The Challenges of Coping with the Addiction of Someone You Love

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.

The Persistent Stigma of Substance Use Disorders

“Stigma is a five dollar word for a two dollar concept. It’s prejudice.”

Stigma, a set of negative stereotypes tied to behavioral health conditions, is not a new problem. Results of a recent survey suggest that views may be changing when it comes to mental illness. Advocacy efforts are getting results, and the public is beginning to recognize that mental illness is, in fact, a health condition.

We need a similar evolution to start when it comes to substance use disorders. Public perception of what it means to be addicted hasn’t shifted significantly. This is a problem.

In a study of Americans conducted by Johns Hopkins University, only 22% of people surveyed were willing to work closely with someone suffering from drug addiction, yet 62% were willing to work closely with someone suffering from mental illness.

Every person struggling to manage a substance use disorder, and every family stigmatized while supporting a loved one, are part of this broader landscape. Our current culture of stigma creates resistance to funding prevention and treatment. Belief that persons with substance use disorders are immoral, not ill, reduces support for behavioral health-centered policy.

Funding for treatment of substance use disorders isn’t commensurate with the scope of the problem. If substance use were recognized by the public as a health issue, it’s likely that prevention would be a higher priority.

We must help each other, and our communities, reshape the distorted image of substance use disorder as criminal and deviant. A person with a substance use disorder remains a person first. Examples of person-first language for substance use are included in this chart shared by Michael Botticelli, Director of Office of National Drug Control Policy. Note: Mr. Botticelli is himself a person in long-term recovery.

Language for addiction

Of course, stigma-free language is only one step and changing a stereotype takes time. We should see this as part of the process of removing structural roadblocks to health. As we break the persistent stigma that clings to substance use disorders, we’ll turn the focus instead to very real opportunities that exist for health and recovery.

The Law is a Blunt Weapon to Be Used Carefully

Courtesy of Child Welfare Maine

The Guardian newspaper in the UK is reporting on a proposed law in the state of Victoria, Australia that would create a criminal offence for anyone knowing of child abuse to not report it. Earlier this month, The Huffington Post told of the law passed in Tennessee that would allow the incarceration of women abusing drugs while pregnant.

Both of these legislated actions are well meaning. One is designed to ensure that children can be protected from the impact of drug abuse prior to birth. The other is designed to increase the rate at which abuse is reported and can thus be addressed. Yet both fail due to the unintended consequences. They are the actions of politicians who grasp on to a problem and then seek the simple answer. They are able to justify the action based upon the desirable goal – reduce harm to children.

What is so often missed though, are the unintended consequences. Let’s look at the notion of incarcerating a pregnant women. As a student in one of my classes pointed out when we were discussing this, what stress arises for the mother being in jail? How will that impact the baby? How will withdrawal be managed in jail? I also wonder about the capacity of many jails to be drug free.

The Australian example raises a number of questions for non professionals. Does this mean that the neighbour who suspects that abuse is going on would be charged because they did not report suspicions? What of an adult child who has been the victim of abuse, knows that the abuser is still doing it, but still believes the threats to kill that the abuser has held over the victims head for years? What of the spouse who lives in terror of what will happen to her and the children if the abuser is found out – as the abuser has warned her that he will kill her and the kids? Or the mother who has been told by the violent partner that if anyone finds out she will never see her kids again? Are these people to be criminalized?

Putting someone through the criminal justice system, putting someone in jail, costs a lot of money. Why not spend that money on health care, rehabilitation and safety services? In other words, why not do something that will really help?

If you incarcerate pregnant women using drugs, then you drive them away from services that can address the addiction or substance abuse. If you criminalize a victim of abuse who was too afraid to tell, then you drive the victims further underground.

Let us not also forget that when you put people in jail, you fracture families. This too is an unintended consequence of these actions creating more victims – the children left behind. The policy makers should be asking with each proposal – is this the best solution available?

Exit mobile version