August 2nd was the 5th anniversary of our son, John Leif’s, death by overdose from heroin. As we look back over the years, there is so much information available now than there was for the families of young people addicted to opioids in the early years of this century. So much we wish we had done differently with this son of our hearts – if we had only known.
In the early years of his addiction and recovery programs, we learned how co-dependency and enabling went part and parcel with alcoholism and addiction in family systems. We read all we could about it and worked hard to change from enabling and need-based love to detaching and loving with “tough love.” Sadly, as we now understand, tough love does not work for opioid addiction, because as Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says: “The concept of letting children hit bottom with opioids is not the best strategy, because in hitting bottom they may die.”
The concept of empathy rather than tough love when dealing with opioid addiction has gained wide acceptance in the recovery community as the years, decades have passed and more than a million people have died from overdoses – and more die with each passing day. In 2018, NPR Health News published an article about this and as I read, my heart sank and I breathed a long sigh…If only we had known….
The article discusses a program “that, instead of tough love, stresses empathy: CRAFT or Community Reinforcement and Family Training… with more compassion and saying to the user, ‘Wow, this is really difficult for you’; more open questions to him/her instead of dictating what they should and should not behave like. Many drug users say, in hindsight, they’ve appreciated being forced into treatment. But studies show that a compassionate approach and voluntary treatment are the more effective ways to engage drug users in recovery and keep them alive. That’s a critical consideration for families in this era of fentanyl, a powerful opioid that can shut down breathing in seconds.”
Some critics suggest the CRAFT model is too soft, that it enables drug use. “That’s a misconception,” says Fred Muench, president of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. “CRAFT is authoritative parenting, creating a sense of responsibility in the child, and at the same time saying, ‘I am here for you; I love you; I’m going to help you; but I can’t help you avoid negative consequences if you’re not looking to do that on your own.’ ”
It ties in with focusing less on what the parents feelings are, and the terror or fear that you’re going through, and more on what your child is feeling and what they’re going through — it turns the tables a bit. It is true compassion and it turns out to be therapeutic for the family too. More compassion in the home fits the shift away from criminalizing addiction — toward accepting and treating it as a chronic medical condition and not a moral failure.
During the last year of our son’s life, our biggest regret is that we didn’t give him the invitation to actually tell us how fearful he was of relapsing and overdosing. He gave hints, but we were too fatigued from years of ups and downs to really hear what he felt or to read between the lines. We didn’t realize how sorry he felt for all we had been through, how he didn’t want to insist on being on Suboxone because we would have to pay for it. Our desire is that as we share our story in its entirety, other families will be better equipped to deal with this new era where their children are exposed to highly addictive substances that can change the course of their lives forever and parents won’t have to say “I wish I had known…”
NPR Health News 2018