What’s Inside the Shell?

(Ninth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Shells are beautiful and fascinating to me. Each and every one is unique, differing from others just like our fingerprints. John and I just spent time at the central eastern coast of Australia and on our daily walks on the beach I just couldn’t stop picking up shells – especially the Nautilus shells with their logarithmic spirals of every size, shape, and color. These are empty shells that were once the home of a sea creature.

The exoskeleton of mollusks is the hard, outer layer that protects the tender creature inside. As the creature grows, layers are added to accommodate it. One day, as I was picking up shells in the surf, the inhabitant was still inside. It immediately retreated as far back into its shell as possible.

Humans were not created with shells although we all use them to protect ourselves at various times in our lives – from physical and emotional attacks such as criticism, anger, violence. Individuals who are abused necessarily build up protective layers in an attempt for self-preservation. But as a person sinks further into active addiction or alcoholism (or any addictive behavior), their layers of self-protection build up in order to insulate them from the affairs of daily life that have become unmanageable. 

When family and friends attempt to interact, many times our loved ones retreat to the point that their essential being is hidden from us. But when a person withdraws into their shell, they make themselves more miserable because they take their problems in with them and cut themselves off from help.

What options are left for parents, siblings, friends? What we can – and must – do is to not lose sight of who our loved one really is. “Is” not “was”, even though it seems the “real” person is long gone. The shell is not empty – they have just hidden themselves out of sight, living in denial. We need to remember that retreat is due to several things: their altered state of mind, a mind that has been hijacked and its serotonin or dopamine receptors have gone haywire; and, the shame and self-loathing they feel due to knowing they have lost much of their self-governance and ability to stop self-destructive behaviors.

The CRAFT program – Community Reinforcement And Family Training – teaches principles that align with what I believe would have changed the trajectory of our son’s life, if we had only known them. We need to remember that inside the shell we see is our child, spouse, parent, friend and they need our love, support, encouragement and informed help – not our enabling – to begin to move forward and climb out of their shell.

CRAFT teaches family and friends effective strategies for helping their loved one to change and for feeling better themselves. CRAFT works to affect the loved one’s behavior by changing the way the family interacts with him or her. Many recovery programs now incorporate these principles. Specifically, CRAFT teaches several skills, including:

  • Understanding a loved one’s triggers to use substances
  • Positive communication strategies
  • Positive reinforcement strategies – rewarding non-using behavior
  • Problem-solving
  • Self-care
  • Domestic violence precautions
  • Getting a loved one to accept help

Many of these skills are valuable for the family even if their loved one does not enter treatment or has already begun the treatment process. Programs may not be available in your area but you can read about it on the website (link below) and in the book written by the creator of the program (available on Amazon):

Get Your Loved One Sober: Alternatives to Nagging, Pleading, and Threatening

by Dr. Robert J. Meyers, the heart and soul of CRAFT. It is a quick, user friendly easy review of CRAFT and it’s core skills. This book goes over the CRAFT approach for Concerned Significant Others (CSOs) to improve their own quality of life and help motivate their substance-using loved one into treatment.


Author: Jude DiMeglio Trang

My husband, John, and I are parents of a young opiate addict who died of an accidental heroin overdose at 25. These are our credentials for writing and working towards reversing the exponentially rising statistics for opiate addiction and deaths in our country and the world.

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