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Distrust: An adaptive tool

November 1, 2007
by James M. Pedersen
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‘Twas the night before tomorrow, And all through the house, I locked up my money, And so did my spouse.

We hate to do it, But now, it's a must, Until our dear child, Can earn back our trust.

—An Ode to Families Anonymous

I was born at night…but not last night.

—Janet P., mother of two addicts

Atrue story found Jasmine, in the middle of winter with a temperature of minus 12 degrees outside, pushing the family lawn mower down snow-covered streets to the local pawn shop. Her parents' ready cash and jewelry either were already gone or had been locked up. It wouldn't do much good rifling through the house (again), but there was the garage!

When family members present a boatload of empirically based evidence that their addict is stealing and lying, their anger often distills to a gnawing sense of guilt (hostility directed inward) over distrust, a phenomenon that can inhibit the therapeutic process. We so often hear: “We want to trust him, but we just can't. We hate ourselves for feeling that way—like failures.”

Helping the family to understand and accept distrust as a normal, adaptive behavior creates a realistic starting point toward a genuine and sustained recovery. It gives the addict a clear, reality-based message that stealing and lying are not acceptable. It can help strengthen the family's resolve and optimally reduce “bad parent syndrome” by giving the family permission to translate real-world rules into the home.

I want to focus here not on consequences (i.e., restitution, the “kick-out,” etc.) but rather on ways to help concerned and loving family members gradually help their addict and themselves regain a trusting relationship—by starting from what is real.

The family's language might start with: “Right now, Ryan, we don't trust you. We want to, but we can't. That said, let's talk about ways you can be trusted again.”

The application

In the long run, the facts are friendly. Ask family members to create and talk about a list of the addict's transgressions. Seasoned therapists know the power of the hard copy (“when in doubt, write it out!”). This gives the family and the addict a structured process for accepting the facts, as well as the feelings they caused. It creates accountability and delineates who got ripped off, when, how, and how much. Naturally, the addict is part of this process.

From the facts come the feelings. Here is where those in the addict's natural support system can give voice to the often difficult feelings of rage, betrayal, guilt, regret, and just plain irritation at having to play security guard over their belongings. As Doug B., the father of a methamphetamine addict, put it: “This hyper-vigilance is a real drain.”

Dissolve it by degrees

Distrust is not pleasant, but it is not permanent either. Addiction occurs step by step; so too does the reclaiming of trust. Here the therapist works with the addict and the family to create a written plan replete with consequences. The plan, a “trust contract,” gradually provides the addict with increasing opportunities to reclaim the family's trust.

Starting from an honest, healthy, “let's clear the air” acceptance of distrust, all parties identify situations that offer the addict opportunities to make choices—life choices. The best advice is to start simple, and start small. Get ready for successes, as well as their accompanying setbacks.

Perhaps the quality of recovery has less to do with the family being able to trust unconditionally again (as if trust were a light switch) and more to do with the courage to embrace a deliberative, structured process borne from accepting the importance of distrust as a normal starting point in recovery. Even the beginning therapist knows that going through this process will be no picnic. But it certainly beats loved ones guiltily stuffing the painful, unspoken debris of addiction—the stealing, the lies.

In working with addicts and their families, stories are shared and themes emerge. When the family presents tales of sociopath-like behaviors, these often are accompanied by discussion of a loved one's struggle with basic trust. Helping the family to understand and accept distrust as a normal, adaptive feeling can set the stage for an action plan. This plan is really a process for helping those who love an addict find new ways to do just that.

James m. pedersenJames M. Pedersen is a member of NAADAC, The Association for Addiction Professionals and maintains a private practice in Madison, Wisconsin. His e-mail address is