letting each other go

Archive for May, 2008

It’s been a long couple of months

Posted by Leo G on May 10, 2008

There is no question anymore. My son is an addict. No gentle abuser of marijuana and alcohol–no, addicted to crack cocaine. Lying, stealing, violent, criminal behavior have all happened. There is no denial available to any of us any more.

To his credit, he came and asked for help. The years of loving, respectful relationship paid off in that way. Down deep, he still knew he could come home. Even after he stole our stuff. Even after he gave me a black eye. Even after he ripped up the house, breaking things and stabbing our bed and the couch. Even after he got caught shoplifting three times in eight days. Thank God he still knew he could come home.

It’s been hard. How else could it be? And yet, there is still hope.

He’s seventeen now. One year before all of this becomes felonies and prisons. One year before the consequences are even more life-altering…life-destroying. One year to clean up messes, rebuild relationships, and find him help so that he can continue to grow up.

It all hit the fan in March. At its worst, I knew there was no longer anything I could do. He was beyond my expertise. The problem is, all the treatment centers were full. All but one. The one with the worst reputation and a propensity for talking about “tough love.” I hated to do it, but I signed him in.

It was a “scared straight” experience for him and for me too. As soon as the papers were signed, everything changed. The “four to six week” course of treatment became six months. The “three days” until you get your clothes back became “six weeks.” The “educational opportunities” became “We don’t have classes that advanced so you’ll have to settle for what we have.” I kid you not. They gave him three hours of testing and educational evaluation. He missed *one* question. They looked at him and said, “We don’t have the classes you need.”

Because I have the advantage of being college-educated and in a career that gives me insight into the mental health profession, I began to investigate. Of the five people on his treatment team, one was unlicensed. One had the minimum license possible in our state, requiring only a bachelor’s degree in social work. One was properly licensed but would never see him face to face because her job was simply to supervise his therapist. And two–the nursing director and the clinical director–had only recently had their licenses reinstated after serving suspensions for misconduct.

I took him out of there four days later, “against medical advice.” Our insurance may well not pay for those days, and I’ll be damned if I will. They totally misrepresented their program. They were not at all about recovery, they were a prison/warehouse for unwanted kids.

To his credit, while he was in the facility, he tried to help. He told the kids to cool down, to go with the flow, to try to endure so they could get out of there. They told him it was impossible. Most of them had been there for months, some for years. Many were from other states where there was no lockdown facility available, and had never had a visit or family therapy. They knew they wouldn’t get out until they were eighteen and it was illegal to keep them against their will.

If he knows anything now, he knows that I love him and will never give up on him. Even if that’s true of no one else, including my partner. My marriage was already broken, but this has shown us both how deep that brokenness goes. We’re separating, and my son will stay with me. My daughter will go with my partner, where we hope she will be less affected if her brother relapses.

Today I stumbled upon something that helped a lot. It’s an article from the January 2007 issue of The Sun magazine. Odd that I had never read it, since I usually devour The Sun as soon as it arrives. But somehow this copy had gotten misplaced and had only now appeared on my shelf. And what was the lead article? “The Myth of Tough Love” an interview with Maia Szalavitz on the epidemic abuses in the teen-help industry.”

The whole thing isn’t available online, but parts of it were so amazingly important for me to read today:

Polonsky: What is a “tough-love” treatment program?

Szalavitz: It’s any program that operates on the premise that teens in trouble need to be broken down and rebuilt. The idea is that suffering is good for the soul; therefore, we will inflict suffering on them to “help” them. Sometimes people ask me, “Well, there are teen boot camps, emotional-growth centers, wilderness schools, behavior-modification programs — aren’t they each a little different?” On the surface they are, but what they all boil down to is “Let’s be mean to teens in the woods,” or “Let’s be mean to them military style,” or “Let’s be mean hippie style.”

There are some wilderness programs that claim to take a loving approach, but with so little regulation, it’s impossible for parents to know what they’re going to get. The people selling the program tell consumers what they want to hear. The parents of Aaron Bacon, a teen who died in one of these programs, had been told that North Star Expeditions used kind, gentle methods. Then their son came home in a coffin after being starved and denied medical care.


I would say the vast majority of parents who send their children to these programs are devoted mothers and fathers who would honestly prefer to have their child at home. Most would likely have chosen family therapy were it more widely available and had they known that research supported it over these programs. A large percentage of these parents are in the middle of a divorce. Their children are acting out, unhappy, and vulnerable. That’s why family therapy makes the most sense. But the parents don’t want to think the divorce is what’s causing their son or daughter to rebel or take drugs.

Many parents are simply fooled. Unless you’ve been told otherwise, you’d think these programs are run by experts who have some knowledge you don’t. Aaron Bacon’s parents are smart, well-intentioned, and kind. They were in no way negligent; they asked all the right questions, consulted all the right authorities. But they were lied to. It could happen to anybody.

and most importantly:

Polansky: How did you manage to overcome your own addictions?

Szalavitz: It wasn’t easy. I avoided treatment for a long time because I’d heard about all these places where they try to break you down. I thought, “I’m using drugs because I’m already broken. I don’t need to be broken anymore. I need to be fixed.”

Frankly, I think tough love makes the world more dangerous for everyone. You cannot teach teens to be citizens in a free society through authoritarian programs. in a climate of absolute obedience, where any creative thought is punished, children learn to be selfish and callous and to wield power arbitrarily. “Tough love” is an oxymoron. I believe love is love.

There are times when you have to say no to a child and enforce rules, which can be difficult and emotionally draining, but there is never any time when you should deliberately inflict pain in the name of helping somebody. It’s hard enough to be a human being without someone adding extra pain.

I don’t know how I’ll do it. But I will love this child–really love him–while we look together for ways for him to heal. For us to heal.

He matters too much to do any less. So does every single “troubled teen” out there. Next time you see one, remember that he might be my son.


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