When it comes to dealing with your loved one’s addiction, the first year is often the worst year. It feels like an unwanted adventure into the unknown, a journey on a dark and dangerous road that intersects with emotions such as fear, anger, worry and guilt. Even when you force yourself to change direction, your life has been de-railed and it will take time to recover from the detour.
In sharing a few things I’ve learned from looking back at my first year, I hope to help others avoid some and recognize the paths that can be avoided. My natural tendency is to be very sensitive and comforting, but this is not the time for sugarcoating. The fact is, if your loved one is an opiate addict, their life is in danger. Opiates include heroin and prescription medications such as Vicodin or Oxycontin.
My son was 17 when he first admitted to me that he’d been shooting heroin. He told me he’d never do it again and I believed him. I kept an eye on him but if I am honest, I know I ignored some signs that he was still using. Denial is such a nice place to visit – but a dangerous place to stay.
Three months later I was called by the principal of the school. He’d been arrested in class for being under the influence and was being detained by a police officer in the school office. He was expelled from his senior year of high school. It was all downhill from there. In and out of rehabs, mental health hospitals, emergency rooms and jail. Denial was out of the question, now it was time to take action, but I had no idea where to go or what to do.
Here are my suggestions of things I did to help deal with that first confusing and heartbreaking year of heroin addiction.
1. Learn all you can
Research heroin addiction so that you can understand how and why it affects your loved one. Know the signs. Look for the telltale items if your addict is living in your home. Certain household items take on a new meaning, like aluminum foil, spoons, shoestrings, black smudges around the house.
2. Pay attention to their “cycle”
The most important thing to know is that heroin is highly addictive and creates a physical dependence. In other words, when using becomes habitual, the body needs more and more of the drug to get high and at some point its needed just to feel “normal”. An addict who does not get his daily dose of opiates will begin to suffer “dope sickness” which causes pain in the muscles, “crawling skin”, vomiting, diarrhea, insomnia, sweats, and more. I’ve seen my son suffer through this several times and it’s torturous. Addicts avoid dope sickness at all costs and become desperate to get their hands on more heroin to keep themselves from getting sick. This is often when illegal or immoral activities come into play.
3. Get support for yourself from others who understand
Your family and friends may be well-meaning in their efforts to support you through this ordeal. Their intent is to comfort or help but unless they’ve been directly affected by loving a heroin addict – they can’t possibly understand what you are going through. I highly recommend talking to people who walked the path ahead of you.
Thousands have found support through Al-Anon or Nar-Anon. Although Al-Anon focuses on families of alcoholics, the principals are the same. Many of my friends have learned to cope with addiction in their families as a result of Al-Anon.
The new wave of support - blogging communities
What has helped me the most is a blogging community of other parents. It developed spontaneously and is nothing “official”, we are a group of parents who randomly found each other via blogs. I’ve learned more from them, and gained more support from them, than any other source. We may not always agree with each other, but hearing their stories and words of wisdom has been invaluable. Please feel free to visit my blog, Recovery Happens, and join in the conversation there. (I have a list of blogs that will connect you with this great group of people from all over the country.) You need to take care of yourself during this time; your own heath and well being are at stake.
4. Understand that addiction is a disease
This concept was very hard for me to come to terms with. I thought, “Of course addiction is not a disease! My son got himself into this mess!”. Calling it a disease seemed like excusing it as something that chooses a person, like cancer or diabetes. Addiction is a choice you make for yourself right? Not so. It’s a choice to try the drugs, but it’s not a choice to become addicted. Many people use drugs recreationally, and although illegal, they maintain their “normal” lives. Unfortunately heroin is so highly addictive that you can become addicted after as little as ONE use. Once you have the disease it becomes all consuming and your life revolves around getting the money for the drugs, getting the drugs, using the drugs all while not getting caught. Then when the drugs are used up, the process starts itself over day after day, after day. So there are similarities to cancer or diabetes in that it’s not a deliberate choice one makes. Unlike cancer or diabetes there is no treatment to undergo that will eradicate or control it. These diseases are capable of causing death, and so is addiction. There is no cure and no guarantee of complete recovery. A cancer patient may find years of remission, a diabetic may live a relatively normal life. There is no medical treatment that can control the disease of addiction. Medications and treatment can help, but it’s like a war with many battles, there may be a “cease fire” but you have to always be on guard and ready to fight for victory.
5. Accept others lack of Empathy for Addiction in general
This seems harsh, but when the disease is addiction, there is very little sympathy or support. There are races for the cure for cancer, fundraisers, tons of research being done. But addict’s lives are affected at the core level of their being and they are often treated like common criminals and shunned by society. It’s easy to say “Well, they asked for it” until it happens to your sweet young daughter or loveable son, who up to this point, was the joy of your life. The disease of addictions has serious side effects such as felony records, loss of jobs, destruction of relationships and of course, all the self loathing, guilt and regret that come with it.
6. Understand that addiction is a “family disease”
Another characteristic of addiction that makes it so devastating is that it affects everyone in its path. It’s like a tornado – if you are close to it, it can hurt you in some way, if you are in the middle of it, it has the potential to rip you apart. My son and I have always been close. He was a good kid, never got in trouble, was open and honest and trustworthy. When heroin became his main reason for living (as it does for all heroin addicts) he was unrecognizable to me. Unlike meth addicts – he looked the same on the outside – but on the inside I didn’t know this person. He stole from me, he lied constantly, he was violent and mean. Worry was my constant companion. Every time the phone rang my heart leapt wondering if it was the police – or the morgue. Life has never been the same. I felt that I was suffering more that he was! This is why getting support is critical; you should not try to brave it out alone. It’s nothing to be ashamed of and by reaching out you’ll see that you are not alone and most importantly – it’s not your fault.
7. Do not blame yourself
As parents, we wonder “where did I go wrong?”. Please, please skip walking down this path. Addicts come from all walks of life, from all types of families. I like to use the example that if you have three children and treated them all equally and only one became an addict – how can you blame yourself? All three would be addicts if that were the case, or none of them would be. I only have one son so this theory didn’t work for me and it was hard to not take blame. But it’s essential to your own health and well-being and for your addict.
99% of the addicts (or their parents who have related their stories to me) have said, “It is NOT my parents fault, there is nothing they did or didn’t do that caused me to start using drugs”. Believe this and save yourself a lot of grief and guilt.
8. The “E” word
One thing you will hear over and over again is “don’t enable the addict”. This can be confusing, what exactly does it mean? I’d say enabling is the concept that carries the most controversy among families of addicts. Some parents choose to do nothing believing that if the addict is out on the street they will hit rock bottom and choose to finally get better. This does work for some, I talked to a homeless guy recently that said the best thing his parents ever did for him was to kick him out of the house because it forced him to stop using drugs. For me personally, enabling means not doing anything for my son that he is capable of doing for himself. There can be a lot of gray area here; it changes from day to day. Explore the concept of enabling by listening to others in meetings or reading about it on blogs. What does enabling mean in your situation? How can you support him/her without making it “easy” for them to continue using. Addicts need to remember that they are capable human beings when given the opportunity. If we do everything for them, we rob them of feeling good about themselves. Most likely their sense of self worth has taken a big hit with all they’ve been through so allowing them to pick up the pieces on their own as much as possible will show them they can succeed.
9. Never lose hope
There is a saying among parents of heroin addicts, “as long as he/she is breathing, there is hope”. During the first year of this journey I was angry every time I went to a meeting or family group because I consistently heard the same thing: relapse is part of recovery. In my mind, he should have been treated and gotten better. It’s amazing to me now that I thought it was so simple. So when you hear about someone in their third rehab, or that they are in jail AGAIN or that they had 8 months clean and relapsed, considered it a part of the process. Opiate addiction does not go away quickly or easily. Its rare for an addict to go through one rehab and stay clean. Don’t let this discourage you because each day in treatment, or jail or just not using, is one more day in the right direction. It may be two steps forward, one step back but progress is being made. I consider the time my son has spent in treatment as invaluable. I’ve seen changes in him, he’s gained tools to use to fight the battle and his attitude is now one of humility and desire to be clean. As I type this he’s in jail, but he’s alive so there is hope.
In a nutshell, the first year will be difficult, but if you arm yourself with knowledge, get support, embrace the disease concept, guard against enabling, and never give up hope; you will be able to walk this path better prepared and hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls.
Barbara Legere writes about Heroin Addiction on her award winning Recovery Happens blog. Her son Keven has been struggling with his heroin addiction for over 3 years. Join Barbara on her blog or Twitter.