Often thought of as a strategy to help a loved one recover from addiction, “tough love” is being criticized by some experts and people with lived experiences as having limited effectiveness and in some cases, fatal consequences.
Tough love can be described as the act of treating someone harshly with intent to help them in the long-run. Often, it entails ‘or else’ ultimatums that result in a family member being cut off or left to feel isolated.
White Rock’s Ryan Nielsen, 27, is two years sober after a near-death battle with an opioid addiction. Ryan and his father, Darin Nielsen, were two of several panelists that spoke at an emotionally-charged Dialogue for Family Members Impacted by the Opioid Crisis event held Monday evening in White Rock.
Speaking to the Now-Leader prior to Monday’s event, Ryan explained that he turned to prescription opioids in early adulthood, partly because of how they were glamorized in media. He quickly realized how powerful opioids are at numbing emotions and concealing depression.
The more Ryan used prescription opioids, the quicker he began to develop physical dependency. Due to costs, he turned to street drugs, which were cut with everything from fentanyl to benzodiazepines.
“Once you just dabble into it… that’s kind of it,” Ryan said. “You have a new demon on your back that’s hard to get rid of. It affects your thinking, it affects your emotions.”
Ryan said he couldn’t sleep, eat, or even think without first getting his fix. No matter how bad he wanted to get out, he was pulled back in. His physical symptoms became so much that finding drugs was an act of survival.
“You can’t do anything. Your whole day is revolved on, how can I get this so I can at least think of what I need to do – just to do the bare minimum.”
Today, he attributes his positive relationship with his father, and the boundaries set by his family, as a key part to his multiple-year journey to recovery.
Ryan described the parenting style of his father as “trial and error.” In the early days of Ryan’s recovery, his family would show frustrations whenever he would “slip up” and relapse.
“There’s lots of times they would get upset… that would make me almost go into a relapse mode where I’m like well shit… if they’re mad at me, I can’t deal with this emotion on top of the withdrawals so I’m going to use right away,” he said.
“The tough love really did not help, for sure. But at the same time, there has to be certain boundaries. That’s what helped me to the end.”
One of the boundaries Ryan mentioned was that he was allowed to live in the family home under the condition he didn’t use inside the house. Compassion, honesty, empathy, and mutual understanding were also on offer, he added.
“That really helped me, having firm boundaries but also being compassionate and being honest.”
Ryan and Darin agree that a pivotal moment in Ryan’s recovery happened shortly after he returned from a treatment centre and relapsed.
Darin said he had to sell an investment property, which was saved for the kids, to put Ryan into the treatment centre.
“My knee-jerk reaction was, ‘how could you do this to me. I’ve sacrificed my future, how could you do this,’” Darin said. “It was me, me, me, me. I got myself in this pity-party victim mode.”
Instead of acting on his reaction, Darin said he took time to reflect and think about lessons learned from Sources Community Resource Centre on how to respond with love, not toughness.
“Lets give it a shot. Lets try to respond with compassion. I calmed myself down. Clearly this other approach of ‘you’re out of the house’ doesn’t work… So lets give it a go,” Darin said.
Darin said he went for a walk with Ryan, and talked about how Ryan was feeling while he was conquering his addiction, and the dopamine release because of that accomplishment.
It was a conversation that changed everything.
“So you fell off the horse, big deal, who gives a shit, get back on the horse and get back to that feeling. Lets figure out what went wrong and how do we intercept earlier and mitigate this going forward,” Darin told his son in that moment.
“That was a different conversation than I ever had with him and he responded much differently. We did something different and we got a different outcome, an outcome that was positive. It validated to me that wow, this hocus-pocus, lovey-dovey stuff that everyone is talking about works.”
Ryan said knowing his father was there for him, through thick or thin, was what he needed.
“Having someone understand me, relate to my emotions and being there for me was so helpful. That was part of the end… I felt like I could do things. I could do recovery.”
Parenting and setting boundaries
Darin said what’s often lost on parents is that they need to safeguard their own well-being with boundaries and self-care.
“You need to step back and revisit yourself,” he said. “Take care of that person in the mirror before you can take care of someone else. Get your own house in order. That’s so critical.”
Sources addictions services manager George Passmore said he often hears the term ‘tough love,’ but noted there’s always a strong emphasis on the word “tough” and very little evidence of “love.”
“If we remove love from people’s lives, they do not have better outcomes, ever,” Passmore said.
Key to finding a balance is setting boundaries that allow parents to have their own space for well-being, but at the same time being supportive for their struggling child.
“Boundaries are how to define your own space for well-being, what you need in your life to be well. Everyone has a right to that,” Passmore said.
Passmore said an old idea of thinking is that if a parent makes it too comfortable for their child, there would never be impetus to change.
“Certainly, there’s some thought around that,” Passmore added. “But there’s a whole approach in counselling called motivational interviewing that is all about engaging people around what they want most in life. And engaging people where they’re at, but also being curious about where they may want to go in their life. And to explore to what degree is their relationship with substances. To what degree is it benefiting them? Or harming them? Or hindering them in their goal? That’s a very different way to explore something so it’s kind of coming alongside someone rather than coming at them, or pushing them away.”
Toxic drugs are now the leading cause of death in B.C. for people between 19 and 39 years of age. The majority of those were men, and were alone at the time of their death.
Ryan now works for the White Rock Community Action Team ‘Tides of Change.’ His motivation to speaking with the newspaper, he said, is to help at least one person get on the pathway to recovery.
“It’s weird to think that I could have not made it out of that and I could have been a life lost. If there’s any way, or any chance, that I could help even just one person, that brings me a lot of fulfillment.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, contact Sources at 604-538-2522.