Detachment. How Can I?


Detachment. How Can I?
~ by  Chaplain Joe Herzanek (Boulder County Jail, CO)

When life becomes one crisis after another, when emotional pain and endless drama become “the norm” what am I supposed to do? Over the past few decades I’ve received this question a lot. Recently it has become the #1 question. Why is that? What do I suggest to families who have arrived at this place? How about this: My suggestion is to do NOTHING! Stop “doing.” Quit “doing.” No longer “DO” anything.

Let’s talk about letting go and what that looks like (sometimes referred to as detachment). So there—I’ve said it; The “D” word, The Ultimatum, The Nuclear Option.

When to use it
Let’s start with “when to use it.” Detachment is usually the last resort—although it doesn’t have to be. This is most effective in the life of an “adult” loved-one who has demonstrated that they no longer have any ability to control or stop substance use on their own.

This person has a boatload of extremely negative consequences piling up all around them, but they continue to drink and/or drug. Often this pattern has gone on for years and gets progressively worse. Perhaps there were a few “okay” periods of time, but they didn’t last.

Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.
~Robert Louis Stevenson

This person may or may not have a job (approximately 77% of all substance dependent men and women get up and go to work most days). They may function well enough on the job to be able to keep it. Many will even point to this fact as proof that they are not addicted. In reality most perform poorly on the job, miss work, and generally have a negative attitude about almost everything. This in turn, leads to “pour me another drink.”

Others move from job to job and eventually become unemployable. Some will tend to isolate and spend most or all of their time with their first love, AOD (alcohol and other drugs).

Family life, parenting, being the father, mother, spouse or sibling they once were is no longer a priority. In fact, it’s probably not on the radar screen at all. Borrowing money, promising to quit, burning bridges, causing heartache to anyone who comes close to them is the “new norm.”  When small children become part of this picture it gets more ugly. This is not sad; this is pathetic. If not now—when? When do the family members say, “We’ve had enough?”

This, dear reader, is the time to detach. This is the time to “do nothing.”

I also like to remind people of  “The Three C’s of Al-Anon” which are: “you didn’t cause it, you can’t cure it, and you can’t control it.”  What you can do is help the person to “want to” quit. If the “want to” is there, anyone can have recovery.

What does detachment look like? How do I do it?
Before I explain how it works, I need to add one caveat. I was recently in San Antonio conducting a workshop for The Palmer Drug Abuse Program (PDAP). The Program Director of this wonderful facility, a woman named Trish, reminded me of something important I sometimes tend to overlook. She said the family needs to be totally prepared for this step (intellectually and emotionally) and that for this to be effective, all family members need to be “on board.” Having emotional support and guidance regarding the necessity for such action, what to expect and being prepared is critical to the success of this step. This is not going to be a “walk in the park” and having good support is crucial.

So, how does one begin to do this? My first suggestion is to get a pen and paper and write out a plan (there is much more about this in my “Ten Toughest Questions” DVD and the link provided at the end of this article**).

Everyone’s situation will be unique, and obviously I can’t tackle each one here. Having said that, I suggest, at a minimum, that you jot down some bullet points you want to cover when you share your concerns with your loved-one. Even writing out what you want to say, word for word, is perfectly fine. Anticipate what the person will say or object to beforehand. Keep in mind that detachment is rarely forever. In fact, when you confront the person you have decided to detach from, put a timeframe on it (let them know how long it’ll be till you are willing to regain communication). Once you have reached this point, you need to remember that it’s too late for another broken promise or a few days of abstinence to mean anything.

So, here we go. You’ve prepared—both mentally, and you have a plan on paper–and you are ready to have a firm, but loving discussion with this person. A time to confront/talk with the person has been set and agreed to. You’ve asked this person to let you share your concerns and you simply read what you want to say or speak to them based on your written bullet points.

My suggestion is to determine a minimum period of total abstinence you are requiring from your addict or alcoholic—before you are willing talk to or see them again (thirty or sixty days should be the minimum). Begin by emphasizing to them that you love them very much and that it breaks your heart to see them continue with their substance abuse. Let them know that you (and all family members involved) have made this decision. You can list possible living options for them on their copy of your letter. Tell he or she–that they must decide which relationship is the most important—the one they currently have with their alcohol or drug use, or their own family. You must make it crystal clear that they have to choose–because they can’t have both.

There is so much more I could write on this topic—especially when I think of all the different scenarios possible. Please do your homework before attempting this, seek wise counsel*, read all you can and get a second opinion.

When it’s all “said and done” this tough love approach often works when nothing else will. Addiction, left alone will only get worse over time. What I remind people about in my book and in counseling is that “recovery is a process—not en event.”

This is why I sometimes suggest that you “do nothing.” The phrase “let go and let God” applies to the family members and friends–as well as the person seeking recovery. Detachment is one of the most difficult things that a person (especially a mom) may ever need to do.

Stay strong, seek support and know with confidence that no matter what happens—you have “done” everything you know to do.

* Have you “tried everything?” To learn about phone counseling with author and Chaplain Joe Herzanek click here.

** Detachment–Letting Go of Someone Else’s Problem

Learn more about Detachment in Joe’s award-winning book “Why Don’t They Just Quit?”
The Importance of Empathy
~by Jim Fay, Love and Logic
Detachment is Hard–Radio interview with Joe Herzanek

Author/Chaplain Joe HerzanekTo arrange a workshop or presentation at your organization
call: 303.775.6493 or email:

More info about Speaking Engagements with Author/Chaplain Joe Herzanek

> Recommended Books and DVDs for families of substance abusers and addicts.

> Addiction Recovery Resources for Families of Substance Abusers, Addicts and Alcoholics

Why Don't They Just Quit? Hope for families struggling with addiction.

New! 2016 Updated Edition!
Contains new chapters and info on: Heroin, Shame & Stigma, Harm Reduction, Marijuana, Synthetic Drugs, 12-Step Groups & The Church, and much more!

Why Don’t They Just Quit? Hope for families struggling with addiction.
~By Joe Herzanek reviews:
Best book ever about addiction. Written by one whose done it and is recovering. Easy to read, not preachy, just honest. I recommend this book to anyone with an addict in their life! ~Lynda A

Got an addiction problem in your family? Read this book. Joe knows his stuff. This book helps you to better understand those who are dealing with friends and family that are addicted to drugs and alcohol. I have read several of these books but this one is the best. ~RJ

I, like many people, have some knowledge of what drugs and addiction are, but are clueless on what the process of recovery entails. This book does a great job in what it would take to help a loved one, who is an addict and is willing to get clean and stay clean. It also gives one hope that your loved one will survive the nightmare they are living through with their family. ~CG

> Paperback
> Audio Book CD (Listen to the book)
> Kindle
> Audible Audio Download (LISTEN TO 4 MIN. SAMPLE NOW)

Chaplain Joe Herzanek, Author ASK JOE:
> If someone can stop using drugs or alcohol for weeks at a time, they “aren’t an addict—correct?

> Chronic Pain Management & Pain Pill Addiction: What to do?

>How can I know if my addicted friend or loved one is telling the truth?

>”I need help because I’m not able to deal with my live-in Fiance’s need to get drunk every night.”
>Should my husband “back off?”

>Gambling vs. Drug Addiction? What is your opinion?

>How can I tell if someone is an addict/alcoholic or just a heavy user?

>What is Methadone? What is Harm Reduction?


Detachment letting go tough love Detachment letting go tough love Detachment


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23 thoughts on “Detachment. How Can I?

  1. Pingback: Monthly Review: Detachment, Surviving Holidays, Enabling & Optimism | Changing Lives Foundation Blog

  2. Ron Grover


    Very good article!

    This is something we struggled with but found out way to do in our own way. So many parents think that detaching means not loving and that makes it impossible to think about, let alone do.

    Here is a link to the article I wrote about the same subject. It is so good that you were able to write your article in a fashion that makes it easy for parents. We just struggled and read until we were able to muddle through.

    Keep up the good work Joe.

    Ron Grover

  3. Joe

    Dear Candace,

    Thanks for the very easy to reply to post. God only knows how and why you have hung on as long as you have—especially considering there is a child in the home.

    I’m sure there are many counselors who will more than gladly take your money for counseling. Your post gives me all the information to clearly share what you should do now. And I’ll give it to you for free.

    Ready? Here goes, do not have another contact of any kind with this person for any reason NO MATTER WHAT until he has at least six months of verifiable complete sobriety.

    I would file a restraining order for your safety and your daughters as well. When he violates the restraining order, which he will do, immediately pick up the phone and call 911. If you were my daughter this is the exact thing I would tell her.

    I would suggest you do this as soon as you finish reading this post. This is the right thing to do. We don’t need to talk about it. If you have any doubts then I suggest you re-read your comment to me and read it slowly.

    No “yeah buts” or “what if’s”— Just do it. After that we can talk.

    Best regards,
    ~ Joe

  4. Candace

    Dear Joe – I am writing this today seeking help on how to deal with my husband. This all started about 4mths ago – the end of Oct, when he became addicted to legal Blue Silk bath salts. They made him extremely paranoid, hallucinagenic and verbally abusive. At first, we (his parents and myself) did not know he was doing this and thought he has having problems with his mental illness (he is manic-depressive with paranoid tendancies). We felt bad for him and tried to do everything in our power to get him well. Over the course of 4 mths, he was in a mental rehab center 6 seperate times, ER 7 times, and we had the police at our house about 6 times. On his second time at the mental rehab, he admitted to the bath salts and stated he would never do these again which was a total lie. He has put our family thru hell to say the least, countless sleepless nights only to say he would stop each time. Finally on Jan 6, his parents, myself, and our 8yr daughter moved out to another state. He ended back up in the mental rehab center 2 more times and finally stated he was going to drug rehab on the final time. He has now been in for 18 days voluntarily and states it is for me and our daughter, who is currently in counselling for all she has been thru. He called 2 nights ago, and stated he is being released on Sat and wants me to come pick him up so he can come to where we are now and live. He acts as though since he has gone thru rehab partly that he should be just forgiven for everything he did to us and we should welcome him with open arms. We have been together for 18 yrs and this is certainly not the first time he has been on something and quit doing it – alcohol, crack, pot, pills, etc. It always seems he is good for a period of time and then something new comes along. During the family session, he stated he doesn’t have a problem with other things only the bath salts. I am still hurt and angry at him for the pain he caused our child, myself and his parents and not sure if I should allow him back into our lives yet. I have tried looking for someone to talk to around but there are no alanon meetings and I just need someone to help me. Thanks in advance.

  5. Joe

    Dear Chris, Sorry to hear about your 50 year old brother. It sounds like you have tried a lot. It would have been great if he had to spend a few months in jail for the DUI. Firm action and allowing the consequences is the best thing you and the rest of the family can ‘do’ for now. He’s 50 so if not now then when????

    Let me know how it goes, Joe

  6. Chris

    My siblings and I are at the point you describe where we must detach from our 50 yr old brother who is an alcoholic. We have done all we knew how to do – actually enabled him – hoping to reach him. He has only gotten worse. He has frequent seizures and yet continues to drink. He was offered Rehab when our other brother (an alcoholic) committed suicide 2 yrs ago; he was bailed out of jail when he got a DUI and then his fine was paid on condition that he would go to Rehab. He still hasn’t gone. Another brother has lived with him (life estate in the family home) and paid all the bills. We met today and decided we have to stop. We dread the reaction we will get from him but are prepared to detach. Your words here help assure me that this is the right thing and the right time to do it. I’m grateful to find your website today because it will be a source of strength and courage at this time.

  7. Pingback: Changing Lives Foundation Blog · Detachment in the Real World and The Monastery

  8. phyllis

    I am married to one of the sweetest men I’ve ever known and he is a carpenter who works everyday. We just bought a house together. Now with that said, I will tell you he is an addict. He has had 1 dui, but alcohol was not his drug of choice. Marijuana is. Even after his job has decided to drug test. He stopped smoking it. He has found some synthetic incense that he smokes. I have decided to wait on the Lord to move in his life. All the yelling in the world has done nothing to change it. I have decided to keep my focus on me. What I need to do to take care of myself. Going to the doctor and getting enough rest. I still pray for him and love him. I manage the household finances and work at my job. It was consuming me and I had to let it go.I don’t believe I am in denial, I know what he is doing. I try very hard to not let it affect me and my ability to live MY LIFE. I go to meetings when I can and attend Church. My husband goes with me to Church. He never used to. I try to focus on the positive things about him instead of seeing his faults all the time. When he does the dishes I thaank him. We pray together at meals and we watch TBN. What I’m trying to get at is it takes time to see the changes in a person. He has changed so much in the past 5 years. You see my husband got addicted to Crack Cocaine and lost everything we had. I left him and was gone 10 months. I am grateful to God that he has made so many changes in my husband. He may not be where he could be but by the Grace of God he is not where he was. My prayer is that God allows me the strength and patience to continue on this journey and help me to be a good wife. I love him very much and plan to grow old with him. Thanks for allowing me to share some of my story.

  9. Joe

    Dear Bronna,

    I looked at a few of our old emails going back two years. Your son has sure drug you through hell. To say he is very difficult case is the understatement of the year. It is out of your hands now, nothing you can do ):

    Just the same we do not know what the future holds. Incarceration may be just what he needs. He can change but either way it is out of your hands.

    My suggestion is that you stay around some people that will encourage you and reinforce the FACT that you are not responsible for his outrageous behavior and rebellion. You should keep him in your prayers and wait…keep in mind he will be getting out and a few years will pass sooner than you think.

    Blessings, Joe

    Drugs can do this, change a loved one into a complete stranger. You’re not alone.

    p.s. Another good book that may be beneficial for you to read is, “Before It’s Too Late” by Stanton Samenow

    Oh, and yes it is possible to get high in jail, but not easy by any means.

  10. Bronna

    My son went to court today. I decided to attend with my husband and my son’s father. My son was cursing at his public defender and the state attorney. The state is offering him 26.5 months and my son is trying to barter with the state telling him he will only agree to 10 years probation. This is not even an option. I was amazed at how rude my son was to everyone is authority. He doesn’t even seem to understand that he is the one in cuffs, locked up, with no education and facing feloney charges. He has entitlement issues and just does not seem to get it. He has been locked up for 4 months and he looks like is has been smoking pot. Is this possible in jail? When he goes off drugs he usually gains weight and that hasn’t happened. If my son does not take the offer from the state and takes this to trial and loses he will be facing in a good case 5 years. I look at him and think–where did my son go? Who is this 19 year old? Is this normal?

  11. Mary

    We are in an unusual situation with our meth addicted 27 year old son. He and his brother purchased a duplex together a couple of years ago. Since his addiction, my husband and I have had to pay his part of the mortgage ($900 a month) in order to keep the other son from losing his home ( each son lives in 1/2 of the duplex). We have had to take out a home equity loan to pay this each month…not to mention the other $40,000+ we have already paid in rehab costs for him……We are sinking financially.

    While in his “state” he has trashed part of the duplex. Now he is “fixing” it so we are able to rent it to cover the mortgage. Of course WE are paying for materials, etc. But………….he can’t “work” on it unless he is using…for the energy, otherwise he sleeps. He knows he has to get out in a week so it can be rented. ..but it does need cleaning out and some work before it can be shown. We are in a dilema…what he needs from us is $$$ to pay for his drugs…I know……boo hiss…..

    There are so many issues at hand that we just can’t think straight and of course it is just killing us seeing our bright, talented, son killing himself this way. I am in a depression and have had to take a disability leave from teaching. I just can’t focus enough to be good for my second graders. This decreases our income even more!

    Is the answer to just kick him out, duplex finished or not?? He seems to have placed his self-worth on being able to fix what he has destroyed. It is soooo important to him to finish the duplex. We even talked about whethter it was just a way to keep using. In tears, he swears it is not. I know detatchment is the way to go. However, we have to get him out of the duplex and get it rented!!

    We have even considered having him arrested for stealing so many things from us. Luckily he hasn’t branched out to steal from others…that I KNOW. But to add a felony conviction to his already trashed life, preventing him from ever getting back to a good job when he decides to start recovery, is beyond what I can comprehend. Although my husband and I have seriously thought about it.

    Please help! We are at our wits end…emotionally and now even physically for me.

  12. Joe

    “If they can’t decide what is important to them then you must do that , because drug use will kill you”

    Dear Michelle,
    Your right about the above. Sometimes people need to tell them, not debate and argue, what is happening to them. Then that will hopefully sink in. There is only so much a family member can do. Even if you do everything perfect there are still no guarantees )-;

    I’m a firm believer in the power of prayer. We do not always get what we request but we can get a little serenity and peace of mind (-;

  13. Joe

    Dear Everyone,

    Be sure to checkout the link at the end of this article. Lots of resources in it (links) and great info. The more you know, the better informed you are,will bring both peace of mind and confidence to do the ‘next right thing.’

    Detachment–Letting Go of Someone Else’s Problem

  14. Joe

    Dear Bronna,
    i don’t know all the details but it sounds like a little time in jail might be the best thing that could happen for your son. I’ve had NUMEROUS inmates tell me just that! He could get an extended period of time to completely detox. He will also have plenty of time to think about how his life is spinning out of control. Teen Challenge is a great resource, especially for the younger crowd. The only down side to Teen Challenge is they do not have the follow-up support that is available like the 12 step groups. Recovery from drug addiction is a high maintenance problem and the new person needs lots of support in the beginning. Keep the faith. God is also trying to reach your (prodigal) son and pain can be a wonderful teacher. Joe

  15. Joe

    Dear Lauren and Robin,
    There is an old saying that is still true today, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” This is often the way detachment works. It will usually take some time for the person to realize what just happened (what the REAL cost is for their substance use). Don’t expect them to change in an instant. Most will need to get over being told what the consequences are for their continued substance use. DON’T BLINK, let a little time pass for them to either see the light or feel the heat. Most, the vast majority, will (-:

  16. Bronna

    My son’s did not break into my home-he broke into a complete strangers home. He was on probation and now is in violation of probation. He also has cocaine and theft from a department store charges–to further complicate his life. He was arrested 6 different times last year. He has almost overdosed 4 times and was hospitlized–unconscience for 3 days at one point/he has been baker acted atleast 4 times/marchman acted several time (one actually pending as I write) He jumped out of a car and was taken to the hospital by ambulance–hoping for pain medication–when they would not give it to him–he rain out of the hospital. He lived in an abandon trailor instead of with his family–because he would not follow the rules and he refused to help himself by checking into a rehab. He started using drugs at 15-spent 18 months at a Teen Challenge and completed the program–he did what he had to do to get out. I cannot have a healthy relationship with him–he only wants $$ from me. After the “tough love” is when you start to deal with the broken dreams and that is very painful. I worry about his future and he does not seem to be concerned about anything except getting high.

  17. Robin

    I am also at this place of trying to become detached from my spouse who cannot hear anything I have said to him about his addiction. I have tried everything and I feel exhausted, depleted from trying to get through. I have realized in the past few months that I must becom detached(let go and let god) One of the problems is right now is that he is paying bills and working and I don’t have a place to go with my animals and I also love my job and my friends at work. I am not leaving my home and he won’t leave. He is not violent or anything like that and at some point I may leave. However, for me it would be giving up the very things that are giving me support at this time. My oldest daughter just move to another state with her husband and my grandchildren so that is an option for me but right now I am staying in my home that I love. I have managed to work on my own problems in the last year and focus on myself and it is true you can find happiness. I would have never believed it in a million years! I was always a happy kid and a happy young adult and I managed to let two marriages take happiness, trust, stability, etc from me, which made me feel devastated. I totally lost myself. This is my second marriage. My husband and I have been through so many things together and I truly believe he is the one person that I want to go through life with. We had a really loving , caring relationship, however, we partied, I stopped, he didn’t. I have come to the realization that I have done the best I could do and like Maya Angelou says when you knew better you did better. Well, I know better now. I feel that I am rising up from the rubble to a better life. But at times the feeling of failure,something wrong with me comes back and all the crap you hear in your head, blaming yourself etc. yada, yada, yada and I just change my thoughts. I flip it around put those thoughts on trial by crossexamining myself. I am not to blame and neither are you for his or her addiction. Yes, I made a lot of mistakes in my life with my children and husband and everyone else and I will do whatever it takes to make sure that they know that I am sorry. I am not going to live with guilt or let anyone hold me hostage for whatever I have done or maynot have done in the past. I just wanted to let others know that I am re experiencing happiness all over again and they can too! I was at the bottom of the deepest darkest pit and god is pulling me out. Love to all, keep the faith Robin S.

  18. michle menuey

    Thank you for the email letting go is one of the hardest things to do, but sometimes if you don’t make the change the lifstlye your love one leads will destroy you all. If they can’t decide what is important to them then you must do that , because drug use will kill you all if you let it continue. It is hard to handle and believe that something can have so much power over one person and make them become some one that cares nothing about their family. Now that he is in prision for a least 10 months he seams to think that things are okay. He still believes that he had nothing to do with his going they and that it is everyones elses fault. I can’t believe that someone would throw they whole life away for the high. I know they are people with the same sitation out there it is hard to talk to people that have not lived this, because they have no clue and just have their two cents worth. thank you

  19. Lauren

    How do you get past this and get through the hurt of them not caring if you detatch? They appear to not care that you are saying “you are on your own”. Wouldn’t this make them plead to do what it takes to change? Whydoes it feel like I have the only spouse that will not fight to keep our family together?

  20. Joe

    Hi Cathie,
    I’ve never been a mom so I can only imagine how hard it must be. I do have a son and I know how hard it is to sit and watch…

    I guess your down to nothing but the Lord. That’s going to have to be good enough (-;

  21. Cathie

    Thank you for this article Joe. I am right where you knew I would be. I have done all I can, thought this thru for a few days and I have written my letter to my qualifier, and I had to send it by email because she will not communicate at all except emails that hurt more than I can say.. I know the full meaning now, that this is “OUT OF MY HANDS” I have hit an all time feeling of POWERLESS. I am scared, I am on my knees with this, yet I have truly come to know this word and I know I have done all that I can for this loved one. This is truly….the hardest thing to come to terms with. I know I have made the right decision for myself…this is a test beyond all test…it is truly a test of faith that my God, our God, has his eyes on my child and her child as well. Some one once told me when I asked, “How is this possible to do?” I was answered with, “Think of Mary as she watched her son go thru so much… how she wept, yet knew her son’s life was in God’s Hands, it was all in God’s Hands now.” That is what I cling to, that no matter what the outcome…my daughter and my grandson is in His Hands. It is not any easy task by no means, but I believe it means loving “them” enough to let them go.

  22. Joe

    Sorry to hear about your struggle. He’s only 19 which makes things more complicated. Just the same you need to get tough or it will only get worse. He chose to break into the family home (instead of a strangers home) because he thought you wouldn’t do anything. Pray that he has his ‘epiphany’ in the county jail rather than prison. A very closely monitored probation would be the best option but it’s out of your hands for now ):

  23. Bronna

    Thank you for your email and newsletter….I needed to hear what you had to say about detachment. My 19 year old son is currently in jail and going to court on Monday Sept. 13. He has a very serious drug problem. We would not give him money-so he broke into a house and stole items to get more drugs. I am absolutely beside myself about his behavior. We have never had anyone in our family in jail. The worst thing about the entire situation is–my son is not sorry and the only thing he cares about is getting off and is not interested in any help for himself. I feel so helpless as his mother and I’m not sure what my role is anymore? I have wrote the letter of tough love and he never wrote me back. I find myself angry that he does not want to help himself and that he is throwing his life and future away. He is facing prison time and does not seem concerned. I am going to really work on the detachment and remember the 3 C’s Thank you

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