I’m not sure how many of you reading this are in ongoing recovery from a chemical dependency; that is, addiction to alcohol and/or drugs. But if you’ve had experience in both addiction and successful recovery—you know what it’s like to have been enslaved by addiction and you also know what it’s like to be freed from the obsession and compulsion to drink and/or use drugs—then you’ve very likely also come face-to-face with someone who has given you “tough love.”
First of all, let’s define some terms. What is tough love?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as: “love or affectionate concern expressed in a stern or unsentimental manner (as through discipline), especially to promote responsible behavior.”
In my book, it’s when a person—friend, family member, spouse (girlfriend or boyfriend), treatment center staff member, counselor, therapist, medical doctor, member of the clergy, 12 Steps sponsor, mentor, etc.—simultaneously “has your back” and tells you exactly what you need to hear at some pivotal point: the Truth about how “far off the beam” you’ve gotten and what the presumed consequences will likely be if you keep going in the direction you’re headed.
Given one of the core characteristics of people struggling with addiction is dishonesty (specifically denial, lying and deceit), it can seem to the chemically-dependent person like a slap in the face to be told in no uncertain terms, “You need to take a good look in the mirror… and if you don’t like what you see, you’ve got to make some changes!”
And often enough, it’s not just once that we who are addicted need tough love. In my case, I needed it over and over again until I was absolutely clear:
- I couldn’t recover on my own (I’d tried countless times);
- There was ample evidence I’d been living a self-centered life, focused on getting what I wanted (more alcohol and drugs with which to get inebriated) whenever I wanted it (immediately and often);
- I would do whatever it took—including breaking the law, risking incarceration, sabotaging relationships and hurting others—to get my next “fix;” and,
- I’d been giving only lip service to “love” and “caring about others,” since I’d long since put their well-being, desires and happiness way far behind me and mine.
The point being, it was only when a “tough love combo platter” came right up into my face—in addition to another jail sentence and another car wrecked, I had a top-notch lawyer telling me I was looking at some ‘serious time behind bars,’ plus my spouse at the time chose to kick me out of the relationship and house, telling me (tough love), “I can’t take it anymore, I’m done with you”—that I then reached out for help to recover from my addiction to alcohol and drugs.
I’ve shared with guys I’ve sponsored in 12 Steps fellowships and at recovery meetings I attend that I needed this particular blend of tough love to “get the message” loud and clear. Because it was at that point I recognized I had been lying to myself when claiming, “I can handle it.” Those who were sharing their tough love with me were holding a crystal-clear mirror to my face and showing me, on the contrary, I could not handle my obviously out-of-control life, and further, I could not recover on my own… I needed help.
However, once I surrendered to these statements of tough love, how I responded to what was going on inside of me and to the things in my life got better, slowly but surely. Sometimes I was scared and felt anxious about whether or not I’d “make it” (stay clean and sober) through challenging situations that arose. But by practicing what I was learning from those in my recovery network, my sponsor, counselors and mentors, I kept my commitments to myself and my recovery, and have enjoyed many years of a truly new way of life, fulfilling to both me and those whose lives I touch.
I think there’s a quote in the book Alcoholics Anonymous that says something like, we “laid hold of (these) principles with all the fervor with which the drowning seize life preservers.”
Tough love has brought many of us to see just how much richer our lives can be if we’re open-minded about taking suggestions from those with deep understanding about the nature of addiction and recovery… and if we’re sincere in our following through on those suggestions in action, applying them in our lives to the best of our ability, one day at a time.
 “Characteristics of Drug-Dependent People.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2004.