We thought jail would make him see he had to change but he’s gone right back to drugs again. What do we do?

My twenty-seven-year-old son became addicted to pain medication shortly after he was in a car accident at eighteen. He quickly moved on to heroin. He doesn’t ask me for money because he knows that I can’t help him financially, but he does call me often, and it’s very upsetting. He just spent a year in jail, and we were so hopeful that he would be able to turn things around. We thought jail would make him see he had to change, but he’s gone right back to drugs again. What do we do?

It is so difficult for families with loved ones who spend time in jail. We worry about their safety while they are there and fear for them when they leave. It’s so important that some sort of programming and access to Vivitrol (naltrexone), or the continuation of other medication-assisted recovery, be available upon release. We can hope that jail has changed something for the better, and that does happen sometimes. But in truth, if they have not received any help for the things that made them use drugs in the first place, it is very unlikely that sitting with those issues untreated for any length of time will make their substance use disorder fade away. They are still the same person who walked into jail. If there has not been any sort of programming or help with re-entry, we might add the trauma of incarceration and a criminal record to the list of issues that make it more difficult to remain sober. The criminal justice system is very broken.

Knowing all of this, try to remain within the “sphere of influence.” That is, be available to him should he begin to move into a stage of change in which he is contemplating getting help. I know it’s upsetting to know he has not made the gains you were hoping for, but he is still your son, and I know you care for him and love him. Find a time when he seems to be clear-headed and let him know the boundaries you have decided upon. For example, make it clear you won’t speak to him when he is clearly high, combative, or rude. The boundaries need to be your own, and I encourage you to write them down so you can remind yourself of what you both agreed on.

Boundaries are useless without consequences to which we adhere. If he crosses your boundary, have a prepared sentence or two that will signal the end of the conversation. For example: “I love you very much, but we both agreed we would end the conversation if you were rude, so I hope to talk to you tomorrow.” Try to get “I love you” in first. People often need to hear those words when they are acting the least lovable. Boundaries will enable you to let your son know he is loved but also protect you from his behavior while using drugs or alcohol. Maintaining them by lovingly following up on the consequences should begin to educate him on what you will not allow and also let him know you haven’t given up on him. 

Sending love,

Coach C.

Disclaimer: The above advice is not meant to be construed as medical or legal advice. If you need professional medical, psychological, or legal advice, please contact a doctor, lawyer, or medical center.

Maureen Cavanagh is a peer recovery coach and interventionist who works with families and loved ones supporting a person struggling with a substance use disorder on their own recovery. She is the founder of Magnolia New Beginnings and Magnolia Recovery and Consulting, and the author of If You Love Me: A Mother’s Journey Through Her Daughter’s Addiction and Recovery, published by Henry Holt/Macmillan. You can learn more about her at www.maureencavanagh.net

Each new edition of MomPower will feature questions from you, our mamas, along with my replies, to help educate and guide you toward the answer that works for your family. If you’d like your concern featured, please send a brief question to Maureen@MagnoliaCS.com with MomPower in the subject line. Reach out. You are not alone.

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