Brute, Emotional Force
“He who angers you conquers you.” ~ Elizabeth Kenny
When I see an addict ripping into his mother in response to an offer of help, I see an addict trying to control the outcome of the argument using brute, emotional force. I see someone who doesn’t want to do something, improvising ways to get out of it and, if the other person allows it to affect him or her, the addict may succeed. By driving his family into a state of apathy, panic or hopelessness, the addict hopes to force them to give up.
Interventions are difficult, emotional events. The addict will try to capitalize on this, pitting family members against each other, lashing out, screaming bloody murder or quietly, yet convincingly, tell you he’ll never go to treatment.
If you find this taking place, it’s important you recognize it for what it is: an effort at control, an effort at making you wrong, making the offer wrong, making the program wrong and ultimately, avoiding going.
The addict may go to extremes with threats of suicide or promises to never speak to anyone again, to commit crimes or otherwise try to force his family to believe that continuing with the intervention is more dangerous than not. You may become exhausted and frazzled. You may want to give up. You may want to fall into a dark hole and forget about all of it. Remember–this is how addicts keep themselves and their families imprisoned.
Knowing what I’m telling you is one thing, but keep in mind that you will get nowhere if you begin accusing the addict of using crisis as a means of control. First, it is more of an automatic response than something premeditated, and second, the only result of being confrontational about it will be a fight. So absorb what I’m telling you so you can see the addict’s behavior for what it is, but do not throw it in the addict’s face. That will not get you anywhere.
Destruction of Property
During times of emotional upheaval, the addict may engage in the destruction of property. This can range anywhere from throwing a plate across the room, to punching a hole in the wall, to driving a car into the fence. I’ve had all of these things happen on multiple occasions.
Like yelling and screaming, destroying property is another effort at control, only at a higher magnitude. It is one of the ways an addict who has his back up against a wall, tries to throw people off balance.
It’s ironic if you think about it. This kind of behavior is exactly why the person needs to go to treatment in the first place
Whether the destruction of property is a regular occurrence or the addict is engaging in it for the very first time, the same rules apply when it comes to doing an intervention. Some may even say it’s an advantage to be dealing with someone who acts out a lot because you have something to shut down.
Do not tolerate destruction of property. You cannot and must not allow it to continue. I’m talking close to zero tolerance. By shutting down the behavior, you transmit a very clear message to the addict that it’s not business as usual.
If the person punches a hole in the wall and then calms down and wants to talk about going to the program–then fine, you probably don’t need to call the police. If however he punches a hole in the wall, slams the door, kicks a window out and makes no indication that he’s going to stop, dial 9-1-1. Shut it down.
I can’t promise anything but, in most cases, the police will not want to take anyone to jail if the disturbance can be worked out. Destruction of property is illegal, but in most cases it’s up to the property owner to press charges. The exception would be a person who already has a warrant out for his arrest but, even in that case, you still need to follow through if the addict is using that as a way of arguing you out of calling the police. “If you call the police, I’ll get arrested.” And then he’s back to punching holes in walls. This is being held hostage to violence and, for those of you who have lived with this for a time, I sympathize with how difficult it can be to take this step even though logic tells you it’s the right thing to do.
If you have a friend who tells you someone he loves is using drugs or drinking, and, in addition to the addiction, is throwing fits of violence and destroying property, making threats, what would you tell your friend to do? Would you advise him to allow all of this to continue simply because he’s afraid? Or would you tell him he can’t go on allowing the person he loves to control the relationship with violence?
Ask yourself, who are you in this story? The one who allows the addict to continue, or the one who gets him to stop and puts an end to it? It’s up to you to create your storyline.
Webster’s Dictionary defines a crisis as:
- A paroxysmal attack of pain, distress, or disordered function. b. An emotionally significant event or radical change of status in a person’s life.
- An unstable or crucial time or state-of-affairs in which a decisive change is impending, especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome. b. A situation that has reached a critical phase.
It can be difficult for a family member, especially a non-addict, to understand why crises are such a regular occurrence in an addict’s life.
The purpose of this chapter is to help family members understand that crises and turmoil in an addict’s life are his means of controlling and manipulating those around him. It’s important to realize that crisis is a way of life for an addict, not something directed at you personally, so don’t panic when things erupt!
Because crisis is such an integral part of his life and he is such a slave to it, manipulating situations through chaos becomes his normal way to survive. An addict’s family is often estranged, and he may have no job, no home, no support system.
To him, there is a reality behind each crisis:
How am I going to pay for my next bag (or bottle)?
What excuse am I going to use for missing work?
How long have I been up/asleep?
How am I going to explain having missed Thanksgiving, Christmas or a birthday, etc.?
What am I going to do about the rent, car payment, phone bill, student loan?
The way addicts operate can make their brand of chaos seem premeditated and disturbingly well thought out, but this is not usually the case. In fact, an addict’s life is in such disarray that he must constantly figure his way around the next obstacle.
Families often see each crisis as a new problem to deal with when, in fact, the individual problems are simply the continuation of addiction as it worsens. When you step back and look at the addict’s history, you will see a steady decline in the person’s life, each major crisis a flagstone in a downward-spiraling path. It’s actually something you can take comfort in because what you’re seeing is the progression of the condition, the same condition that, to a greater or lesser degree, every addict or alcoholic is in. It’s not unique to your loved one, and it is not a question of degraded moral fiber which is why your addict is in such conflict with himself and the world. Take hope in the fact that without real moral fiber and ethics, your loved one would not be in any conflict at all. So, in this sense, severe personal conflict is a good sign.
However, when the intervention is perceived to be out of control, family members are much more likely to throw in the towel and give up, and that is precisely why addicts spend such inordinate amounts of energy generating out-of-control scenarios.
Effective interventions are the result of people staying calm and keeping the game moving, regardless of what occurs.
When you panic, you lose control of the situation. When you panic, the situation controls you.
When a crisis hits, the key is to stay calm and remind yourself that the crisis is part of the condition you are there to solve.
It may be the most important piece of advice in this book: Do not allow yourself to fall into panic due to the dramatic unwillingness of the addict.
- Without hope [a hopeless prisoner].
- Causing one to lose hope; discouraging [a hopeless situation].
Practicing addicts try to destroy interventions by creating feelings of hopelessness in those around them–parents, spouses and others close to them. It is a simple yet powerful mechanism that is not difficult to observe if you look for it. If you see it, you can plan for it. If you plan for it, you can stay ahead of it. If you can stay ahead of it, you will have a greater level of control.
Here are some examples of how an addict creates hopelessness:
“No matter WHAT you say or do, I’ll NEVER go to treatment!!”
“I’m going to KILL myself if you make me go!!”
“I can do it on my OWN!!”
“I have THINGS TO DO!!”
“I WOULD have gone, but this intervention sure changed that!!”
“If you make me go, I’ll just leave once I get there!!”
Every one of these statements and the way they are delivered have but one clear purpose: to create hopelessness and fear in those who are trying to help, thereby getting them to give up or change direction.
The entrenched addict makes his family wrong for trying to help.
Word by word, crisis by crisis, explosion by explosion, the using and stuck addict makes you WRONG, WRONG, WRONG for having the nerve to have any hope at all.
This is not malicious. The addict is not thinking, “I’m going to make my family feel hopeless.” What he’s doing is more of an automatic response to a perceived threat. The reason he responds the way he does is because it has worked for him in the past. If creating a crisis throws people off guard, makes them second-guess what they’re doing and instills doubt, then what would you expect an addict to do during an intervention? As I said, the best response is to expect it, stay calm and keep the offer and ultimatums moving. In other words, don’t let a little fire stop the train.
The intensity of an addict’s crises will increase in proportion to how threatened he feels. During the intervention, for example, he is forced to face something he does not want to do, something that is incredibly difficult, so he will play whatever card he believes will make things go his way. No big mystery here.
So how do you succeed in the face of vehement resistance?
Expect it. Plan for it.
You should expect and plan for a crisis to occur, if not volley after volley of them. You need to be mentally prepared so when crises occur you can maintain a level head and not panic. During an intervention, crises are not so much the enemy as is panicking in response to them.
Keep in mind that a crisis is not necessarily something loud and flammable. A crisis is whatever the addict can do that creates a certain kind of reaction in others.
In other words, if isolating himself, not answering his phone and sinking into a pit of despair causes others to stop in their tracks and second-guess what they’re doing, then that’s what he’ll do. I’m talking about anything that causes critical players to panic, become hopeless or fearful, doubt themselves, and otherwise become emotionally stopped.
Expecting the addict will have more than one crisis–and allowing enough time to handle each one–is something that distinguishes effective interventions from those which fail.
Mainstream intervention theory suggests the addict will either say “yes” or “no” during the meeting when the offer of help is made. But this is misleading since most addicts react to the offer of help with crisis.
Families often conclude, based on what they’ve been told, that such a reaction indicates the addict is either not ready for treatment or that he must hit bottom. Not only does the intervention end with the addict not going to treatment but, because the family did not anticipate the crisis and instead sees the intervention as a disaster or failure, it is ended prematurely when success was actually within reach. Bluntly put, this is why traditional intervention models tend to have such abysmal success rates.*
The most common scenario is for the family to plan the offer and then make the offer; then the addict will have a crisis, either during that meeting or shortly thereafter.
* “As a generalization, we have found that about one-half of all interventions we have participated in have resulted in the person’s going to some type of treatment.” ~ Page 114, Substance Abuse, Information for School Counselors, Social Workers, Therapists, and Counselors. Second Edition, Gary Fisher; Thomas Harrison. ISBN 0-20-5-30622-5
As long as his family has successfully kept a collective cool head, has continued selling the aesthetics of the program, NOT changed direction and has kept or put the ultimatums in place, the addict will soon realize his crises are no longer effective, at which point the family will likely see the beginnings of a negotiation.
It’s a lot like hooking a big fish. Expect a fight and, when you’re about to get it in the boat and you’ve got your net in hand, expect another one. And, when you’re on your way back to shore, confident your fish is secure in the cooler, you’d better make sure that cooler is locked because he may fight you again.
The forms that crises take are not important if you recognize that they are mostly efforts at control.
Here is an example from one addict during the loss of his job:
“There’s this one manager at work who’s had it in for me. He blames me for what others are doing, and he pushed me too far so I told him off. So now they want to talk to me in the office on Monday, and I’m suspended until then.”
In truth, the addict has already lost his job due to being tardy or absent, a direct result of his drug or alcohol abuse. Blaming others is how he begins the cycle of self-protection and abnegation of responsibility.
Here’s another example. The son (who is out of money and has been kicked out of the house) calls his father and tells him the following:
“I owe these drug dealers some money, Dad, and I think my life is in danger. They stole my wallet and it has your home address in it. They said if I don’t pay them $200, they’re going to hurt my family!” This example is from my own playbook. What actually happened was that I had run out of drugs. (Yep, I was the addict).
I just needed more money to buy more drugs. The goal of my entire crisis, my ruse, was to get money for drugs.
I came up with an extreme situation I thought my dad would buy into. And, sure enough, he did. He was so pissed he almost cried. He “had had enough of my f**king problems.”
The only thing that mattered to me, however, was to show enough remorse to be believable so I could get the money, get the drugs, and get to a quiet place and get high.
I did an intervention with a kid who was 17 years old and addicted to meth, pot, and alcohol. We did the intervention and it went smoothly, the kid was in treatment within five days. A week later, however, I got a call from his father. He was in a panic, telling me his son was back. Apparently the mother–after having worked tirelessly with me for five days to get the kid to the program–had driven to the treatment facility, picked the kid up and brought him back home!
I had a feeling I knew what had happened but I waited to hear the mother’s story. Sure enough, this is what she told me: Her son had called her from the facility and told her horror stories about what was happening to him there. He told her about how the Health Department was visiting the facility because of the unsanitary conditions there. He told her things they were “making him do” that were morally questionable. He demanded to come home. He acted genuinely frightened, promising earnestly and sincerely that he would get help at a “normal” treatment center the moment he got home. His mom, now horrified that she had made the wrong choice, raced to the treatment center and pulled him out. She did this despite what the facility staff told her and despite what she would have found out had she taken the time to look.
She didn’t want to risk that he might be telling the truth, and he took full advantage of it. If you ever run into this, go visit the treatment center and make sure your loved one is not in the same room when you’re taking your tour.
The bottom line: The kid had finished detoxing, wanted out, and fabricated stories which he played on his mom. He made it into a crisis in order to get away from having to do the program. He controlled the situation by turning it into a crisis. Instead of calmly investigating things, his mom panicked.
If his mother had spent just a little time looking at what was actually happening at the center, as opposed to listening to her drug addicted son, things might have turned out better. Instead, the kid came home and was shooting dope that same day. Then he stole a bunch of guns from some Hells Angels and went on a year-long binge, much worse than before. True story.
Another example of crisis as a means of control is a story about a client whom I’ll call Abigail. Her husband Jim, after a heartfelt outpouring of love and a plea from his family to get help, instead of humbling himself exploded into a hostile rage and told his wife, his two daughters and me that he had no intention of doing anything but sitting in the basement and smoking crack. He actually dared his own wife and kids to try to stop him.
Without going into the details which led to it, I advised Abigail to get a restraining order. The next day she went to the courthouse, told the judge her husband had threatened her, and was granted the restraining order. The next day Jim was served by the sheriff and forced to leave the family home. Within a few days, Jim had run out of money and, in order to get back into his house, he created a massive crisis with one of his daughters by calling her and painfully telling her he was homeless and hungry. He even had the gall to offer to forgive them if he could just come home (big hearted guy, right?)! The daughter, deeply moved by her father’s story and believing him, convinced Abigail to have the restraining order lifted and let Jim back in the house.
No sooner was he home than he was ripping into his wife, blaming her for having the nerve to do the intervention, accusing her of being cruel, and (surprise) went back to doing drugs and drinking just like before. Therefore, if you hire an interventionist, follow his instructions. The price Abigail paid was that now, having violated the Restraining Order she herself had requested, she was unable to return to the judge and request a new order, so now Jim was in the house and she became the one who had to move out.
The crisis Jim presented was that if she got him off the street, he’d be able to eat and have a place to stay. The case he was trying to make was: How could she be so heartless to have made him homeless?
The fact was he had a place to stay: a treatment facility on 30 acres of southern California mountains, with tennis courts, a swimming pool, satellite TV, and great food!
So how is it he didn’t have a place to stay?
This is a perfect example of the child-tantrum analogy. He was like the child who yells, “I don’t wanna go, I don’t wanna go, I don’t wanna go.” And his wife says, “Okay honey, you don’t have to go to treatment if you don’t want to. Come back home, and we’ll work on things. We’ll get you a good doctor, and we’ll get you a therapist, and we’ll get you to some AA meetings and maybe we can put all the pieces back together ourselves without all this pain and heartache,” when in fact the pain and heartache is exactly what Jim created in order to get Abigail to fold up.
If Abigail had continued with what she knew to be right, not giving into his fake state of surrender, the likelihood is good that Jim would have chosen treatment. Instead, she panicked and gave in.
The addict will do anything but what the family knows he needs to do, which is a comprehensive, long-term program. Why? Because true rehabilitation is a hard road, and why go down a hard road when you can simply take a hit or a drink and forget all about it for one more day?