Detaching With Love: How I Learned to Separate My Son and His Addiction

My son Alex shoplifted to support his addiction. Needless to say, he got caught several times. The first few times when he was a minor, we’d get a call to come pick him up. He’d get a ticket and we’d pay a big fine and take him to court services for his probation and to a psychologist. This went on for a couple years.

When he turned 18 he was no longer a minor. With his record, they’d take him to jail. He’d make that phone call from jail, “Please come and bail me out. I’m never going to do this again.” Off we’d go. After a while, it started getting expensive. And my wife Darlene and I were not learning our lesson—and, by the way, neither was our son. We were doing the same thing over and over and our son was doing the same thing over and over. Nothing was changing. He’d make the same promises, we’d take the same action, and we couldn’t understand why he kept using.

This is where the idea of “detaching” and setting boundaries started with us. We decided we weren’t going to pay bail next time, but it wasn’t easy.

As a mom and dad, it is very hard to think of your child sitting in jail. In Jackson County, MO jail, he witnessed a person getting stabbed. The food is universally bad at jails and without money on your books, you can’t even get a toothbrush to brush your teeth. He had food stolen from him and at times had to fight to keep it. He spent two days in solitary confinement for defending himself against an inmate who attacked him. The jails are filled with criminals such as rapists and murderers… and then people like my son, who are addicted to drugs. It makes no sense to me.

It’s hard to think of yourself as a loving parent when you know that for just a few hundred dollars you could get your child out of those situations. You wonder: if I don’t pay the bail, am I really a loving parent? But eventually, the day comes when you don’t pay. We once let our son sit in the Johnson County, KS Resort for 11 days because we wouldn’t post a $50 bond. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it?

This is what detaching with love and allowing natural consequences means. Your boundaries must match your values. It works for us this way. Overriding all is the value that we love our son. When you sit down to think about and discuss boundaries, this goes at the top of the list. Every single boundary is tested against that value.

Another value we hold close and taught our kids is that stealing is wrong. Stealing carries consequences and it should. Bailing him out removes or minimizes the consequences. Contrary to our values, we were bailing him out. We hated what he was exposed to in jail but he had established a pattern: he got caught, he called, we jumped up to save him with cash in hand.

Darlene and I sat down and determined where we would go and where we would no longer go. This began to help us establish our boundaries. You can’t cover all of the possible situations, you just cover what you can. You must know that once you learn how to judge behaviors and fight the instinct to enable by rescuing, the it becomes easier and more natural.

Once boundaries are determined, you must sit down with your child and explain where you will no longer go with him. In fact, you can even start each sentence with, “Because we love you…” and then, for instance, “We can no longer bail you out of jail. All of your life we taught you that stealing was wrong and you know that in your heart, so we cannot support your actions by bailing you out when you do something you have been taught all your life is wrong. I hope you understand this and can accept our decision.

For each boundary we had discussed, the conversation went like that. Our son hated it when we turned off the TV and asked him to sit down at the table to talk. This satisfied our need to tell him of our expectations, and it told him what to expect from us. Yes, he still called, begged, pleaded and cried from jail, but what we had been doing in the past didn’t work and was bad for all of us. We had to change the rules, but that didn’t mean we loved him any less, it meant we loved him more. It hurt us terribly to let him sit in jail.

Even with his begging and pleading we were still able to sleep at night and have a moment of down time. He was in jail and we knew jail was safer than being on the street scoring and shooting endless heroin. We then began to see jail as “protective custody.”

We detached from Alex’s crimes and actions; we did not detach from him. We still loved him, took some of the $10-for-10-minute collect calls from jail. On those calls, we always ended by saying that we loved him and asking him to please help himself. We were doing all we could and all that we knew we could possibly do. Detach from the actions, crimes, drug use, lying and every other terrible thing a drug addict does to himself and others. Love and support the person inside, not the addiction controlling his life.

Today, Alex is two-and-a-half years sober. We figured out a way to let natural consequences sink in, and that, combined with our love and support for him, helped him enter treatment and begin his life again.

Learn Skills to Help Your Family Heal

Community Reinforcement and Family Training, or CRAFT, is a scientifically proven approach to help parents change their child’s substance use by staying involved in a positive, ongoing way.

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93 Responses

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    Veronica Santiago

    October 12, 2016 at 6:38 PM

    I have two sons who starters using mariguana, i dont know what to do or how to help them . They are only 14 and 16 years old and i feel really bad i feel like im failing as a mother for not knowing how to deal with them. Im so disappointed because i never thought i thought my kids knew how to make good decisions…. PLEASE HELP somebody tell me where to start. I live in carthage Missouri.

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    Leigh

    October 4, 2016 at 12:39 PM

    My son is 28, and has been a Heroin user for several years now. I’ve been an enabler – big time – not understanding his problems, being in denial, etc. He lied and manipulated and I bought in, but have finally learned. He started and lost several jobs since high school, and the last job he lost was before Christmas last year. I stopped supporting him financially 2 months ago. He went to detox once a couple years ago, and after went to NA meetings a few weeks; he did the methadone clinic for a year, starting a taper at 4 months, got to 14 mg’s and quit. Last Monday he showed up at my parent’s house (on their 57th wedding anniversary) with no place to go. My mom talked with him, and they called me. He said he needed help and didn’t have a place to go. Said he’d go to rehab so we got that lined up and he’s been there since last Wednesday, several hundred miles away, for 30 to 45 days I think. I need guidance, from experts, on what to do when he gets out. I don’t want to do the wrong things anymore. He has no home, no transportation, no money. What’s my role as mom when he finishes rehab? Now that I’m not the “enabler,” what do I do?

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    Charesse Hicks

    September 30, 2016 at 6:30 PM

    Many hugs and prayers for you and your son. I, like way too many others, completely understand. I tell my son numerous times a day that I love him, always expecting it to be the last time that I will say that to his living face. I pray daily for all of us who love an addict and for all of the addicts. Please pray for my son and our family. He is addicted to opiates and loves heroin.
    Charesse

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    Lisa

    September 13, 2016 at 3:56 PM

    Hello, I see I am not alone in all this which is a great relief . My daughter is 25 years old and a heroine addict. We have been fighting this for aprox. 3 yrs. I first found out when she called crying that she needed 24 hour supervision with her son or the state would be taking him from her . he was just over a year old at the time. Her and my grandson moved in with me for said supervision , 7 months later she moved out got an apartment was clean and doing ok . That did’t last long i stopped to see her 2 weeks later and she was high , we talked she promised to go to a meeting , never went with in 2 months of that her state worker informed me she was avoiding her , well no surprise there as she was avoiding me to. A month later my grandson was taken from her and given to his Father . Since then she progressed from snorting it to needles and on again off again bouts of clean to not clean . Set her up in a rehab rite after she lost her son she spent 2 weeks there sighned herself out and said it was a nasty place the fire alarm went off constantly. so not true this place was club med and it was a mommy me program 6 weeks in and she could of had her son with her there for 6 months while they teach you how to raise your child with all life has to throw at you . 4 months ago i had to throw her out after being here for 3 months I thought clean only to find 9 bags of heroine on my bathroom floor. She went out of state to start fresh and live with an Aunt . Her father died this past week she came home for the funeral , we could tell she had gotten high during the viewing . Her Aunt tested her when they got home and sure enough its positive on 4 of 12 panels . Her Aunt says I dont know what your going to do I will not have this in my house I raised my kids . So did I ! I have an 11 year old in the house and I will not put him around that . Is this my problem to deal with ? Do I have to step in again? I feel as though my daughter needs to get help on her own now and if she isnt ready to be clean I cant make her… So confused and her Aunt makes me feel like I am doing something wrong.

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    Nancy

    June 28, 2016 at 12:07 AM

    I am going through this right now. My son is being released from a treatment center Wednesday and going into a 1/2 way house. I don’t like the idea of the halfway house he’s not ready he needs more treatment. And he tells me he needs money to pay the halfway house. But I can’t trust him. I don’t know if I ever will. He is 28 years old. I don’t understand how he got on drugs. I never did. I’m all new to this and I let him and his girlfriend stay with me. I had no idea my son was using. Come to find out with all his girlfriend’s lies she was using too. I witnessed my sons overdose for the first time right before me. It was shocking to see him laying there and people trying to revive him with narcan. I still have those images in my head. And after that I told him I was going to section him and I want his girlfriend out. But they ran when I came back they were gone. I get a letter in the mail addressed to my son saying that he is no longer allowed in the library due to a overdose. He overdosed again after my house. Does anyone know if it was because I gave him tough love? Or was it just his addiction. He is such a good kid and he is well liked by so many people. I lost my niece from her overdosing. So many lives lost. I pray for all of our loved ones to find the strength to recover.

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