Living with Addiction: The Role of the Family

As you can see by the letters after my name, I am a Social Worker by profession but one of the most significant roles in my life has been as a mother. For the last 6 years I have been the mom of a 28-year-old son who is suffering from the disease of addiction. Prior to my knowing about his drug use I was pretty sure that this would never be an issue I would have to deal with. When I was told that he was at a prominent drug treatment facility I asked if he had gotten a job there. I was clueless to the fact that he was using drugs and that he had such a serious problem. I spoke to him often and I never saw the signs. My naive assumption could have cost me my son’s life. I feel strongly about telling people about my own situation because I don’t want parents to think that it can’t happen to them. My son is smart, funny and loved by his family, but he still used heroin. It is a common misconception that if our kids come from a happy home, they won’t use but that isn’t the reality. Despite my professional knowledge I had no idea how to get him help and what my role as a parent should be. I read books and articles, talked to people, but everyone had a different answer and I felt hopeless and isolated. The words “heroin” and “addict” became my first and last thoughts each day and my fear for my son and for our family was always present.

My first sense of hope came when I saw a flyer about an informational forum about opiate addiction being run by a group called, “Drug Crisis in Our Backyard.” I knew that I wanted to go to this forum because I was desperate to learn how to help my son. When I got there that night the room was full. I learned that, “Drug Crisis in Our Backyard” is a grassroots community action organization whose purpose is to raise awareness and provide education and support to families who are struggling with this disease. It was started in 2012 by Susan and Steven Salomone and Carol and Lou Christiansen after they lost their sons both of whom suffered from the disease of addiction. These two families are bravely trying to bring understanding and awareness to a public that doesn’t always want to know. Their stories touched my heart and I felt that I needed to be involved not only to help my own son but to fight this terrible and life-threatening disease. They were running a support group twice a month called, Spotlight on Recovery, and I decided to go there for help and to be more involved. As a parent in pain, it has helped me tremendously to feel connected to others who understand what I am going through. As parents together we can offer each other support without judgment.

As I speak to parents and listen to their stories, I realize how many major issues need to be addressed. One of my primary roles as a parent is to join others who advocate for these changes. Some of these issues are systemic, such as the need for insurance to cover longer and more comprehensive treatment. The penal system also needs to change. Incarcerating someone for being addicted to a drug is not an answer to the basic problem. If a crime is committed, the person should get the consequence, but if they have the disease of addiction, they should also get treatment. Criminals with chronic illnesses get treatment in jail all the time. Why are people with addiction different? Doctors and pharmacists need to examine their prescribing practices. Big pharmaceutical companies also need to work to help in the battle against addiction. If we work together, we can help our children get better treatment and a fair chance at recovery. I know that, historically, system improvement has come from the advocacy of those who have the need for the change. I have seen improvement in the mental health and developmentally disabled population because of the courage and persistence of the families. I believe one of the biggest and most important role family members can have is to be advocates for their loved ones by staying involved in the systems and finding solutions. No company or government official has a bigger stake in this issue. It is our children’s lives that we are fighting for.

The stigma of drug addiction is part of our culture. Just the words and phrases we use to describe them, such as, junky or clean versus dirty, to name a few, has only served to marginalize them. The connotation of those words and phrases convey all that is negative about the disease. Society has interpreted them as the negatives of the person. Addiction is only part of a person’s life. They may be artists, musicians, kind, funny and caring but none of that is part of the negative stereotype we picture when we hear the word addict. In my work, as a therapist, I try to be strength based. I want to see what is behind the façade of the person so that I can bring out their talents while helping them recover from whatever it is that I am treating them for. It is as if every person who is addicted to drugs is the same. My son has done similar things to others who are addicted, but he is an individual. Every one of us has talents that can contribute to society. I know that a person in active addiction does not display their best characteristics but those good parts of them are still there. All I am saying is that if words define us and add to an already existing stigma, maybe we should rethink the words we use. Is addiction the last place we can be politically incorrect?

Personally, I have learned so much in these last few years about living with addiction as part of my family’s dynamic. I have learned ways to talk to my son. I know more about being supportive instead of enabling. I have learned to acknowledge how hard he tries and to celebrate his successes. I also know that I have a right to all my feelings concerning the effect his disease has on my life. I learned to use the support offered by others to help me through the tough times. I have always been there for others through my work and in life, but I have never been good about asking for help for myself. I have met so many wonderful people who are there for me and my family. I have accepted the fact that there is always going to be worries about relapse and fear of death. I have also seen that I have to allow myself and my family to have fun and not let addiction be the center of our lives. I have seen myself grow stronger and more determined to fight this battle alongside my son. The Serenity Prayer has become a way of life for me. For all those who suffer and their families, I pray for strength, hope and recovery.

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