Four years ago, Phyllis McCann's family life was like an out-of-control locomotive heading for derailment. Without mincing words, the 55-year-old Encinitas resident tells horror stories of the physical violence and substance abuse in her home then.
"I had a miserable family," she said. "I had two boys who were outrageously out of control, and I was out of control because they were out of control."
Now, with the help of an organization called Toughlove, McCann has learned how to assert her rights as a human being, and rule her sons with a firm, if not an iron, hand.
After her first Toughlove meeting three years ago, McCann gained the courage to confront her sons about their destructive behavior and demand they leave her home. She admits she was terrified, but she had reached a point where she literally feared for her safety.
"I sat my oldest son down and told him he would have to be out by the end of the week," McCann recalled. "He said he was leaving in two weeks, and I said no, he had to be out by the weekend. And he knew I meant it."
Toughlove is a support group of parents looking for ways to deal with their troubled children. At weekly meetings they share their problems and explore ways to lessen the chaos that an incorrigible child or adolescent can bring to a household.
However, a common misconception many people have about the group, McCann said, is that Toughlove means throwing the problem child out of the house and locking the door behind them. She insists that the group works toward more reasonable limits for their teen-agers whose behavior runs the gamut from simple rule-breaking to substance abuse to running away.
"It's the parents gaining control of themselves," McCann said. "What we learn in Toughlove is how to say what we really mean and how sometimes not to say anything at all until we've cooled off a little bit."
Above all, Toughlove parents are there for one another, she said. Sometimes they take another's children into their homes for a night; often they provide a shoulder to cry on.
Founded 10 years ago by family therapists David and Phyllis York in Doylestown, Pa., the group spread nationwide and now has about 1,700 chapters. There are 10 Toughlove chapters in San Diego, mostly in the North County area, but plans are in the works to add groups in San Ysidro and Southeast San Diego later this year.
Although Toughlove has been here about six years, it is still cloaked in anonymity, McCann said. There is a modest, one-line listing in the telephone book, but efforts to promote the group have fallen on a more grass-roots level.
Recently, Toughlove parents set up a booth at Kobey's Swap Meet at the Sports Arena, where they pass out brochures and program literature to anyone interested. Also, they have been holding rummage sales and other fund-raising activities to defray the costs of McCann's trip to Dallas in August for a training workshop.
Very simply, parents are Toughlove. They coordinate and run highly structured meetings that include an orientation, sharing of triumphs and setbacks, and brainstorming. There is no administration and no membership fees. The groups operate solely on donations.
Consequently, there are no statistics on the number of parents who attend meetings or the frequency of attendance.
Like Alcoholics Anonymous and similar support groups, Toughlove maintains the belief that there should not be any one leader. But it is just this kind of unchaperoned operation that causes concern among some family therapists and substance-abuse counselors.
'Not Really a Spiritual Focus'
"There's not really a spiritual focus like Alcoholics Anonymous," said Jerry Cullins, an after-care counselor at the McDonald Center's Adolescent Unit at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.
"Bill Wilson (the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous) said that AA would be a cult if there was a leader. . . . The real leader is a higher power, God," Cullins said. "But with Toughlove, I'm not sure who the real leader is. I'm not quite sure where's the focal point."
Cullins said he has referred parents of chemically dependent children to Toughlove, but likes to use the group as a supplement to therapy. While the parents receive "tons of support" from Toughlove, Cullins said, he has often seen parents become rigid and closed-minded to other forms of family counseling.
Kristin Blackman, another family counselor at McDonald Center, a drug rehabilitation center, said she has referred about 5% of her clients to Toughlove.
"I usually recommend Toughlove to parents who are having difficulty with the Alanon program and really need some clear advice, suggestions and guidance," Blackman said. "It's a little more direct support and advice at Toughlove."
Providing Hope, Strength
Blackman said parents have told her that Toughlove does provide hope and strength during times of crisis. But as far as she can deduce, "in living an everyday life, there isn't much available as far as living the program."