Why giving ultimatums don’t work with addicts.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been wrestling with meaningless deadlines.  Again, if there is an actual dependency associated with a deadline, or if the consequences of missing a deadline are enforced, then I think deadlines are quite useful and necessary.  However, if the deadline doesn’t have any reality associated with it, then they are not only pointless, but they also threaten a program’s success because if people don’t recognize the importance of a deadline, then they simply won’t meet them.  But there is an even more useless and vexing deadline that actually threatens someone’s health: The deadline associated with an ultimatum given to an addict.  Really, the ultimatums that come with dealing with an addict are almost always both meaningless and stupid.

There was a time when a deadline really meant death: When a prisoner crossed an marked line that signified as a “deadline,” the prisoner was literally shot to death.  Prisoners knew that if they didn’t stay within their established deadlines, gunfire would hail down upon them until they were dead.  I do believe that this spirit of intense consequences is intended when an ultimatum is doled out to an addict.  That is, when a mother says to her addicted son, “either you do to rehab by next Tuesday or I’m kicking you out of the house,” I think she really wants to mean it, but I suspect that her son will neither go to rehab nor be kicked out of the house.  If she were like the guards, she would kick him out without question and the son would BELIEVE that her threat was real, just like the prisoners knew they’d shot.  But the reality is that there are two (2) reasons why the deadline for the “rehab or else” won’t be met: 1) An addict’s sense of time; and, 2) The mother is really just bluffing.

Addicts live in a single moment that lasts forever.  Typically, they care about how they feel in a perpetual “right now” from which they can’t escape.  As a matter of fact, teaching someone in recovery how to make a plan and then it is a major goal of a typical treatment program.  The son in my example can agree with the ultimatum because to him, “next Tuesday” is a fantasy that doesn’t really exist.  When “next Tueday” becomes the perpetual right now, he won’t go to rehab because he simply “won’t be ready” and probably ask for some contingency upon which, once met, he will go to rehab.  But the contingency will probably be future-based, thereby relieving him from the immediate action and defer to the fantastical future that doesn’t really exist.

His mo, like most ultimatum-givers, will hear his plea, believe him, and then not enact the consequence provided within the ultimatum.  Really, down deep, her love for her son wouldn’t have allowed her to kick him out, so his plea is actually a way for them to both save face and go along as they always have.  Her ultimatum was just a way for her to comfort herself in that she was seemingly taking some action against his addiction.  But the reality was that it was just a bluff and her son played along but knew he wouldn’t be kicked out of the house.

So, again deadlines without reality are a waste of time and energy.  I recommend that if a deadline is met, the consequences are severe and real. Otherwise, ay type deadline is more of a guideline, at best, and at worst, it’s a threat to success, as anything meaningless hurts reality.

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