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Rethinking Rock Bottom Ep. 1: Focusing on Self Awareness

May 30, 2024
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Rethinking Rock Bottom is CMC:FFC’s new 6-part podcast series. The episodes explore the complicated, and often life-altering, experience of loving someone struggling with substance use. Find other episodes at our podcast page  

Episode 1 features Julie Merberg, a NYC-based mom who reflects on learning about her son’s anxiety, shame, and pain and how they were hidden motivators of his substance use. This in turn opened the door for her to find more ways to support and help him reduce his substance use. She discusses remaining connected and reimagining what a healthy life looks like for her son–with thoughtful ITC insight from Jan and Carrie.

Listen to Episode 1 and follow along with the transcript below! 

                                Episode Transcript

Julie: Looking back on it, I wish someone had said to me, you are at the beginning of a really long journey. Do not expect to get your kid out of six weeks of rehab and have everything tied up with a ribbon.

Voiceover: This is Rethinking Rock Bottom, a podcast that explores a complicated experience of loving someone struggling with substance use, hosted by Reverend Jan Brown and Dr. Carrie Wilkens.

Jan: When Julie’s first son reached adolescence, he gave her a run for her money. He cut a lot of classes. He failed math twice. It wasn’t easy. At times Julie didn’t think she’d get through it, but then along came her second son, Jake, the supposed easy kid out of her four boys. That was a whole different ballgame.

Carrie: When substances entered the picture with Jake, things went downhill fast. But what surprised Julie the most was that he was struggling at all. It didn’t seem to make any sense.

Jan: Underneath the surface, of course, these behaviors did make sense, at least to Jake. But for Julie to understand what was really going on, she would have to undergo her own transformation alongside her son.

Carrie: Recently we sat down with Julie and talked with her about that easy kid and the long, difficult journey of Jake’s recovery.

Julie: He just had everything going for him. And he still does. It’s just harder. I have four sons. He was my easy kid and also everything just came really easily to him. He could walk into a room, starting in preschool, and he was always the most popular kid in the room.

I had a waiting list for play dates for him. His teachers loved him. These teacher conferences were like a dream. I would go in and hear about what a great kid he was and such a leader. Things changed towards the very, very end of middle school. Jake started smoking weed probably like most kids at the end of middle school. There wasn’t what I would call a drug problem.

There was one — looking back at it now, kind of innocent. I am pretty sure my oldest son procured it for him, felt that it was sort of a rite of passage for New York City kids and didn’t want him buying from the wrong person and probably gave him like a joints worth of weed. And he invited his four best friends over and they shared it.

Carrie: And smelled up the whole house.

Julie: The entire apartment, yeah, the elevator, and the lobby. And I caught him and said, “Hey, I don’t think you should be smoking.” And I called all the moms of the kids who were in the house and nobody was too alarmed. And I didn’t really worry, I didn’t have cause to worry.

Jan: Jake was recruited to a competitive high school and played on the basketball team. Although Julie noticed his cannabis smoking increasing throughout ninth grade, he was still getting straight A’s and on the surface everything still seemed fine.

Julie: There had been a couple of incidents. There was a fight that had happened in the school yard after school, that he was involved in. He was getting into mischief, let’s just say. And in ninth grade I definitely noticed that he was smoking weed more often and more heavily as the year progressed. Because we had noticed that he was smoking so much, my husband and I cut off his allowance. And being the sharp, entrepreneurial drug seeking kid that he was, he figured out how to deal.

He found a wholesaler, he bought large quantities, started divvying it up amongst his friends and then spreading the word around. At that point, he started transforming into this person that I didn’t recognize. Scarier than piles of crumpled dollar bills and this permanent smell of weed, permeating his clothing, was really the fact that I felt like I had no idea who he was anymore.

He had so much anger. He became disrespectful. He started punching holes in walls. He would sneak out at night. He had no respect for curfew or any kind of sort of normal household rules. Like we were the kind of house where you come home, you do your homework, you have dinner. All of that went out the window.

Jan: In the chaos of this as their new normal, it was hard to see how Jake’s behaviors could make sense or even what to do next. But Julie knew they needed help. And with Jake on board, they started with therapy.

Julie: He started seeing a therapist. And the therapist, ingratiated himself at their first appointment by telling him if anyone can relate to a smart kid who likes to smoke weed, it’s me.

He didn’t think the weed was a problem. My husband and I both felt like this is more than teenage acting out. Like something is going on here and it’s something unrecognizable. And the therapist really focused on deescalating the tension and the anger and the hostility. And dismissed our concerns about the smoking.

It’s hard when you go to someone who’s an expert in his field and they’re telling you, “no, no, no, no. You’re looking at the wrong place. This is about your relationship and we’re gonna work on the relationship and you have to just choose your battles and let him stay out a little bit later.” I look back and that was a very wasted six months being led down the wrong path.

Carrie: And you didn’t know about the Xanax at that point? It you just thought at this point it was cannabis, pot?

Julie: I didn’t know exactly what he was using. I knew that his behavior had changed dramatically and I knew that there were times when he came home and looked not just high, but completely out of it and couldn’t move his mouth properly.

Carrie: And can I just ask how you and his dad were dealing just with the aggression and the punching the holes in the wall and these things that were so different and I assume pretty scary? How were you guys doing as a couple and how were you trying to deal with that with Jake?

Julie: We were very much on the same page and really both completely lost.

We had no idea what was going on. We didn’t know what to do, and I look back on it in shame. But at the time with what we knew and the tools we had, we turned to discipline. Which was exactly the wrong thing to do, because the stricter we became with rules and the more judgmental and critical and the more we tried to reign him in, the more he rebelled and really the angrier he became.

Carrie: Julie and her husband responded to Jake’s drug use with increased discipline and also found they were becoming more judgmental and critical of him. Therapy wasn’t helping either, and at this point it seemed like nothing was working, but still they kept exploring different treatment options for Jake, hoping to find a fit.

Julie: So we eventually moved him from this therapist to start working with a drug counselor, because we felt we really wanted to target that issue. But there was a very brief stint while he was still in therapy that we tried to do outpatient rehab as well. And for a teenager in New York City in high school for us, it was useless.

He was kicked out in two days. And he continued with a drug counselor who, after maybe six weeks said to us, “he’s gotta do inpatient. You have to get him out of the city.” And we knew that was the right thing to do, and Jake, to his credit, went willingly. I look back at that time and I remember looking at him and thinking that he looked like a scared caged animal, and his body and brain were the cage.

He was so lost. He was 16 and he said, “I can’t do this by myself and I can’t do it here. I wanna go to rehab.” And we wound up pulling him out of school in June, so right before the end of the school year. And the school was really supportive and just kind of froze his grades where they were.

Jan: Jake went to residential treatment or rehab, which Julie described as professional, compassionate care.

It was exciting. Jake seemed really committed. He was walking the walk and he finally opened up about the root of his issues and the extent of his drug use.

Julie: He did tell us about how he came to start taking Xanax, and he said that he had been experiencing anxiety, had told me that he had anxiety. He did not read to anybody, not to my husband or to me, not to his teachers, not to his doctor, not to his therapist, as somebody that had anxiety.

He read as someone who was socially adapted, calm and cool and easygoing, but we all missed it. He actually had anxiety and he found his way to Xanax, also through Google. He Googled, what do you take for anxiety?

And saw that you take Xanax. And being the clever, resourceful person that he was figured out how to buy a Xanax. And being that he bought it from his weed dealer, the Xanax was most likely laced with Fentanyl, and that’s what I was seeing in him. I think that coming out of that first rehab, he really committed to not using Xanax again.

Carrie: Julie and her family were so thrilled to have Jake back, that they didn’t think much about what would happen when inpatient treatment ended.

Julie: We had no aftercare plan. They seemed to think that it was fine for him to come home. And I didn’t question that. We didn’t know any better. Looking back on it, I wish someone had said to me, you are at the beginning of a really long journey.

Do not expect to get your kid out of six weeks of rehab and have everything tied up with a ribbon. And I have subsequently told friends who sent their kids and were going to pick them up, I’ve said to them your kid’s gonna relapse like within two days of being home. Just know that and know that this is normal recovery.

I had nobody to tell me that, so I really thought we can do this. I’m gonna put together a group. I’m gonna get him a therapist, he’s gonna go to meetings. Everything’s gonna be fine. But everything was not fine.

Jan: Many families are unprepared for life after rehab. They underestimate how much ongoing learning needs to take place in order for lasting change to take hold. As Julie now tells friends, returns to old behaviors are to be expected. Change takes time and setbacks are bound to happen even while progress is being made.

Sometimes setbacks can even happen in treatment. In Julie’s case, she remembers how just as Jake was beginning to open up, at the end of inpatient rehab, they ended up talking to him in a way that shut him down completely.

Julie: The one thing I will say that was problematic about that treatment was at the very end when we went for our family week- we weren’t told in advance, we were told the day before, oh, you’re gonna come in and a therapist is going to moderate a session between you and Jake and jake is gonna tell you about his timeline of drug use, and you are going to give an impact statement. You’re gonna tell him how it impacted your family. We were so battered at that point. Our lives had been so scary and stressful and chaotic. And other kids were so traumatized. And we let him know all of that. And we watched him shut down in what amounted to really a shaming session. And I look back at that once I was educated in the Invitation To Change approach and knowing what I know now, that was like the worst possible thing we could have done. And I think we just undid six weeks of really good work.

I subsequently apologized to him. Once I realized that, I talked about how awful that was, and how ashamed I was that we put him through that. Because, of course we love him unconditionally and we don’t need to forgive him. He doesn’t need to apologize to us. And we don’t need to make him feel worse than he already must feel.

But we did. And I still to this day feel horrible about that.

Carrie: Was he able to describe the impact it had on him at the time? It sounds like you saw him shift.

Julie: He didn’t articulate it. He never articulated any of that, but we could see it in his body language. He just looked down and shut down and my husband said “that– that’s it. We shut him down, we shamed him.” He realized what was happening faster. I thought it was- he was just being oppositional and didn’t wanna hear from us, but it was really shame.

Carrie: There is a traditional belief in some recovery communities that you have to confront a person’s behavior in order to make it clear to them why they have to change.

Unfortunately, what Julie witnessed in her son was likely the activation of shame, which is so painful and causes people to shut down or pull away. To Julie and her husband’s credit, they realized their error quickly, but they ended up feeling ashamed themselves. The fact that this happened at the suggestion of a treatment professional led Julie to take her education into her own hands.

Julie: I just started educating myself. I knew that what we had done wasn’t working, and I am one of these people who’s like a ferocious researcher. So I got my hands on every book I possibly could, and thankfully in that pile was Beyond Addiction. I started listening to podcasts. I started going to meetings. I actually put together a group of moms I knew in my own community whose kids were also struggling.

So I created community and talked openly about what was going on. But it was really- it was the work with CMC that changed my, I guess, my awareness is what we call it in the wheel. And my understanding of what was going on, that he wasn’t trying to punish me or torture me, that my kid was really suffering.

Jan: Thankfully, there are more and more Invitation To Change groups across the country and internationally. These groups offer supports to parents like Julie. If you need help, you can find resources in the show notes or at Back to Jake.

Given his previous experience in traditional rehab and therapy, Julie and her family, were now ready to consider alternative solutions, especially since Jake’s life was becoming increasingly chaotic outside of residential treatment.

Julie: We realized he– he couldn’t be in the city, that it was just too dangerous. He’d stepped up the dealing and the dangerous behavior. And he got his nose broken. I was called by the cops one night, because he’d gotten in a street fight that turned out to be about some drug deal gone wrong. He was abusing and he agreed.

Once again, I give him so much credit for knowing when it was time to step out and he said,” I can’t be my best here. I can only be my best when I’m in rehab and everyone else is really trying too.” We were just so happy that he agreed to go.

Jan: Julie told us about a wonderful program in Israel on a kibbutz, where Jake spent the next five months. Since he had always wanted to go there, it was an easy sell. And in that environment, he untangled the anxiety and the defiance that he often showed to his parents.

Julie: He self-medicated. He found something that made him feel good, and then we all turned around and said,” you’re a terrible person for using drugs. You are so bad.” And so in his mind, the way that he connected the dots was we didn’t want him to feel good, we didn’t want him to be happy.

Carrie: This was a major breakthrough because Julie was beginning to see how Jake’s behavior actually made sense. Something she couldn’t have fathomed at the beginning of her journey.

People don’t use substances just because they wanna get high, or simply because they are a selfish or bad person. They start and continue using because these substances work for them in some way, however imperfectly. Understanding the behavior behind substance use leads to increased empathy and sets the stage for collaboration instead of confrontation.

For Julie’s family, this collaborative approach took root in the communal environment of a kibbutz.

Julie: On the kibbutz, there were a lot of things going on. First of all, there was a wonderful therapeutic director who he really connected with, and it wasn’t like sit on a couch once a week and talk to me. It was just ongoing.

It was every night at dinner, the group would discuss something. A kibbutz is communal living, so, everyone had to contribute. He felt important. He was building things and fixing things, and planting things and tending to baby animals, and he felt worthy. He told me that he learned how to live in his own head. And he didn’t have his phone.

He would read books at night. He spent a week camping in the desert. He really had a spiritual awakening. That was one piece of it. And he was in a group of kids who all came there with their own issues, and they were all different issues, and I think he realized that everybody struggles in some way. He was able to befriend and support and help other people, and he got something from them as well.

I think he just felt validated and– and had distance from what must have been a terrifying ride for him too.

Carrie: When Julie went to visit Jake in Israel, she was eager to try out her new communication skills. She wanted to talk next steps, boundaries and repercussions, but things were not going so well.

Julie: The therapeutics director was there. And he said to me, “how do you think things are going?” It was just the two of us.

And I said, “not so great. What do you suggest?” And he said to me, “Jake is not the kind of kid who’s ever gonna respond to rules and repercussions. He’s not that kid. You have to trust him and you have to let him make mistakes. And he will. But it’s my job here to teach him how to make better choices. And then it’s your job to just let go.”

So the next morning we had another kind of facilitated conversation, and I led with that. I said, “I’m really proud of you for making so many good choices, for always knowing when you needed to get extra support. And you’ve really flourished here. And you’ve given me reason to trust you. So when you come home–” I basically repeated the script that the therapeutics director unwittingly provided for me.

And Jake just melted. He just felt so seen and understood and– and grateful.

Jan: Julie’s first instinct hadn’t been to let Jake know she trusted and appreciated him, but it turns out that’s exactly what Jake needed to hear. It was the complete opposite of the shaming session at rehab, and this was a real breakthrough. After Israel, Jake was feeling seen and heard, and he had less reason to be defiant or secretive.

He also started talking about his needs and they began collaborating on his recovery. They all agreed that keeping him out of the city helped. So during the pandemic, they moved upstate and there things stabilized for a while, but it wasn’t over yet.

Julie: At a certain point. He had to come into the city to have oral surgery.

He had to have his wisdom teeth out. And we had spoken to the oral surgeon and told him that she couldn’t prescribe anything for him and she was on board with that. Nonetheless, he went under for the procedure. My husband took him in, then drove him back upstate. And Jake came up and he was all groggy from the anesthesia and we were making dinner and you know, I can see he’s coming back to, the anesthesias wearing off.

But then, something shifted and I see that familiar, that like weird mouth tick that he had when he was taking a Xanax. I looked at him, I said, “Jake, you look like you just took a Xanax. What’s going on?” And he said, “no, it’s the anesthesia.” And then he was pouring himself a shake and spilled it all over the floor.

And then his legs buckled out from under him. Sorry.

Jan: Take your time. Okay. Take your time.

Julie: And my younger son was watching this. And we threw him into the car and drove him to the er. And this was at the beginning of the pandemic and everyone was in like hazmat suits. And I sat in the back talking to him the whole time and my husband sped.

And we had no gas in the tank. It was like easily the worst night of my life. And we got him to the ER and they made us stay overnight. They let me stay in with him. My husband had to stay in the car. We called the oral surgeon, woke her up to find out how much anesthesia she’d given him. All we could piece together was that when he was at home in his bedroom, he’d found his stash and he’d found a Xanax, which was a street Xanax, and nobody knew how much he’d taken, and they’d had to watch him all night and make sure his heart didn’t stop.

And when Jake woke up, I said to him, “look, we’re not gonna talk about it now. We’re gonna have to talk about this. And I don’t care what happened yesterday. I wanna focus on what’s gonna happen tomorrow and how I can support you in making healthier choices.” And he said, “thank you so much for saying it that way, and I’m never gonna do that again.”

So I got to see the completely different way that he responded to compassion. And really from that moment on, our relationship has been so much stronger, like he knew that I was on his side.

Carrie: In the midst of crisis, when everything feels out of control, communication can really break down, creating conflict and adding to the chaos instead of effectively solving the problem. By responding in a non-judgmental, non-shaming way, Julie created space for Jake to move forward while building further trust in their relationship.

But remember, communicating like this is hard, especially in a crisis, and it hadn’t been Julie’s first instinct. It took a lot of practice.

Julie: Oh my God. Every single day I use the communication strategies that I’ve learned through the Invitation To Change, every single day, just this week he announced to me, “oh, my friend got me a job in a bar.” And I took a deep breath and I said to him, “tell me why you think that’s a good idea.”

So sometimes I make these little lists of what I thought versus what I said. So instead of saying, “are you crazy? Why don’t you work at a pharmacy?” I said, “tell me why you think that’s a good idea.” And he had some decent arguments. He said, “well, I really like to work out and play basketball during the day, so I’d rather work at night and then I feel like I would miss out on socializing. So being in a bar is very social. And you know, I never really had an issue with alcohol.”

Jan: Keeping an open mind can be extremely difficult, especially when what you’re hearing sounds like a mistake. In these cases, instead of going with her first reaction, Julie practiced reframing her concerns in an open-ended way.

Julie: At this point, he smokes weed, and he does it in the open. So when I feel like I can see an uptick in the weed use, instead of saying, “Jake, why are you smoking so much?” I’ve said things like, “talk to me about your recovery. What’s going on?” He’ll say, “well, I’ve been feeling a lot of cravings lately, so I’m smoking a lot. I know I’m smoking too much, but my plan is to cut back to just once a night, and then cut back to the weekends.” If I’m worried that maybe he’s taken something harder than weed, I won’t accuse him because if you say like, “Hey, did you take a pill?” You’re gonna get, “no.” So I’ll make it more open-ended like, “is everything going okay? Are you having a tough time? Do you wanna talk about it? Is there anything I can do to support you?” I’ve become really like the queen of the open-ended question.

Carrie: The space Julie created with her open-ended questions allowed Jake to feel heard rather than judged. As a result, she ended up learning a lot about her son. Sometimes though, when you’re successful at creating open communication, you end up hearing things that are upsetting or even scary.

Julie: My husband and I were upstate, and Jake had a job in the city and things had been somewhat stable. I knew he was showing up for work and then he called me and he said, “Hey, so I’m thinking about going on Suboxone, I talked to my psychiatrist,” and I said, “I think that’s great. I hadn’t realized that you were taking opioids, so do you wanna tell me a little bit about that? What’s going on?” And we had this very open conversation and he had been taking Oxy. And to his credit, felt that it was getting out of hand and he’d called the psychiatrist to talk to him about how to detox on his own and whether he needed to check himself in somewhere. So I was really proud of him and I told him I was really proud of him. So we do have these really open conversations. Even just this morning, I told him “sometimes it’s really hard for me to hear, but I really appreciate your openness and I really want you to get to the place where you don’t feel like you have to do stuff in secret. ‘because I can’t imagine how horrible that feels to not only feel like you don’t have control of your body and your brain, but then to also feel like you have to secretly and shamefully be dealing with whatever’s going on in there. I don’t want you to feel that way, so let’s keep talking.”

And he sort of rolled his eyes, you know, it was like a little too touchy-feely for him, but he heard me.

Jan: These kinds of conversations require a lot of self-awareness, and becoming self-aware takes a lot of self-kindness. In order to support Jake’s recovery, Julie needed to find steady ground to support her own growth in this process.

Julie: I do a ton of yoga and I run and I spend as much time as possible in nature.

Those are the things– those are my acts of self-care that keep me sane. And I also have a community of other moms in similar situation who I meet with regularly. I run a parent group now. I do a lot of oxygen mask wearing, but something I’ve been thinking about a lot is this awareness piece and really letting myself experience and process and metabolize that feeling of discomfort. And in part, because in my own mind I’ve sort of shifted and understand that discomfort is growth. I hold that fear. And at the same time, I know that he’s doing the same thing in parallel. Every time he decides to take a cold shower or go play basketball, instead of calling his dealer and taking a pill, he’s doing the same thing. He’s doing the hard work instead of the quick fix. He’s told me since I started taking these workshops and doing all of this work, he said, “Oh, well, it’s just so great, because I have felt like I’m doing all the work by myself, so seeing you actually do the work also, I feel like we’re doing this together.”

Carrie: Can you speak to the value of sitting with that discomfort and having him be open with you? What’s the value of his openness? Like how does that help you help him?

Julie: That’s a really good question. Well, the way his openness helps me is I feel connected to him. When I– when he was first using, and I described him as this person that I couldn’t recognize, that was so painful, as a mom, to look at this kid who like rubbed your arm every night for two years to fall asleep and not recognize him.

So, for me, that communication is all about connection. And for him, I think it’s like shame remover. You know, there’s nothing you can’t tell me. “Oh, you know, you’re feeling crappy ’cause you’re detoxing from fentanyl. Okay. Do you want me to get you some probiotics? Like just– you need to smoke a lot and the apartments like smells a little bit of weed, but that’s better than taking pills.

That’s cool. What, what can I do to help you?” It’s the things that– that we don’t know that are terrifying.

Carrie: I could imagine some of our listeners hearing what you’re saying and thinking, “oh, but that’s somehow giving him permission to do all of those things.” I think my sense is that you’ve actually done a lot of work realizing like what you can control and what you cannot control, and that a lot of these behaviors will just go way underground. And you seem like you’re trying to keep it above ground so that he can talk about it, you can talk about it with him, you know what’s going on, and that sounds like that’s actually really helpful to you and to him.

Julie: If I know what’s going on, there’s a shot at me making it better.

Carrie: Hmm.

Julie: If he’s hiding somewhere, something, there’s nothing I can do.

Carrie: When someone’s behavior is understood, it feels less personal, less about us, and more about them. When it came to Jake’s use of cannabis, Julie realized he wasn’t being defiant, he was actually self-medicating his opioid cravings. So rather than discouraging cannabis use and potentially creating conflict, Julie focused on encouraging alternatives and finding new ways for Jake to cope.

Julie: So he is very clear about the fact that I don’t want him smoking weed all the time. It makes him dumb.

He’s foggy. He’s not like the sharp, funny person that he is. When he is the sharp, funny person, who hasn’t smoked all day, I let him know how great it is to have that wit and that connection. And when he isn’t, I don’t judge him. I just sort of deal with it. You know, “Hey, if you’re going out to smoke, can you take the dog with you?”

It’s not approval, it’s acceptance of the way his world works right now. When I look at where we are as opposed to where we were a year ago, we’re moving in the right direction. You know, if you zoom in and think, “oh, he is telling you about your fentanyl cravings, and you’re like, okay with that?” This actually– this happened a couple of weeks ago when I said to him like, “you seem to be smoking more than usual. What’s going on?” And he said, “well, I’m dealing with fentanyl cravings.” And it literally stopped me in my tracks. I mean, I’m telling you about it weeks later after I’ve processed it. I just sort of froze and went to bed and was up all night and then at a certain point after hours of rolling around, I sat up and I thought,

“He told me that he has fentanyl cravings. He told me. He was communicative with me. And, he didn’t go out and buy pills. He found a way that was much better. He found his own harm reduction strategy and he was dealing with it. That’s a good thing. This is a good thing.” And I went back to sleep.

Jan: Yeah. And that combined with your knowledge and your willingness to sit with some of that discomfort and pain and to know that you can’t fix it and to not want to engage in– in attempting to fix it.

Julie: It’s really– it’s part of parenting. You have your first child and you realize that for the rest of their life, you’re gonna be worried. Because any of my children who don’t use substances can like walk into the street and be hit by a car. They can be in the wrong place at the wrong time and something horrible can happen. They can get a terminal disease, like bad things can happen. And when you have kids, it’s really hard for that to not exist somewhere. You can kind of push that down, you can push it way down and– but it’s still there below the surface. When you have a kid who struggles with substance, it’s kind of right below the surface. It’s always right there, so, you feel it more. So, yeah, I’ve made friends with that feeling. Because otherwise, like how am I gonna get up and have tea and go to work and make dinner and function? And knowing, he’s walking around with a lot of discomfort and pain as well. So in a way, it connects me to him, but we share this thing.

Carrie: Making friends with that feeling is such a great way to describe the willingness needed for a journey like Julie’s. It’s painful to witness a loved one struggling and doing risky things. It’s normal to wanna push away that pain, by either disconnecting or trying to control the process. Instead, Julie was able to acknowledge her own discomfort, all while staying connected and in communication with her son.

This kind of non-judgmental support gave Jake a safe space to find his own way, but it also gave Julie an opportunity to transform alongside her son.

Julie: Oh my God, I changed so much during this process. I was so judgmental. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. I thought that life needed to be a particular way, that my kids needed to excel in school and go to good colleges and basically be like this Instagram family.

But I learned to let go of that. The whole experience has just given me so much clarity and compassion. And an ability to not shift focus in a way where I’m in denial or casting things in a prettier light, but where I’m always finding the meaning and the thing that is actually important.

Jan: What practices do you engage in that allow you to do that?

Julie: I talk a lot. I have no shame about anything that I’m experiencing. I have a lot of community. Certainly working with my mom’s group, which I lead, but now at this point, everybody jumps in and helps each other. We enable each other to step back and have a longer view. Like this moment really sucks. This is a really, really hard moment for me. But looking at where I am in the larger scheme of things, we’re in a good place. Right here, right now. Everything’s good.

Carrie: Do you have a hope for our listeners? Like if you could offer something up to them, what would it be?

Julie: When I first started my group, when we kind of went around the room, I asked everyone to tell me about their journey and also to tell me one thing that they loved about their kid.

Because I wanted to make sure that they could always reconnect with that, and that if I ever needed to remind them of that, I could remind them of that. And it’s not like any of us ever forget how much we love our children. But, we do get caught up and it’s easy to start to feel frustrated or exhausted or sorry for yourself, and this is a long haul.

This is not– it’s not even like, this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. It’s a freaking iron man. Like, “you just ran 26 miles? Good for you. Have a drink of water and hop on your bike.” Like this is gonna go on and on and on and hold onto that love and that compassion. And they feel it. It’s like shining a light on your kid and watching them bloom and grow when they feel that warmth. So that’s what I would leave you with, and then jump in the water and swim 20 miles.

Jan: As usual, Julie has a wonderful way of putting into words what many families experience when they’re trying to help a loved one struggling with risky behaviors like substance use. What seems like a sprint turns into a marathon only later to be revealed as a triathlon. Most families have no idea how to prepare for a journey like this or any sense of what to expect along the way.

Carrie: The skills and the Invitation to Change approach are designed to help folks at every stage of this process. Sometimes, like Julie, families need to understand the problem from a different perspective. When you understand how the behavior makes sense, you can gain empathy and more empathy leads to the desire to offer meaningful help, instead of resorting to punishment or attempts to control.

It’s also a lot easier to find help when you understand the underlying issues at play. In Jake’s case, anxiety. Formal treatment may or may not be what your loved one needs. Sometimes medical intervention is absolutely needed to address physical dependency and keep someone safe. Other times, a change in environment, improved family relationships, support from a trusted elder, or a new job can shift things in a more positive direction.

Jan: Many families don’t understand the new learning has to take place in order for someone to really make and sustain change. Any new skill takes practice and repetition for it to replace old behavior. And just like anything else, we learn there will be moments where we don’t know what we are doing,

Carrie: And this is true for the person with the problem, as it is for the family members who are trying to help them. Family members all impact each other, so in order for one person in a family system to make changes, it’s likely everyone in the system will need to make some changes as well.

When Julie started to make changes alongside Jake, he noticed, and things started to get better. In my experience as a clinician, when I see everyone in the family willing to learn new things, pretty wonderful things can happen.

Jan: Wonderful things like collaboration and connection, kindness and curiosity. For all the suffering along the way, change requires growth, and growth can be a beautiful thing, especially when it happens across an entire family unit. The journey to real and lasting change is hard, lonely work, and can feel impossible at times. But when families change together, everyone gets stronger and real transformation becomes possible.

Carrie: Together we change, and together we heal.

Jan: As always, our hearts are with you.

Voiceover: Rethinking Rock Bottom is a production of CMC Foundation for Change. If you’re looking for more support, visit

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