Courageous Conversations

Well, if we had any doubts about how important, relevant, and appreciated discussing Austin and my experience with his opiate addiction and subsequent recovery would be… we don’t anymore. The response from last week’s Monday Morning Stretch was literally overwhelming. We received a record number of responses, Facebook posts, phone calls, and texts. Comments ran the gambit from praising our honesty, to encouraging our future efforts, to asking for our advice in fighting the battle within their own family. We’re so grateful to everyone who shared stories of friends, loved ones, and colleagues who have battled, or are currently battling, a similar beast. We grieved with those who shared their losses of loved ones who did not make it through. We are appreciative of the words of encouragement from so many to share our story with a larger audience and contribute what we can to the masses of people on the frontlines of this war.

As promised, this week’s Stretch focuses on one of the two pivotal moments that Austin describes as a turning point: a “courageous conversation.” I believe this conversation between Austin and myself is an example and model for the conversations that many of us need to have when boundaries have been blurred, behaviors are unacceptable and even dangerous, and our love needs to be tough on behalf of another as well as ourselves.

It happened after Austin had been using for quite some time, had been in and out of rehabs, and had relapsed repeatedly. He was living at home with me, a newly single mother. It was also after countless conversations which had escalated into angry and hateful words, accusations, heavy judgement, fits of hysterical crying, slamming doors and other assorted things, heavy doses of manipulation, and threats which were ultimately without teeth. I felt out of options and completely stuck. I knew something had to be different because what I had been doing was definitely not working, for him or me.

I decided to reach out for help. Mary, my coach, did what all great coaches do: She reminded me that the coaching was not for Austin but for me. It was me who held all the responsibility for what was happening in my home. She led me to my own answers with a line of perfect, if not challenging, questions: What did I truly want, for myself and for Austin? What did I deserve? What did Austin deserve? What boundaries were necessary for that to occur? What boundary would I be willing to stand behind fully, without compromise? What was I robbing Austin of if I did not allow him to find his own answers, his own strength, and his own way? What was I afraid of?

Looking back, that last question was the turning point for me. What was I so afraid of? It was easy to answer: If I stood my ground and pulled the trigger on the boundary of zero tolerance for Austin using drugs if he lived in my home, I was afraid that he would choose the drugs and truly leave. Ultimately, I was afraid that I would get a call in the middle of the night from the coroner saying that my child was dead of an overdose. I feared living the rest of my life with an unspeakable guilt and despair.

She listened and then asked, “What do you know for sure about his addiction while he’s been at home?” That was simple. He uses. Period. “And what do you know for certain about his addiction when he doesn’t live at home?” That was not so simple… mainly because I had always eventually let him come back home making it easy for him to use again and again. Classic co-dependent behavior.

The lightbulb suddenly went off. At home, he used. History had proven that without a doubt. The sobering truth was that the call I dreaded if I held my ground was actually the call that could come, and likely would come, at any time if he continued to live at home. What I didn’t know was what Austin would be willing to do if there was no safety net to support him… The beautiful home provided by hardworking parents with a refrigerator full of food, transportation, a cozy room of his own complete with a television, cell phone, and comfy queen-sized bed. I was, in fact, actually helping him toward that bitter end of which I was so afraid.

If I really loved Austin, I suddenly knew what I must do. Mary helped me to find my courage and to mold and practice a conversation which would express my boundary clearly and definitively without judgment… without anger… and without the likelihood of being triggered by an assortment of responses from Austin. It was also a conversation that would be filled with a mother’s undying love, great hopefulness, immense belief in him, and steadfast faith in his underlying desire, ability, and probability to choose a better way.

The time came and I was ready. It happened just as Mary warned it might. Initially, Austin reacted with anger and disrespect. Unlike his many attempts in the past, this time it didn’t work, which completely disarmed him. Next, he tried humiliation and blame… calling me out as a bad mother who never really loved him or supported him in the first place. When that didn’t work, he begged, he pleaded, he played on my sympathies. Finally, he circled back around to anger, packed his bags, found a ride, and left.

The weeks that followed were some of the longest of my entire life. The not knowing is frightening and caused an automatic second-guessing, regret, and intense worry. But Mary was there encouraging and supporting… helping the mother in me to hold tough, hold steady, and hold Austin up to the highest version of himself.

He eventually resurfaced, and it would be several more years of manipulating other family members until they drew a similar line, horrific withdrawals and getting clean, followed by predictable relapses until all his resources were finally exhausted. After almost six years, his recovery finally started in earnest when he found his own program, sought his own drug counselor, and created his own plan for recovery. Eventually, he landed a good job, made his own money, began to pay back his debts, and became responsible for his actions. It was then that he actually began to feel his own strength, confidence, and personal pride returning. He now began to see a future. He now had something to live for that was of his own making.

So, here’s what I learned and have used with success ever since:

  1. You can’t give true personal pride or real confidence to anyone. They must give that to themselves. You can’t rid them of their shame. They can only find that forgiveness themselves.
  2. Real courageous conversations are not about the other person as much as they are about us. I had to face my fear and find my own strength, boundaries, worthiness, and confidence.
  3. The best way to love someone is to give them the freedom to make their own mistakes, face the consequences, and uncover their own gifts and strengths. It’s also the hardest way to love them.
  4. Judgement is crippling. When Austin said he hated me, I said, “I know. And, I love you.” When Austin said, “You don’t understand.” Or “This is so unfair.” Or the countless other statements that he used to trigger an irrational response from me, I was able to hold a steady line of love, support, and unwavering belief and faith in him without judgement about him or his behavior.
  5. The words, “I believe in you and in your ability to eventually chose what is right and best for you” is a powerful statement.
  6. Connecting that statement of belief to the statement of what you need from someone with “and” instead of “but” is a simple but important word choice: “I love you, I believe in you, and you cannot live here anymore.”
  7. Anticipating and practicing how you will unemotionally answer a variety of responses is very helpful. I practiced, “I know and this is the way it has to be. I’ve made my decision.”
  8. Justifying pulls you into the need for agreement. It’s important not to justify what you know you need to do or have. There’s no need to give reasons or convince others of your point of view when you have decided something needs to change. We aren’t asking for permission or necessarily agreement. We are simply stating what we need and have decided must be done.

Austin will tell you that, while he did not get it right away, that courageous conversation was a turning point for him. What he doesn’t likely know is that it was also a turning point for me. My future conversations with many important people in my life including clients, family, and friends, will forever be better, more powerful, more successful, and far more courageous.

This week, who do you need to have a courageous conversation with? Doing it well could change their life for the better… and yours.

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