When we hear big news—big, BAD, negative news—we are shocked, overwhelmed, and sometimes crippled.  Almost always, we just wish the news would go away.

I will never forget being called in for a meeting in 2009. It was a Wednesday, halfway through the week, and our son was spending it at the Carolina Center for assessment and help in detoxing off substances. We met with a male therapist who we’d never met before. And he told us our son was a drug addict.

Staggering Diagnosis

He used the word addict, and I was so completely shocked.  I somehow made it through the rest of our meeting and left the hospital. My husband and I had driven separately and I remember letting him leave the parking lot first, knowing I needed desperately to get away, to be alone. I made it around the corner and turned into the parking lot of a trucking company. And there, I just keened. I railed and cried and screamed and yelled at God and world at large.

Just five days earlier, I had no idea what was wrong with my son, just that he was rarely home, always angry, and distant from us. I had no clue we were looking at a substance abuse issue—let alone addiction—and I HATED that word upon hearing it, just like I know the people I have to say it to do.

Just recently, a friend of mine found out she has cancer and she was commenting on how staggering it was to hear her diagnosis—so matter of factly—so succinctly—and so concretely. It occurred to me upon speaking with her that this is how it feels to many of the clients who come to Hope For Families. They know things aren’t good; in fact, most know things are very bad because we generally aren’t the first stop people have made in trying to figure out not only what is going on with their loved one, but what in the world to do about it.  And, we aren’t very good at sugar coating—maybe because this is what we do, day in and day out.

It’s Not a Journey for the Faint of Heart

But I have to ask myself, would I have wanted it to be sugar coated for myself back in that long-ago meeting?  The answer, in hindsight, is no. I needed to hear we had a significant and substantial problem that was not going to go away quickly or easily. I needed to know I was going to have to listen to the experts, do what they said, and experience a whole lot of emotional response while we tried to implement all we were hearing and learning. I try to tell family members empathetically what they need to hear, but I know as much as it pains them to hear what I am saying, they need to hear it. They need to hear it so they can ask the right questions, learn more, and make plans for the immediate, intermediate, and long-term future in order to have the best long-term outcome for their loved one. It’s not a journey for the faint of heart or meek. It’s not an enjoyable journey, but it is a necessary journey that needs to be intentional and traveled with determination.

How Well Do We Hear Urgent Messages

In August of last year, our five-year-old basset hound, Eloise, developed an eye problem that, within the week, was unceremoniously diagnosed as glaucoma. We were told quite matter of factly she had gone blind in one eye and would go blind in the other between eight and thirty-six months from then. I remember crying in the ophthalmologist’s office and feeling heartsick with this news. But, we listened to what we were told, bought all the medications, and tried to get through each day—praying the doctor was wrong. Over this weekend, it finally happened. The other eye truly went blind. We took turns sleeping on the sofa downstairs, listening to her cry in pain and confusion, and then spent the day trying to make our house safe and help her acclimate to functioning in a world in which she cannot see a thing.

I DON’T want my dog to be blind. I DON’T want my friend to have cancer. And I DID NOT want my sons to struggle with addiction. But—all the above are true.

I could have heard the news softly and slowly. But would I have heard the urgent messages about how I needed to respond and manage my engagement with the issues? I don’t think so—I think it might have diluted what I needed to hear. It would have impaired my ability to move quickly into the action phase of change, which most likely would have impeded my progress in helping my son, my friend, and my dog.

None of us want these experiences

I hate that I am so often the bearer of bad news to the parents or spouses of our clients. I do try to use humor, kindness, and understanding when I talk to them. But, I NEED them to hear me—to know I am not using terms or diagnoses lightly. And, that we are going to need them to move as quickly as possible into responding differently to what is going on in their lives, in order to have any hope of a better outcome, with hope for the future. I teach family members how to engage with their loved one differently, my friend’s doctor is teaching her what she needs to do to destroy her cancer, and I am making items, with bells, to wear and hold when interacting with a blind dog who needs to learn how to hear where we and her Basset sister, Frances, are. And, while none of us want these experiences—they are ours to own and from which to learn—and try to grow.

 Campbell