There are programs designed to help families but many of them advocate “tough love” and aren’t terribly effective.
About ten years ago, I got one of those letters. It was painful to read it but once I had a drink, my pain turned into indignation. I folded the letter multiple times till it ended up a tiny square, which I shoved into a shoebox where it lives till this day, next to old birthday cards and love notes from exes. I’m talking about my first Intervention Letter.
If you’ve never gotten one of these, then you were probably not destroying your family’s life successfully enough! I’m kidding, of course, and not everyone gets an Intervention Letter; some of us also get a serious talking-to; most of us get ultimatums and threats; and all of us get tears. This is what it’s like to have a family while high or drunk. Not fun. But it’s even less fun for the families—they are some of the most tortured, miserable, angry, confused people entangled in their misery by love.
It’s no wonder that resentment is ever-present, fuelling many misguided attempts to help circumvent addiction. Why misguided? Because those attempts rarely get anyone better. And a person going to a rehab to please their loved ones has less of a chance of staying clean than a person going on her own account. On top of it, the families are still often left without any solid tactics in place on how to keep their loved one sober, how to prevent relapses, and how not to fall back into the muck of co-dependency. There are programs designed to help families but many of them advocate “tough love” and aren’t terribly effective. So Intervention Letters and ultimatums are common.
Instead of Ultimatums and Threats, Compassion
Fortunately, there might be a better way—specifically the CRAFT way. According to one definition, “Community Reinforcement and Family Training (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.” At first look, CRAFT’s techniques might appear contra-intuitive as a lot of its teachings seem to advocate dismissing the addictive behavior—complaining, arguments and demands are discouraged. In fact, on the cover of the popular book on CRAFT, Get Your Loved One Sober, the tagline reads “Alternatives to Nagging, Pleading, and Threatening.” Instead of tough love, CRAFT advocates gentle love—and that approach seems to be working.
According to one trial by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), CRAFT was more effective than Al-Anon and Johnson Institute Intervention. CRAFT had a 64 percent success rate of getting the person with addiction into treatment compared to 30 percent for Johnston Institute and 10 percent for Al-Anon. Johnson Institute is a model that’s based on confrontation that is supposed to motivate the person with addiction to enter treatment. Al-Anon, similar to CRAFT, teaches detachment with love, but it is also a 12-step-based program which includes the sometimes-problematic concept of Higher Power and advocates a certain kind of passivity, which might not be conductive to strengthening the very fragile fabric of families dealing with active addiction.
In contrast, CRAFT focuses on attending to your own needs along with steering the problem user toward treatment, which often happens organically as the patterns of interaction change. CRAFT’s mission is to help reduce the loved one’s alcohol and drug use, whether or not the loved one has engaged in treatment yet. CRAFT discourages enabling, encourages problem solving, employs reward systems and aims to empower the beaten-down, frustrated family members. CRAFT doesn’t approve of breaking the family apart and its goal is to not only keep it all intact but also get everyone better.
A family member who’s part of CRAFT is taught to change her/ his reactions—from negative to positive—in response to the triggers from the person with addiction. For example, a husband coming home late after a night of drinking with his buddies again won’t get a lecture for being late for dinner, as he usually does in that situation, because the wife will have been instructed to take care of her own needs, and she will have eaten the dinner on her own.
Observing and Adapting
As part of CRAFT, the family members are asked to observe and monitor the addictive behavior of their loved one—this means noting what situations might cause the person to reach for another drink, what creates conflict, and observing any patterns in behavior. With time, as these patterns become obvious, the family member changes the approach—from aggressive to more passive and compassionate—and in that more loving way, upsets the predictable trajectory of maladaptive interactions with the addicted person. Instead of yelling at someone and accusing her of being a liar, the family member might say, “I know you haven’t been going to work all this time and I am hurt that you’re lying to me. Let’s talk about it in the morning after you sleep it off.” A calm, reasonable way of dealing with the situation will most likely elicit a reaction that’s not combative. Eventually those kinds of interactions will become a norm and change will occur.
It’s not exactly “kill them with kindness” but it’s a similar principle. When you expect Intervention Letters—like I did—and you’re stuck in a hamster wheel of constant conflict, getting something completely opposite might just shock you into action. Receiving praise for sticking to commitments—even something as small as coming home on time—or staying sober for a string of days, is more effective than having those subtle changes ignored or taken for granted. No, we don’t need to applaud every nice thing a person with addiction does but in the beginning, perhaps it makes sense to do so. People who are just starting to get sober are very much like babies—deregulated emotions, lack of impulse control—and praise goes a longer way than punishment does. Punishment tends to prolong trauma where praise leaves the person wanting to earn it again, which leads to repeating the desirable action.
A Better Alternative to Tough Love
My family has always taken the “tough love” route and my addiction did contribute to me eventually separating from my husband. I imagine if we were a part of CRAFT program, things could’ve gone differently. I lived through ultimatums and anger and once I was kicked out of my house. I’ve often felt alone and ashamed and angry with myself for disappointing everyone. I thought I was worthless and my loved ones’ attitude confirmed that. But I don’t think they knew any better. So many of us with addiction still live in an episode of Intervention; we have never been shown a kinder, better way.