It's Lonely at the Bottom
It's easy to throw around terms like "tough love," "enabler," and "rock bottom." Living with those terms is another story.
In an effort to find an answer that leads to treatment for an addict there seems to be a lot of discussion about the tough love approach. Some of those stories include those families who have lost a child to overdose after following the tough love recommendation of a therapist—meaning they estranged themselves until the child reached “rock bottom” and was ready for treatment.
Some move to new homes, towns or even states in an effort to restart their lives, free from the turmoil of a family dealing with addiction. Eventually, for some, their loved one does hit the rockiest of bottoms—they overdose and die alone. I also know parents who followed the tough love advice with success, and recommend it as the only way to help their child and keep their sanity.
Twenty years ago I sat with my son’s therapist to discuss his substance abuse and relapse issues. She couldn’t tell me what my son’s drug of choice was, leaving me to come to my own conclusions which, in retrospect, were a bit naïve. I leaned across her mahogany desk where the timer was ticking away the minutes allotted for my session, looked up at her and asked, “What can I do?”
That was the first time I heard of the concept of tough love. She told me that when he hit rock bottom, he would be ready for a meaningful, long lasting treatment and recovery.
Rock bottom? I wondered what the heck she meant by rock bottom? She explained to me that rock bottom is the hoped for result of tough love—when you love your child enough to remove him from your home, no longer provide him with food or clothing, and basically disassociate yourself from his life until he becomes distraught enough to ask for help—or is jailed or near death. The therapist assured me that he would eventually come begging for my help, and then his recovery could begin.
She told me I had to stop enabling my son and practice tough love.
When he hits rock bottom then it is okay for me to provide him with food and clothing? When he hits rock bottom I can give myself permission to help him? I was confused and I was angry about what she was suggesting. While she talked, my mind wandered back in time to that tiny newborn child who clutched my finger with his little hand like he would never let go because he trusted me to be there for him when he was good, when he misbehaved and yes – when he fell into a place where only a mother’s love lives. And now this woman was telling me to abandon my child – to give up? To turn my back on my first born son? I thought “rock bottom” okay, I get it.
When my son was in the 8th grade he was depantsed in the boy’s locker room while the gym teacher looked on laughing, explaining later that boys will be boys. An hour later the principal called me to tell me they couldn’t find my son at school. I immediately drove to the school and my son was nowhere to be found. The rural school was about five miles from our home and it was raining. I drove slowly along the road looking for my son back and forth twice. Finally I saw what looked like some clothing in the ditch along the road. I stopped my car, got out and found him there soaked, laying in the mud, humiliated and sobbing. Rock bottom, Okay I think I’ve got it now - that was an example.
When my son was in the 12th grade he called me at work to tell me that he loved me and that he didn’t want to live anymore. He felt that God had deserted him and that neither God nor I could protect him from our volatile home situation. He had taken two bottles of pills. After a trip to the ER his stomach was pumped and he was admitted to the adolescent suicide psychiatric unit where he stayed for several months. Okay, I get it - I think he had reached rock bottom.
NO, I said to myself as I was driving back home alone after meeting with this tough love-loving therapist—I will NOT make a conscious decision to sit by and watch my son hit rock bottom before I offer him help. I will love him unconditionally until he feels like he is worth saving. I will love him when he steals from my bank account and hold him in my arms as he apologizes. I will replace the money he took from his brother’s birthday cards and hold his hand as he tells me how ashamed he is. I will sit and rock him as he sobs in my arms after another ruined family outing or holiday. We will sit at length and discuss behavior issues, anger issues, life issues and his self-loathing trying to make sense of it all. I will cry with him as he grieves a failed marriage. I will watch him suffer as he fights with his addiction and when he detoxes. 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. I don’t love him any more or less because he made a bad decision in the moment that changed his life forever. I will do it because he is worth saving.
My thoughts wandered back to my own experience with tough love when I was 19 and I remembered an argument with my mother and the ultimatum she gave me as I walked out the door. She said, “If you leave now, when you come back your clothes will be on the front porch.” Right! - I thought as I drove my car out of the driveway. But when I returned the doors were locked and all of my personal belongings were in boxes on the porch. Now that was tough love. The reason for the argument isn’t important here. My mother and I reconciled, and even sometimes laughed about my defiance. I never moved back home. But I will always remember the feelings on that night of hopelessness and feeling abandoned and unloved, not to mention homeless and alone.
So, yes, I was an enabler. I met my son every day where he was at in his life without judgment. I enabled my son to live at home as long as he wanted to. When he moved away I sent him tickets to come home when he needed to. When he called crying because he had relapsed and was embarrassed, I told him to never be ashamed of who he was.
And then when he hit rock bottom for the last time, I signed the papers to bring his body back home. I picked out clothing and made funeral arrangements and I designed a headstone for his grave—just like the mom who practiced tough love. So which is right? Who knows! Even the experts don’t agree.
I believe it is a combination of making a decision based on the availability of support, your own tolerance level, having tried everything that seems logical, being at a loss about what to do next and finding yourself willing to try anything.
I like this quote from The Water Giver—“Motherhood is about raising and celebrating the child you have, not the child you thought you’d have. . .and, if you are lucky, he might be the teacher who turns you into the person you’re supposed to be.”
Diannee Carden Glenn is based in North Carolina and Florida and has been campaigning for the last year for overdose prevention. She last wrote about the death of her son from a heroin overdose.