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Tough Love: The Ultimate Oxymoron

Kevin presenting at an African American Mental Health Conference

“Tough love” is a fallacious sentiment that can be seen in dance recitals, peewee league football games, and worst of all – families dealing with substance use disorder. When my dearly departed grandmother started showing signs of dementia, I didn’t think to myself, “I’m going to quit talking to her, that’ll show her.”

No, because when I was a child, she taught me that love doesn’t take score and is not easily offended.

Obviously, not all do this, but why do some people treat their family members and loved ones with such harsh tactics thinking it will make them straighten up? No one wishes to be hooked on drugs or get caught up in human trafficking, gangs, or criminal behavior. A very smart rehab counselor once said, “the person is loved and welcome, but the behavior has got to go!” From this point-blank assessment, anyone with a heart can see that behaviors are but a symptom. It is an outward sign of an inward malady.

The origins of substance use disorder are usually early childhood trauma. Traumatic events, that can easily be missed and misunderstood, are the things that happen to a person that totally overwhelms that person’s coping mechanisms. When we think of trauma, we tend to think of the most obvious and egregious events such as sexual assault, physical and verbal assault, and household dysfunctions. I’m not a clinician, but what about things that are sensory or are witnessed? What about church and religion? I think that telling a child over and over that God is going to get them can also be traumatic.

The most harmful of all trauma that gets repeated far too often is abandonment. This is where tough love really gets messy. I have seen families repeatedly abandon and neglect their children throughout their childhood years and then withhold love, support, and affection in the young adult years. Re-traumatizing the person over and over, thinking that they are helping. If they were dying of cancer would we still treat them this way? Substance use is no different in that it’s killing them from the inside, slowly and painfully.

When substance use disorder occurs, the last thing the afflicted person needs is for love and support to be withdrawn. This does not mean going in the opposite direction by enabling them. When a loved one is going through their disease and displaying symptoms, remember it is a sign that something is going on deep inside. Maybe trauma. If you claim to love them, don’t push them away!

People do not continuously put harmful toxins in their bodies because they like it, they do it to overcome an incredible craving that is the only medicine that can help them cope with the repeated trauma inflicted upon them. When a child is not really interested in dance, don’t push them. If an 8-year-old misses a tackle, don’t yell at him. These are the opportunities to show love and there’s nothing tough about it! Nothing in the world can make a person CHANGE if he or she isn’t ready, but healthy love and support can help a person realize that “I am sick and need help!”

Kevin Garrett
Oct 21st, 2019
About "Peer Voices" - We believe that true systems change can only come from being informed and led by peers. This space brings the voices of lived experience such as TJP's own Peer Policy Fellow Kevin Garrett and other peers who are passionate about systemic change in the justice and mental health system. In speaking their truth and telling their stories, they provide courage, hope and support to each and every one of us engaged in this difficult work.

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Diana Claitor
2 years ago

A powerful piece coming from experience and observation! It’s especially good that you point out how trauma can come from different experiences in life, not just the most extreme events.

Allissa Chambers
2 years ago

Thank you! My sentiments as well.
I’ve said for a lifetime that tough-“love” does not exist.
Love is love is love. There is nothing tough about it.
In my opinion tough-“love” is a misnomer for an inequity in power.
It is power exercised by those who have it over those who don’t.
It is a shield for those who have the privilege to hide their sense of inadequacy behind a popular (yet erroneous) notion of tough-“love” while utilizing someone else’s vulnerability (perceived inadequacy) as the decoy.

Diana Claitor
  Allissa Chambers
2 years ago

You say it so well! Thanks for responding to Kevin Garrett’s post.

Allissa Chambers
  Diana Claitor
1 year ago

I hope you and TJP Mission is well and thriving Diana. The work you’ve contributed — as well as Kevin Garrett’s, other Peer Policy Fellows, the various scholars from LBJ School of Affairs, affiliated advocates who share similar missions (like The Gray Panthers) and the Conscientious Public at large, is invaluable. We’ve still a long road to haul before Humanity expresses it’s Sincerest Humanity. But even amidst the darker days in history and present, the seed of it glows eternally within us, and these embers are thankfully tended to by people like you and so many others who sacrificed with Life, Dignity, and “Belonging” for the sake of a Greater Cause until Awakening manifests. Thank you and all the others for the blood, sweat, tears, passion and Love you’ve tendered for a project so essential.