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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When substance use disorder occurs, the last thing the afflicted person needs is for love and support to be withdrawn.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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