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Doug Bolton, the founder of Signs of Hope, is writing a new book, “Signs of Hope for the Military: In and Out of the Trenches of Life.” It reaches out the military and veterans who may be battling anxiety, fear, depression, addictions, rejections, PTSD, and many other usual suspects. There are 22 military connected suicides every day. That is almost one every hour. We need to help stop those statistics. Be looking for more details about the new book. Look for updates here.
+ Update! The book has been sent to my editor this week. Now I wait and see how many red marks she will have in it. 🙂
Welcome back Linda Clare. Her posts have us crying. They want us to reach out to help. They are inspiring.
Not Tough Love—Just Love
That Sunday in church, tears slid down my face. I was so close to hopelessness, I didn’t care if my mascara ran. The night before, two of my grown sons, fueled by alcohol and drugs, had argued and nearly come to blows. Again.
The son who was supposed to be getting sober had relapsed. His brother was tweaking on meth. Around three AM, old grudges and rivalry reignited as their shouts woke my husband and me. We’d managed to break up the late-night fracas, but nothing was resolved. I felt trapped in a cycle: hope’s birth, followed by hope’s death, hope’s rebirth and back to death again. Now, even as Deacon Ron (not his real name) read aloud the Gospel, I wondered if I had strength enough to ever hope again.
My heart was heavy. Any hope of escaping the cycle seemed impossible. I was not only discouraged and sad, I was angry. Angry at my sons for their behavior and their choices. Angry at myself for my failure to enforce Tough Love. Angry at. . .well, just mad.
Bad enough that I felt hopeless. Recently, someone had remarked that I also appeared helpless. Tough Love sounded like a logical solution to a thorny problem, but I couldn’t make it work. That made me seem like a toothless T. Rex, my mini-arms clawing nothing but air. Why couldn’t I do what so many friends, relatives, counselors and clergy had suggested over the years? Why couldn’t I detach myself from the alcoholics and addicts in my life? After services, I avoided eye contact as I slouched along in the handshake line.
The problem for me, lay in the popular meaning of the term Tough Love. Whenever people advise me to use Tough Love, they usually mean, “kick out your addicted loved ones.” In twenty-plus years of dealing with their substance abuse, I’ve ordered my loved ones into treatment, set rules and drawn up code of conduct contracts. I’ve called police, obtained restraining orders and separated from my alcoholic husband for a time. But what I could never do was kick them out—especially if it meant, “Don’t come back until you’ve licked this problem.”
After services, instead of slinking off, I knelt at the prayer bench where Deacon Ron waits to pray for those who ask him. Ron’s also a Jail Chaplain, and has led a prison ministry for at least twenty years. He knows my family’s situation well. “Please pray for me.” I hung my head but he placed his hands on my shoulders. I glanced up and confessed. “I’m a terrible failure at Tough Love.”
What he said next made my jaw drop. “I don’t believe in Tough Love.”
I’d never heard anyone say that. I thought Tough Love was the only way I’d ever convince my sons to go into recovery. The reason they were still using their drugs of choice was that I sucked at Tough Love. Unwittingly, I’d chained them to a life of self-destructive misery by not “kicking them out.”
I own a battered copy of the 1982 book, ToughLove, by family therapists and drug and alcohol counselors Phyllis and David York. After the tumultuous sixties and seventies, more and more teens were using tobacco and alcohol, and the crack cocaine epidemic was hitting youth hard. TOUGHLOVE was touted as the solution to restore parents’ control over their wayward youths. The book was a bestseller and changed many lives.
Somewhere along the way, though, TOUGHLOVE became Tough Love. While counseling professionals may still use the phrase to reference the Yorks’ program to establish control over wayward teens, most people today tend to think of Tough Love as, “kicking him/her out,” cutting off contact and withholding resources.
The idea works some of the time. I know several parents whose adult and teenage sons recovered after a Tough Love ultimatum. One friend’s son, in his forties, was a meth addict who recovered after his family said he wasn’t welcome at the family Christmas gathering. My own husband of forty years gave up drinking after we separated, and I’m thankful.
But not every family’s so lucky. Sadly, addiction and mental illness are often tangled together. Too unstable to hold a job, find housing or pay for treatment, those with both mental conditions and substance abuse problems often self-medicate. Some are like my middle son, whose drug use and mental illness give him an emotional and social age of about ten years old.
Many alcoholics and addicts either cannot or will not get the help they need. Sometimes addicts are stubborn, but more often they’re destitute, physically sick, mentally ill or all three. After the closure of most mental hospitals in the eighties, individuals once committed to institutions are now forced to live in the streets. And what’s left for these people is more tough than loving.
My knees hurt as I knelt before Deacon Ron, but my mind raced. Why didn’t he believe in Tough Love? I remembered our own attempts to use Tough Love—we really did try. When our meth addict was not even sixteen, we “kicked him out.” Surely our son would feel the cold and wet from an Oregon winter night and beg to go to rehab. I packed my son’s belongings into a black trash bag, sobbing as I placed it outside the front door. We stood firm as he tried to talk his way back inside. We locked all the doors, only to find him asleep in his bed the next morning. This went on for days.
We finally gave up trying to kick him out, fearing he’d die if he had to live on the street.
Deacon Ron’s gaze drilled through me as I knelt. “Did you know that I lost a son to drugs?”
My eyes must have widened. Ron may have sensed I needed to know he wasn’t just opinionated—he’d already made the ultimate sacrifice. “No,” I mumbled. “I’m sorry for your loss.” I took a breath. “See, that’s why I fail at Tough Love— if I turn my back on them, I’m scared my sons will die.”
Ron smiled a little. “What does Jesus command us to do?”
“Ah. Love the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
“That’s right.” Ron bowed his head and asked God to give me wisdom, courage, to help me love not only my sons, but to forgive those who judge me if I can’t do what they suggest. My soggy heart felt lighter as I began to I understand that talking about difficult problems like substance abuse and mental illness makes people uncomfortable. People naturally want to do something—anything—to make the pain stop. Tough Love sounds easy—just remove the addict from your midst and the problem is solved. In our culture, hard problems like addiction, sickness and death aren’t discussed much, let alone embraced.
I’m as squeamish as the next person—I still can’t watch the part of the movie where the Romans flog Jesus. But God has provided me with the grace and enough hope to keep encouraging and yes, often nudging my sons to get clean.
As Ron prayed, I also felt more compassion for those who can’t tolerate the idea of suffering, those whose story must turn away from the Passion and always be tuned to the glory of Easter. I forgave myself for being so sucky at Tough Love. Slowly, anger was replaced by love.
That day, I arrived home to the sound of our lawn mower. One son had transformed our yard from a mess after the harsh winter storms to an emerald-jeweled landscape. Besides mowing, he’d hauled fallen branches, edged the planters, raked leaves and swept the driveway. He’d even mowed the neighbor’s yard. He beamed as I thanked him for his efforts. Inside, his brother had cooked a Sunday dinner fit for royalty, and the house had been tidied too. A bouquet of fresh daffodils sat on the dining table. Both my sons demonstrated their love by doing, without being asked, chores that for me are difficult. I hugged each of them, hard, whispering that I loved them to the moon and back.
By the end of the day, I had sore knees, a singing heart and a stronger hope than ever. I’ll keep pushing them (and myself) to lay down demons and hold them accountable if they fight those demons with T. Rex arms. More than anything, I will keep on loving without conditions. That’s the toughest kind of love there is.
You are never alone.
You are never forsaken.
You are never unloved.
And above all….never ever give up!