addict is a choice, it's not. Nobody puts "Become a heroin addict" on their list of life goals.)

Early on in my son's addiction, things were not all peachy keen in our house. And there was lots of yelling. Or should I say, LOTS OF YELLING!!! Mind you, I'm not proud of this and it hurts me now to even think about it. Thank God I eventually learned that being angry wasn't helping anyone, and was probably making things far worse.

Talking about this--and especially feeling bad about it--goes against my relatively new "don't look back" philosophy on life. But revisiting "the old days" was triggered by reading the fabulous new book called Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change.

Written by Jeffrey Foote, Carrie Wilkens, and Nicole Kosanke from the Center for Motivation and Change, Beyond Addiction is a tremendous guide for families. Everyone who has an addicted loved one should read it. How I wish someone could've put this book in my hands years ago when my family's life became a living hell. (Interestingly enough, the title of the book's introduction, which you can read here,  is "Hope in Hell.")

This paragraph from chapter two of the book especially resonates with me:

"Last, 'yelling' versus 'not yelling' (concretely and metaphorically) may be one of the biggest variables in your control for facilitating internal and positive motivation for change. Tone matters. Volume matters. In fact, these matter more than anything else. Our families tell us that not yelling is the hardest change to make because they are often so upset. But when we yell, people don't hear us. They become defensive and flooded with emotion. The conversation becomes a fight; the fight escalates. Also, when we yell we model yelling, that is, we 'teach' other people to yell back. The only upside to yelling is letting off steam. While we might feel better for an instant, there are other ways to let off steam (or cool down before we come to a boil) that don't sabotage communication and damage relationships. In addition to all the things we've discussed so far about motivation, there is one other thing we know from research studies and clinical experience: confrontation is the archenemy of motivation."

Wow. It's a good thing there wasn't a test on parental behavior early on in my son's addiction, because I would've failed it miserably. My yelling at my son likely fueled at least some of the rage and anger that he exhibited. If I would've been calmer from the beginning, maybe we could've avoided some of the family battles we had back then.

I have gotten over feeling guilty about any "responsibility" for my son's addiction. After all, genetics are genetics and I've come to accept the fact that they are beyond my control. (It did take me a while, though.) But I do still feel a little bit of guilt about how I handled things during the early stages of my son's addiction. In retrospect, I think I could have done better. Man, what I wouldn't give for a "do-over."

If you have a loved one who's battling addiction, get yourself a copy of Beyond Addiction and read it. Stat. It's based on CRAFT--Community Reinforcement and Family Training--the research-supported, evidence-based, clinically proven approach to helping families of substance abusers. Some of the things you read in this book may surprise you, but trust me: it makes sense. Kindness, positive reinforcement and communication, limit-setting, and self-care can not only help you help someone change, it can help them want to change.


  1. my son is in a Christian rehab - 175 days clean and doing so well!...there were MANY days I thought I would lose him to opiates...HUGS to anyone who goes thru this! :)

  2. Great post here Dean. Try not to have regrets about how you reacted at the time. Parents do the best they can and we all made mistakes at some point along the road. Parents are never trained how to deal with their children's substance abuse. We are just thrown into it and have to learn along the way. Beyond Addiction is an amazing book as is the CRAFT strategies and tools. All the best to you!

  3. When my son was in high school we attended sessions about choosing the right college and financial aid put on by the school. Little did I know I would go from planning a graduation party to shopping for a treatment center. Unfortunately the school offered nothing along that line. It was only after reading volumes of literature that I began to understand the enormity of the problem and feel confident in my response to it. Only recently did that school sponsor a night for parents to learn some of the warning signs of drug use and what to look for in a child's room. It is a start but very late in the game considering the epidemic of drug use among high school students.