As I have gone through the drama, tragedy, stress and shame that comes along with watching a loved one battle addiction, I have finally grown to understand that addiction is not merely a lack of willpower accompanied by a series of horrible decisions. I have had such a misunderstanding of addiction that I have needed to educate myself, if only to better understand the affliction. What I learned is that I have work to do in order to learn how to cope with her addiction.
There are many myths about drug addiction. In order to not add to the problem and to help myself make good choices, I dedicated myself to learning about the disease. I discovered that opioid addiction, which my sister suffers from, and it is considered to be one of the 5 largest public health concerns facing our nation. I learned that addiction is not just a weak-willed response to adversity, but a disease that is often developed along with mental health issues.
My learning wasn’t merely acquiring information about addiction. I was forced to confront my inability to cope with my sister’s addiction, and the challenges that it created for me. Most of what I had to understand was counter-intuitive and went against my nature. For example, I found it nearly impossible, at first, to maintain strict boundaries. I have always felt the need to provide and protect this person, and I learned that doing so wasn’t helping. This was a brutal realization. By ‘helping’ I was prolonging the necessary “bottoming out” that is ugly and brutal, but critical.
In order for an addict to truly take the steps towards recovery, they often need to feel like they have exhausted their options, otherwise, their addiction poisoned mind will continue to manipulate and bargain to maintain substance abuse. This was difficult to accept, because I love my sister and know the part of her who wasn’t manipulative or duplicitous. But that version of my sister was lost in a cocktail of drugs and alcohol that wouldn’t allow her to surface until she had no other choice. I worried that she might die, considering 78 people die every day in America from opioid addiction.
After several stints in rehab centers and the hospital, she is doing much better. She is clean and appears to be committed to her sobriety. But life has a funny way of testing one’s resolve. She just had an MRI and discovered that she has a torn ACL. She will have surgery and the tear, although complete, is repairable. The problem is that it is a significant surgery, which will require pain killers after the surgery is done. This will require her case worker and all of us who care about her to become familiar with the signs and dangers of her using opioids to deal with the pain. There is an array of complex treatments for pain, but the addiction must be constantly and vigilantly monitored, otherwise we risk sending her back into a severe usage spiral.
This is similar to what happened with people like former San Diego Chargers’ quarterback Ryan Leaf, who is now in prison for stealing painkillers because he became addicted due to the violent repercussions of playing football. Then he seemed to have his addiction under control, but needed surgery to remove a tumor. He vowed to have the operation without anesthesia due to his addiction, but now he is doing a seven year sentence as a result of his crimes.
Now my research has pivoted to the topic of helping my sister stay sober, without enabling her and allowing her to have a necessary operation to fix her knee. What the knee surgery seems to do is pile on to the complex and confusing circumstances that accompany addiction. I feel like this is new territory, and I have no experience to draw from.
But, I have learned that I need to keep growing. I now go to Alanon meetings and continue to ask questions because my first instinct is to help which may be the wrong response. There probably are no perfect responses in this complex process, but working to be more effective with the steps I take is critical. Otherwise, I am part of the problem and not the solution.