How I Learned That "Tough Love" Was Failing My Son—And Found Something So Much Better

May 18 2016

How I Learned That “Tough Love” Was Failing My Son—And Found Something So Much Better

May 19th, 2016

Our troubles began in June 2008, when both of my parents died. My son, Wyatt*, was about to turn 15. He and I had lived with them since he was in fourth grade. My mother died in my arms on the night of my father’s funeral, eight days after his passing, during a horrendous thunderstorm. Our family of four was suddenly sliced in half.

My brilliant, musical, Dungeons & Dragons-playing son fell apart. He had been very close to both my parents. By August, he was a mess. His behavior was so erratic and bizarre that I took him to the local crisis center in October.

I was still unaware at that point that he had begun tripping on copious amounts of dextromethorphan or “dex,” ingesting up to 40 Robitussin capsules at a time. He had also started smoking marijuana and drinking. Eventually, he was arrested for marijuana possession.

Wyatt had been given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder as well, but was illogically prescribed Adderall and Xanax, which he promptly started misusing.

I was a wreck, too. I coped through being over­medicated and numbed out. I experienced panic attacks at the slightest rumble of thunder. I couldn’t handle being alone in the house at night.

Al-­Anon really helped me. This isn’t news. It has helped many people. I started attending up to three meetings a week. I developed a support group, some of whom are trusted friends today, despite my not-so­subtle straying from the path in more recent times. I could call these people in the middle of the night in a crisis, and they’d show up. I’ll always be grateful for that community.

However, I’ll also deeply regret that people in the program persuaded me to give “tough love” a try.

The tougher I became, the worse Wyatt and I fought and more sneaky he became. He lied, stole, bullied and badgered me. And I was consistently guided to hold my boundaries, to kick him out of my home before I let him call the shots.

This is not something that comes naturally. On top of it, I knew in my bones that the deaths had triggered Wyatt’s problems, and that the bipolar made it worse. Eventually, I told him he had to go to rehab.


The Rehab Racket

I know so much more now than I did then. The US rehab industry is completely unregulated. It’s in what you could call the “gold rush” phase, with so many operators just making a fast buck, taking advantage of traumatized patients and parents. The vast majority are 12­-step-­oriented.

Counselors are often credentialed by nothing more than how many years sober they have. Yet for many people—most, in fact—12­-step programs are not the answer. Recovery is not one­-size-­fits-­all.

I sent my son to one of the most established rehabs in the country, in Pennsylvania.

When I first called them to discuss admitting Wyatt, I just about fell on the floor when told the cost. The chirpy gal on the line suggested, without batting an eye, that I take out a loan on my home. She then proceeded to tell me that addiction is “a progressive disease”—a core AA belief, which is not, in fact, supported by the evidence—that “can only be arrested through abstinence.”

This sent chills of panic through me. Of course, they didn’t take my insurance, so I shelled out the $33,000 for the customary 28 days.

Dropping Wyatt off, I had a long meeting with his counselor. I explained the trauma, the bipolar disorder. The counselor listened but seemed to have another agenda. Wyatt submitted to the mandatory black­out from family contact and gradually moved up the facility’s “levels” by utilizing his eidetic (photographic) memory to become a 12-step wizard.

We had occasional family sessions. Most rehabs have “Family Education Programs,” which are mandatory before you visit your loved one. This particular rehab’s program lasts five days. On day one, the charismatic leader said, “Your child is not an addict because he is in pain, he is in pain because he’s an addict.”

I couldn’t agree with him less. I didn’t then, and I feel even more strongly about it now.

The tough-­love propaganda continued. I was advised that the post-­care treatment plan for Wyatt was their “extended care” program: three months in residence.

That turned out to be the recommendation for all the kids in the room.

Then we got a tour of the extended care facility. I forked over another $15,000. I was warned that Wyatt would likely put up a fight.

He did. He was furious with me. He cajoled and then threatened to walk out, as he was 18. I had enough Al­Anon under my belt to not buy into his threats. I told him calmly that he could leave, but he could not come home. I drove home alone, a rattled, shaking mess.

Lifelong abstinence seems at first glance to be logical. But for most kids, it’s impractical. Of course they’re going to want to go to a bar and have a drink when they turn 21—something Wyatt repeatedly told me.

For those with additional mental health complications, most facilities claim to be “dual diagnosis” or to have the capacity to deal with “co-­occurring” issues. My experience is that those issues are considered secondary. No matter how much I explained Wyatt’s issues, I’d always get the same condescending pat on the head.

There’s a reward/shame element to the 12­-step philosophy. You get a chip when you do well. You start from square one when you “relapse.” After his anti­-extended care outburst, Wyatt was promptly bumped down a level and his phone privileges were taken away. In retrospect, this seems like nothing but pure punishment.

Nearing the end of the three­-month extended care period, we parents were summoned for another meeting. There, we were spoken to by a squeaky­-clean young man who lived in one of the two sober homes the rehab recommended our kids “transition” to. The one recommended for Wyatt was $7,200 a month, minimum three months. Instead, I sent him to the $6,000 a month option, which was more like a large cabin nestled in the woods.

For all that money (not including transportation, seriously) he got meals and boredom. Four-­to-­six guys in a room.

Wyatt didn’t really fit in. He’s extremely verbal and quirky—a musical Sheldon Cooper-­psychonaut who likes to trip a lot. The counselor there, whose only qualification was 12 years of sobriety under his belt, was a rough­-around-­the-edges, Jersey-boy­ type. He told me, “Wyatt suffers from terminal uniqueness.” Hearing the word “terminal” petrified me.

Apparently, it meant that Wyatt thought he was really different from others—and that that thought could kill him, via isolation, which would lead to more drug use.

After Wyatt and a friend moved out to an apartment, still heavily under the thumb of his counselor, he eventually did use again, big time—while maintaining a 4.8 GPA in college.

As Wyatt had always had girlfriends, his counselor had told me that the biggest danger to him would be “some girl, some piece of driftwood….” Instead, Wyatt experimented with a man. This freaked the shit out of his counselor, who belittled him and screamed at him to “pick a side.” He also called Wyatt a “filthy animal” and banished him from 12-step meetings at the cabin.

Wyatt was devastated. I allowed him to come back home with me under the condition he go to AA meetings, which he did for a while. But he could never buy the spirituality. He hated meetings by now. His drug use increased.

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And so it went, on and on.

I hired an interventionist, sent him to another 12-­step rehab, and then to another sober home.

Wyatt’s drug use continued to worsen. I held another intervention, this time with close Al­Anon friends, and told him he had to get out from under my roof. I put him on a train to Baltimore to live with a friend.

Within 36 hours, I got the 2 am phone call. Wyatt was completely delirious, off his meds, tripping alone with no money in the Baltimore bus station. Eventually, he did his third rehab stint and another sober living spell. It seemed like there was no hope.


A Light Switched On

I have two very close friends whose sons died of heroin overdoses. When we talk, it’s often about our pain and anger over the rehab racket. And it was one of them who first told me about a different type of approach, known as “harm reduction,” that opened a bright new door for Wyatt and me.

“Harm Reduction means taking control—of your use of drugs or alcohol, of the damage that use does to you, of the harm your use causes others, and how you live your life,” write Patt Denning, Jeannie Little and Adina Glickman in Over the Influence.

According to this philosophy, abstinence is not required to be the goal—moderation, a reduction, or simply safer use are also seen as valuable positive outcomes. Importantly, individuals are encouraged to set their own goals, rather than having them imposed by others.

Substance use disorders don’t have to be viewed as lifelong diseases. And within this framework, many therapies, such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavior Therapy, process groups and individual counseling can be utilized. It does not hold that someone experiencing drug-­related problems must hit “rock bottom”—quite the contrary.

In Al­-Anon and AA, that quote attributed to Einstein, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,” is often bandied about. In that context, it means: Stop “enabling” and get tough! But I began to apply it to repeating the “tough love” cycle.

After a couple of sessions with a harm reduction counselor, Wyatt agreed to go to a SMART Recovery rehab in California. SMART Recovery support groups are abstinence-­based, but they recognize that not everyone walks in the door with an abstinence goal, and everyone is welcome. They don’t require the use of terms such as “addict” or “alcoholic”—in fact, these are discouraged. The overarching philosophy is one of empowerment and the use of scientifically proven tools.

When Wyatt returned home he continued to see his therapist. One day he described his cravings to me, and how marijuana helped them. I was still in abstinence­-only mode, but then a light switched on: If he found that using cannabis could help his PTSD and keep him off other, potentially much more harmful stuff, so be it.

I was very reluctant at first. But I considered a dear friend of mine who has acute lymphoid leukemia, and who treats her pain and nausea with cannabis. I decided I had nothing to lose.

It works. For Wyatt, it alleviates the anxiety and panic he experiences and assuages most (if not all) of his cravings for dex.

Last week, Wyatt commented that it had been a full year that he had not been in a hospital, in jail, on probation or in a rehab—the first full year since 2009.

I hadn’t been as aware of the anniversary as he was, and was pleased. It’s not been perfect. But, under the continued guidance of his therapist, our relationship has transformed, with not just less fighting, but increased honest communication. With the right medication, including marijuana, Wyatt is doing better. I am certain that had I continued on the “tough love” path, he’d be dead or in jail. I am also certain that in addition to the trauma of my parents’ deaths, there was considerable additional trauma as a result of the application of certain Al-Anon principles.

So now my next problem is that although medical marijuana use just became legal in Pennsylvania, it will be next to impossible to get for another two years. I used a version of this story to lobby my legislator. I hope that the CARERS Act passes Congress and will continue to lobby for this healing plant.

I no longer attend Al-Anon. I wish I could comfortably and honestly share in meetings about the benefits of marijuana, but I can’t. My friend whose son died has told me she’d have been more than willing to let her son smoke some marijuana to keep him alive. She feels she has learned too late about harm reduction.

I can no longer tolerate the sobs of a parent who has tossed their child on the street in the name of “tough love” and “hitting rock bottom.”

I now know that there’s a better way.

*Name has been changed.

Beth Laps is a pseudonym for a writer and activist who lives in Pennsylvania.


  • Cyndy Mayer

    Awesome! I love this story’s ending. I had a rough childhood culminating with a move from a big city to a small town when I was 15. The kids in this town bullied me unmercifully. I acted out. In my perspective, my parents joined in with the bulling, practicing “tough love”. They repeatedly thew me out of the house, locked me out when I was late, told me what an embarrassment I was and how disappointed in me they were, they called me horrible names. They called the police on me for smoking marijuana which bought me a juvenile record. I can’t tell you how this has reverberated through my life. I still have trust issues and tend to push people away before they can “turn on me”. I also became a full blown alcoholic. Fast forward to now, my parents are 89, I’m the only one who takes care of them. My father has Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home, my mother is still home, as judgemental and controlling as ever. She still watches Dr Phil everyday, her only source of information about addictive behavior except Fox News. Every conversation with her is an effort. I can not wait for the day they are gone and I don’t have to feel the obligation to be there for them or the weight of their physical presence in this world. Good for you, for your open mind and finding an evidence based path that works for you and your gifted son. All the best to both of you.

  • Excellent! I have many quibbles with this story but I love the 12 Step apostasy. As they say, “Progress not perfection!”

  • Janet Landis

    Thank you so much for this article. The Rehab Industry and the Prison Industry have ruined so many lives. It is my hope to join you in lobbying our PA legislators!

  • Thank you for sharing. I have struggled with substance use/misuse and mental health issues through most of my life and I have experienced first hand the damage that The Rehab Industry can cause. I have fought against it by working as an activist in the harm reduction and drug policy groups. The damage we do to families by telling mothers and fathers to abandon their children and let them go and experience pain, because that is the only way they will change is abhorrent. I tell parents all the time, the reason it hurts so bad to practice tough love is because it is wrong. This does not mean I believe you must support someone who is behaving in ways that are disrespectful and unacceptable. I know first hand what happens when parents abandon their children. I know the horror of being caught up in a cruel world with a terrible addiction. I know that pain does not create positive change. Pain makes me want to die. Passion for life makes me want to change, hope brings about change, not pain. I have had counselors tell me, “oh louise, you must not have had enough pain yet!” That is ridiculous, I have endured enough pain for 10 lifetimes. 12 step philosophy is not based in science and neither is tough love.

    Times got really rough with my daughter. She seemed to struggle with the same mental health problems I had. We talked, we cried. we fought and disagreed, but I never turned her out to the streets…..I know when you do that, your child will not return the same. I took my daugther to counselors and psychiatrists, I taught her harm reduction. She went to overdose prevention classes and I gave her naloxone and encouraged her to get involved with harm reduction. Unfortunately, I live in the south and harm reduction is not developed fully. The only programs are the ones that I developed a few years ago. Her drug use became more dangerous and I got scared. I worried she and her boyfriend were not being careful and simply did not understand what they were dealing with. Against everything I know I convinced her at 19 to go to rehab across the country. I talked with the rehab on the phone for hours as I tried to decide what to do. They promised me they were not 12 step, that they were truly a duel diagnosis facility and they were state of the art. I sent her. She never returned home. She died 3-13-16 in rehab. She died of an overdose. They did not have naloxone. They were not trained in overdose reversal. I knew better than to trust my daughters life to one of these places. I wanted to believe they were different. I wanted to believe things were improving. My daughter could have saved anyone else’s life that overdosed because she was trained in overdose reversal, they could not save hers, because they don’t care about people’s lives. They care about $$$. We must do better. We must demand more.

    • veronica smith

      My heart breaks for you ,my daughter went to rehab and then.did well but returned to her boyfriend and is using again I wish there was something like nalexone to reverse meth she goes into psychosis ,I can’t have her live with me..I wish there were more options I’m 25 years clean in 12 step but not dogmatic and know there’s many paths to choose from..

      • FranktheMc

        Veronica, sorry about your daughter. Tough as it is, concentrate on your own recovery.

    • Pencils

      I am so, so sorry for your loss. There is no pain like the loss of a child.

    • FranktheMc

      A perfect description of why the industry is a bad one. It’s all about the $$$.

      I’m sorry for your loss as well.

  • Spring-Heeled Jim

    That is almost the exact same story as mine, just hasn’t progressed to the result you have gained quite yet. I’m still working on my parents, and making them realize the reason they treat me the way they do is b/c of the brain-washing by this AA rehab. Thank God, my parents knew I had an anxiety disorder. They would tell us in AA that everyone has anxiety, we just have to learn how to deal with it. Yeah, really? Well there is a difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder where the person is crippled with overwhelming fear, sometimes real, sometimes imagined. Wherever, the anxiety comes from doesn’t matter, but when you are afraid to leave your home and be seen in public, then you have an anxiety disorder! AA and the AA rehabs don’t believe there are any actual mental conditions. Everyone has the same “disease” and everyone gets the same “treatment”. The treatment basically involves taking all of your families’ money and then causing more stress and anxiety inducing another disorder of PTSD. They publicly humiliated me and made me tell very personal things to a group of strangers or be forced out on the streets. I woke up one night from a nightmare I was having, and I was waiting for that “Oh, it’s just a nightmare, whew…I can go back to sleep feeling”, instead I realized the nightmare I was having was what was actually occurring in reality. That was a very frightening moment. When I look back on the entire experience (which was exactly like your sons) I get so angry, and I want to do something, but I feel like David fighting Goliath. It is just sickening. These people prey on the most vulnerable people during their weakest moments for monetary gain. They are simply evil. The most manipulative, selfish, narcissistic, greedy people I have ever come in contact with. There was only one person there, my counselor who I think really cared about me, and I think deep down she knew I needed to be on medication. Of course, just like everyone else as soon as they get out of these prison camps, my drug use escalated. Why wouldn’t it? When all you do all day long for almost a year is talk about drugs. I started seeing a Harm Reduction counselor b/c honestly I was suffering from PTSD, and I now realize that I had gone into a psychosis before I got to the “rehab”. When they started the daily degradation, ridicule, and basically destroying the very soul of who I was, I completely shut down. I couldn’t speak, or I was so afraid if I tried I wouldn’t be able to. They thought I was being defiant, when in actuality, I needed mental help. My HARM counselor really helped me in so many ways. She watched as I walked in there completely out of my mind, and talked to me rationally. She was one of the few people who understood the pain and suffering that is caused by these rehabs, and I set my own goals. She never said you have to do this or you have to do that. She got me to see that what I was doing wasn’t working, and I wasn’t happy. She recognized that I needed medication, but she also made me realize that I didn’t need as much as I was taking. I believe she is the only HARM reduction counselor in my state, which is a very disturbing fact. I was admitted to that evil torture place on October 12, 2012. It’s now 2016, yet the pain they caused hasn’t gone away at all. I’ve just learned that I have life to live, and I do the best I can. Thank you for shedding light on what goes on at these places, b/c it’s across the board. They are all terrible places that no one should have to endure..

  • FranktheMc

    For the record, I interned at a private alcohol/drug rehab for my master’s degree. Was it a good place to intern? Absolutely! Do I believe in this industry? Absolutely not! The success rate of 90 percent was cooked to the max. The actual success rate was less than 10.

    I’ve actually read a lot of articles suggesting 12-Step recovery stay out of the commercial rehabs. To me, that actually seems closer to the Traditions those groups maintain. I’m thinking that recovery should be an individual decision. I can work up my own protocol for recovery, with the understanding (crucial) that if my tactics fail, I have to devise new tactics.

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  • rosterdelafoster

    Hope you’ll update this next May with the news that he’s avoided stronger drugs than weed and hasn’t been arrested again for another year.

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  • Margaret McNamara

    How do you help someone who doesn’t want help? Refuses medication, refuses counseling, manipulates and lies….you can’t force someone to get help.

  • Cynthia Farrell

    It is 4 am or so. Just got off the computer with my son who is going thru a relapse. Again. I love him so. But I realized a couple of years ago that tough love does not work, and in fact, makes things worse. I won’t go into my whole story, but I am so grateful to have found this article tonight. I just needed to say thank you. You have affirmed my views, and given me a couple of new resources to check out. I hope to learn of more support groups or programs that support this philosophy. Thank you!

  • markpkessinger

    Thank you for this. The notion that “tough love” not only works, but is the only possible way to handle a loved one who is addicted is accepted, thanks to the help of celebrities such as Dr. Phil, almost as if it were wisdom received from on high. I am currently trying to support a friend through his struggle with drug addiction. His father died a couple of years ago, and his mother, who is not in the greatest of health herself, recently moved 3000 miles away to be closer to his older brother, with whom my friend has had a strained and difficult relationship since childhood. This brother has managed to convince his mother that she, too, must take a “tough love” approach, and recently told him he couldn’t come to visit her for Thanksgiving, or any other time, unless and until he goes through rehab.

    My friend is seriously worried, and not without reason, that he may not be able to successfully complete a rehab program before his mother’s health finally fails completely. And while his family may tell themselves it is tough “love” they are giving him, I can tell you that it certainly doesn’t look or feel like “love” from where my friend sits. Nor, frankly, does it look like it from where I sit as an outside observer.

    Meanwhile, I am seeing the fallout his mother and brother cannot see from 3,000 miles away. The message my friend is taking away from his family’s “tough love” approach is not one of love, but of utter rejection. They are succeeding in making someone who already feel squite badly about himself feel as if he is unloved and unlovable. I have to wonder: even if he were to enter a treatment program tomorrow, does his family realy think they are setting him up for success by treating him as a pariah?