CNM 033: How To Communicate with an Addict – with Carol Reeves

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If you’re in a situation where a child, spouse, significant other, or someone else in your life is using or addicted to substances, and you’ve been struggling with how to confront them and where to draw the line with them, you’ll want to listen to this guest.

Her name is Carol Reeves, and she’s the Executive Director and CEO of Greenville Family Partnership, an organization that helps youth, parents and communities have open, honest and ongoing conversations about drugs and alcohol. Carol has also served on the board of directors for the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, and she frequently works with organizations like Partnership for a Drug Free America, National Families in Action, the Center for Substance Abuse Communications Team, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. She’s also received several awards for all her efforts to keep communities safe, healthy, and drug free. And she’s personally dealt with an addicted son. So, she really knows her stuff.

And today, I’m going to be throwing some different scenarios in front of Carol, scenarios that many of you have asked me about, to see how she would handle them.

So, I hope you get something useful out of it. And here’s my interview with Carol…

Interview with Carol Reeves of Greenville Family Partnership

Brian: Carol welcome to the show today we’re so glad to have you.

Carol: And I am so glad to be here. It’s been a while since we talked about it and I’m glad it’s finally coming to fruition.

Brian: Me too. Well I want to jump right in with our first question here. And I just want to tee it up by saying there’s a strong percentage of our listeners that are trying to overcome the urge to fix or rescue someone in their life, and oftentimes that person is addicted. I totally “get it”. We have one in my family right now. It’s devastating and heartbreaking, and you feel totally helpless if they’re addicted to drugs or even relationships. My family has been there once already and were going through it again right now.

I know that your organization is big on prevention of addiction which is fabulous, but a lot of our audience is already in the thick of it. So, I wanted to focus on how we can behave in this situation once we have an addict in the family. I want to throw some different scenarios at you and start at the very beginning.

Question: Let’s say, for example, that you’re a parent and you started noticing that something’s up with your child and you catch them using a substance. What would be the first things that someone should do if they’re concerned that their child or a family member has a drug problem?

Carol: I’m going to interpret that as though the person is a teenager or preteen. We get those calls a lot. Parents are usually panicked at first (for example, if they just found a bad of marijuana in their son’s drawer), and we try very hard to put them more at ease.

I always try and encourage them to first, breathe. Do not react immediately. Do not remove it immediately. Once you’ve calmed down, you should think about a couple of things. One is, are you and your husband (or wife) on the same page? Can you communicate and then think about what their reaction might be? Then, call and get help or get smart.

You can go online because there’s so much information. I do caution people that it’s not all good information. So, they need to really clarify their information, reach out and find someone they trust, or they can always call us. There’s many organizations you can get advice from. You do need to get as smart as you can and develop a plan so there’s a process.

You don’t stand at the front door with the bag of pot and the child shows up and the war begins. Because not only is that not a good thing to do, but it starts everything on the wrong foot completely. It lays the groundwork for “going to war”. Get smart about it, get as much information as you can.

It’s extremely important that when they start asking questions about it that whoever is working with you knows about it. You can’t stay alone in this; you can’t hide. In other words, you can’t protect the behavior from the rest of the family. You’re just fooling yourself, and again that’s another mistake. So get smart and then talk about how you want to talk to it. What do you expect? What’s your opinion?

I always go back to saying, ‘You want to have a conversation. You don’t want to have a shouting match.’ You don’t have any idea at that point how long they’ve been using it or if maybe they’re just selling it. Maybe it’s the first time. You have zero information. So, you need to have a conversation, not a blame game yet.

Blame will come in, and you have to face that too. It’s best to get someone that can help you practice or coach you through. You’re going to feel this; they’re going to say that. You can call GFP and ask questions; that’s completely free. There’s plenty of meetings that we can refer you to where you can get smart as a family member. But don’t think back to when you smoked. That was a different time and it was a different pot.

And it doesn’t have to be pot; it could be pills or anything else. I had a 14-year-old in a family, and the little brother found a bag of pills. It’s the same procedure. What are we going to do to fix this? Ninety percent of the process depends on what you do and what you have done. Did they know you feel this way? Do they think you don’t really care? They think that if you’re not in their life; if you don’t already have a relationship or you do talk about things. That’s difficult at those teenage years. It’s a kind of minefield all into itself. Then you add drugs into the mix, or alcohol, smoking, vaping or anything; you’re just adding to the mix of stress.

Question: Let’s take that first conversation when you approach them. Like you said, get smart about it, make sure you’re on the same page with your spouse if you have one when you sit down for the conversation. What’s the general structure? What should you absolutely do and not do?

Carol: When you sit down you should have thought through how clear you are, what your expectations are, and have you ever expressed your expectations to that person whatever their age is? Nine times out of ten – no, you haven’t. So you start by saying…

“You know, we need to have this conversation. And I really truly want to have an interaction and conversation with you. What I have failed to do as a mom is make it clear to you what my expectations were about some behavior. And the behavior I’m talking about is the changes I’ve seen in you, or when I was putting your underwear in your drawer the other day, what I found in your drawer.”

And usually the biggest reaction is, “You didn’t take that did you?!” That’s a typical reaction.

“No I didn’t take it, yet. But we’re going to talk about that because I think I have failed to make it clear to you how I feel about that and the expectations of this family and who you are to this family. And we need to talk about the consequences of where you are in this. Has something happened to you that this is that this is something you think you need? Has something happened to you in your relationship with your friends?”

I want to make one point. Notice I’m not saying ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I’m saying ‘What’s happened to you? What’s changed? We didn’t raise you up this way. I didn’t necessarily feel you would be one that would get involved in it. So, what’s happened?

You hear that a lot differently than if I said, “What in the world is wrong with you?”

These are open statements and questions. Are you being bullied? Do you have a bad relationship? Are you very upset because your dad and I are separating? What has happened? Don’t preconceive or put it in their mind what has happened. Then let them know that you’re willing to see how something’s changed in their life.

I think that’s very important at any age. This could be a spouse, a wife, or a sister or brother. We had this relationship. We built this relationship. What’s happened. You always said you wouldn’t do drugs or you thought somebody was crazy for doing that. What’s happened to make this different? That’s much more inviting to have a conversation. Plus it’s a more true statement because something did happen. Maybe it’s just peer influence, but something did happen. So, I really try and get a parent, whether they’re in front of me or on the phone, to understand that because you need to hold onto that thought through the whole process.

It is a process unless you are fortunate enough to catch them very early, unless they understood and you can work with them on developing boundaries and expectations. Are they going to break rules? Yes. Are they going to slip up maybe and do it again, or go to that kind of party again, or whatever the problem might be? Yes, they are human. But you’re building a foundation for a better conversation and a more open communication between you. and you should eventually talk about it as a family. You’re making things clear that you didn’t before. You’re taking some of that responsibility, and that leads away from codependency because you need to work on yourself. You’re going to change things and you’ll realize that’s hard.

That gives you a little more empathy to realize it might be very hard for them to leave that school, those friends, that group that they’re running with. That’s a big change. You’re expecting a big change. But the biggest change comes in you.

Question: Here’s my next question. Naturally, we love our family members and we want what’s best for them, but often our “help” is in vain. It’s not wanted and it’s not appreciated, and often we even we regret doing it. How do you recommend dealing with the urge to rescue the person once they’re in deep with the substance? Or should you?

No, you can’t rescue them. There are times when there’s a very dangerous situation or something where you use the word ‘rescue’. You’re intervening in something. You can interpret that as a rescue but I’m going to use the term I hear it all the time, and that is I’m going to keep them from doing it. You cannot keep them from doing it. You cannot make that change. They have to make that change. They have to feel it. They have to go through the process. You can coach and support. You can’t do this alone if you have no experience with it. Even if you’re in recovery yourself (which happens a lot) you can’t portray or relate that correctly to a spouse or someone that’s really close to you without getting some advice from somebody and stepping back again.

I know that sounds repetitive but it’s true. Don’t get in a war. Step back and have a plan of what you think you can offer or do.

I did this as a mother. I found out about the party. I knew he’d be drinking there. I knew there were no chaperones there. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll fix this. I’ll go pick him up, go in that party and bust it.’ So I did. I did it once. And did I feel like I saved the day? I sure did. I took him home, lectured him and said, “I’m not going to permit it. I’ll find out where you are.”

Did that change anything?

Absolutely not.

Did it cause a war?


I had a lot of other people to deal with and a lot more than I hadn’t planned for, that I hadn’t thought about it. Plus, it so quickly backfires and gets into anger, and then you have a whole other thing to deal with, and you don’t want to set up a pattern of them thinking that they will be saved. Nothing is really solved by that and I don’t recommend it if you think they’re going to a drug house that night to shoot up.

If you’re a desperate mother or a spouse that really just feels like they might die, do I think at that point it is a little bit of a different conversation? It is, but I would still have a conversation with someone to at least talk it through with them and get a little bit of advice.

You may need to think through things like, ‘Should I call the police? Should I have him busted? Should I have him taken in? Is it time to get him committed?’ There are all kinds of consequences for that strategy also.

It’s really terrible for a family when that’s what they have been doing. They don’t typically use the word ‘rescue’, but they cover up what’s happened. They’ll lock them in the room that night. They’re setting up a pattern for themselves think, ‘I’ll save him. I’ll keep this quiet,’ when, in reality you should be shouting from the rooftops and getting as much help as you can. That is codependency, and you have to do so much work on yourself for a longer period of time.

When I talk to someone and then realize that they’re rescuing (even though I don’t use that word), I ask them, ‘What have you accomplished? Do you think they’ll do it again?’

They say, “I know he’s going to do it again next weekend.”

And I say, “Then let’s try something different. Let’s try something entirely different.”

Brian: So let’s shift a little bit and open it up to spouses or other family members, and full grown adults even. From my personal experience, the pattern tends to be that that you tend to get burned over and over again. When you try to help, almost inevitably the addict will abuse your help after a while.

We’ve had them steal from us. We’ve had them pawn things. So, a lot of times you regret doing that. And eventually we learned that as long as they’re actively using something (a substance) that we really can’t trust them.


Question: How do you set boundaries with a person that is irrational and even manipulative?

Carol: The first thing they learn is manipulation, and they’re so good at it. I spend a lot of time talking to spouses about the fact that you can’t assume that you’re going to recognize and catch everything, but you do learn from experience pretty quickly.

From the beginning when you decide you can’t tolerate this anymore, something’s got to be different – they are stealing from you, you’re hiding your possessions, or even driving around to the pawn shops and getting them back so they can take them again because you thought, ‘Well they’re just in a cycle here.’ What’s the difference between that and just handing them money if you’re going to do something like that? You really have bought into their way of life rather than finding a way to make your own decisions on how you’re going to cope.

I never give up. I never want to give up on a person. And I believe that no matter how bad they are, how bad off they are with the addiction, that maybe that next day there will be something that offers them a change in their lifestyle. Maybe the next day they find God. Maybe something will happen.

So I always encourage the family, ‘Don’t predict that it can never change because it can. They can.’ But you have to have your own plan and your own life. You have to be the best person you can be or you can’t support them in the best way.

If you’re not clear-headed, if you’re caught up in this toxic cycle of codependency, every day depends on what they’re going to do, how you’re going to act, and how you’re going to get through your day. You are as bad as the addict.

I hate to say that and I don’t mean you’re breaking the law or doing anything like that, but you are in as bad of mental shape and dysfunctional as the addict themselves, and they’re just manipulating the scene, and it’s facilitating their behavior. So again, you have to go back to working on yourself – what you will and won’t tolerate. If someone has a full blown addiction with the stealing and the fear, then they’ve got a mental health issue. In that case, you definitely have to decide whether you can be strong enough and work on yourself or get help for yourself, You need to realize, ‘No, they’re not coming into the home. We have children. They don’t need to be seeing that, hearing that or being in danger.’ There are so many dangers you aren’t thinking about because you’re wrapped up in codependency.

You have to get out of that and decide. Again it’s working on yourself, but you can still be supportive. You can still say, “If you get help and get in a program please let me know.” And you can make the agreement that, “You only come here when you’re sober, when you’re clear-headed and functioning, and then we’ll discuss what we can do as a family, when you can see the children or what we will do, but not when you’re actively using.”

I would also make the rule that they cannot bring drugs into this house, and let them know that you will check. However, don’t set these rules when you’re screaming and shouting, do it when they’re very clear headed and sober.

Question: Let’s take a scenario. The addict shows up at your door and its cold outside; its winter and they’re cold and hungry. You know they’re not staying anywhere right now; they’re out on the street and they’re using. To them, your love and support doesn’t feel unconditional, it feels conditional. And you feel like it’s possible they might not survive the night. What do you do in that situation?

Carol: Well, that’s very difficult. It’s a very hard question. Every case is different. There’s not one blanket answer. If you’re in that position and you have some experience, and if you think you clearly know their pattern of what they do or where they stay, it could help you make the decision. If I had small children or a baby in the house I might be a little more cautious, but I would make sure they had food and the ability to get in a shelter for the night.

If I were educated about drugs, and I knew exactly what they were on, I might take them in and say they could sleep at my house. I make it a point to be educated on the effects of the drugs. Can they get violent? How is your home set up?

Your scenario was that the addict is in bad shape. For an adult son or daughter you have had unconditional love. For a spouse, they’re there just like anything else; there are times when you don’t even love them anymore. You may just not care anymore. It sets up a different scenario if you still have hopes that marriage will be changed or survive even with his addiction. In that case I would do what needs to be done to meet the needs. Would I let them put the blame on me and manipulate? No. If you truly need food or shelter, or a ride to a shelter I would arrange that. I would do it in a very matter of fact way because I care about you and I hope you call a friend or get some help.

I’m a mother of an addict. And you get to a point where, if you’re not codependent, you truly understand and feel your own feelings but you recognize theirs. That’s when you can handle everything better. That takes work. It takes you as a mother or a spouse going to meetings and getting education.

Brian: I know that was a tough one. Thank you.

Question: How can you show love and care to that person without enabling the behavior?

Carol: That depends. It’s not one conversation or one time seeing them. Doing this means you learning and being responsible for your life and what you can do, and then accepting who they are and that only they can change their life. It’s futile to lecture. It’s not futile for you to say, “I still have hope that you will get some help,” or “I know you still have the counselor’s number.” Whatever has transpired, make a natural statement about that; you still have hope that they will do something different, but you will not have any part in facilitating the drug behavior.

You’ll make a phone call for them. They have a coach or a sponsor. Call a cab. Pay the cab driver to take them to a certain shelter, rehab house or sober house. Those are the things you will do, and do it lovingly. They may say terrible things, but that’s their brain. That’s how they’ve learned to manipulate and survive. But you have to be confident in yourself. Does it still hurt? Yes.

I put my son out in the middle of the night on Christmas one year and said, “No, you cannot stay here. We’re not giving you the money, so if you’re going to go to Miami, best of luck.”

My husband literally just collapsed on the floor with fear that we’d never see him again. He said, “I don’t know how you can do that.”

And I said, “I have faith and I know his habits well enough. I’m confident he’s not going anywhere. We’ll get a phone call from him about what he needs.” And we did. And I was fairly confident, not that there were tears rolling down my eyes. My husband was on the floor crying. And he (my son) knew at that time that I was dead serious. He wasn’t going to get the money, and I would not accept that’s what he wanted to do. If he wanted to use with the crowd in Miami, then he wasn’t going to get anything from us. He had made a choice.

Question: This is along the same lines or we may be overlapping, but should you completely cut off your home and your resources from the addict?

Carol: You do have to get to cut off your facilitating the behavior. But that’s not saying that you cannot help. There’s a difference. If they are willing to go into treatment, at their wits end, can’t live this way anymore, on the street, don’t have any money but need to go to detox – absolutely, if I had the resources I would do that.

Now, I would not give them a checkbook or a credit card. I would make arrangements to pay the facility and keep the cash out of their hands. I would meet them somewhere, get them a good hot meal and talk depending on the circumstances. If they needed medical help or something I certainly would pay for that. I’ve done that; picked him up in the ER but only paid for things that were going to help him make a better decision or medically help them.

Question: What if your spouse is an addict and you’re trying to salvage that relationship for the sake of keeping the family together? What are the big takeaways for navigating that type of situation again?

Every instance is different. There’s no one pat answer except one pat statement – you’ve got to think of the children and their ages, keeping in mind there is a safety issue here. You got to know what their drugs of choice are, and where they are in their addiction. You can still have hope that they will have a lot of sober years ahead of them, and you want them to have a relationship with their children. That’s a perfect time when they are sober and they’ve been through something is to sit down and have that conversation about what kind of relationship you can have…

“I love you. I want you home. You’re the father of my children. Your children need you.”

They (your children) know that what’s going on is bad, but you don’t know the perception they’re getting from living in this chaos. And you shouldn’t make an assumption. Get those kids some help. They need to go to meetings and know this is not their fault. Because whether you want to deal with it or not, they can have the gene of addiction in them, and there are so many issues to think about there. I know many that that deal with that, where they’ll go three or four years sober and then they’ll have an issue. If you can get to that point, it’s a blessing because the relapses usually get further and further apart if they’re on the right track and have that family support. I know so many people in recovery that are living wonderful lives that work on their recovery every day.

Question: What is your biggest piece of advice for a codependent person?

Carol: For your own sake, get with a group, go to some meetings, get some help and realize that you can live with this much better when you recognize that you are codependent because you have to fight that every day just like an addiction.

Question: And are there any final thoughts that you have before we wrap up this conversation?

Carol: Living in denial and shame is one of the most debilitating and hurtful things to a person. You have enough to go through if you’re dealing with someone who has an addiction. It is an illness. It is recurring. There’s so much help now. Recovery is very possible but recovery has to take place for you and them. Go for that. Go for it. Just keep asking until you find the right connection for you to build a relationship and get the tools you need to deal with your codependency. Then you will deal with your addict much better.

Brian: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. We really appreciate all the information.

Carol: Thank you for having me. There’s so many resources out there. I hope people reach out.

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1 Comment
  1. Thank you Carol! As a spouse in this situation I found this very encouraging and reinforcing that I’m setting myself up on a better track. It’s been THE most difficult thing I’ve had to do to confront addiction and call it what it is. My husband is responding some and we are making some forward progress but not without some fear and major boundary setting on my part. Thanks again!!!