It’s almost 4 months since Bryan passed and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and soul-searching. One of the issues that continues to haunt me is the shame and judgement that is attached to addiction. It’s not from others, but from myself. As I lived this nightmare, trust me, I judged, I was ashamed, I had pre-conceived notions concerning drug addicts that colored my thinking. I always heard the voices in my head of what I perceived my family and friends would think. I hid what we were living with, I hid the disease. I’m not sure how well I did, probably not all that great, but somehow if I pretended it didn’t exist and I dealt with it in private, it might make it not be real.
I’m pretty sure that is called crazy thinking. I lived with it for many of the years Bryan struggled with addiction. And then I stopped hiding. As Bryan reached out his hand for help, I too reached to my friends and some family members for support. I attended Al-Anon, I read everything I could get my hands on, I helped Bryan get into detox and rehab and I spoke to him every single day. What I did for Bryan, what I would do a hundred thousand times over, I would do for each of my sons. It’s what a mother does, unconditional love, meaning when it’s good you’re there, and when it’s not good, you’re still there. We walked with Bryan through the fire of addiction and we waited for him. We were beside him, behind him, and in front of him. He would see us and we would see him. We never lost sight of each other.
We would be there, forever. It’s what you do for your child, your children. Every. Time.
But, how does this happen? How does this stigma and judgement develop? How does addiction develop? From my own experiences growing up in Massapequa, there were ‘them,’ those using drugs and there was ‘us.’ We were not all goody-two-shoes, but heroin? Oh my goodness, no, that was done in alleyways far from me and where my friends’ lived. It wasn’t a thought in my head. It was always someone else, somewhere else. It wasn’t talked about, it was ignored because this didn’t happen to ‘us.’ But, it did, here it is in my own life, it crept in and began to take over without me even knowing. It took my beautiful, smart, charming, funny son. It can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere.
How is that possible?
It’s possible because it’s sneaky. Addiction is your best friend when you don’t know you have the disease. From what Bryan explained to me, taking drugs was “… the feeling of hitting a home run every time, …until it wasn’t.” When I first realized that Bryan was using drugs I was in shock and denial. I continued to try to rationalize what was going on. We talked, we sought help, we did ‘tough love’ and we tried over and over again. Why didn’t he just stop? He knew it was bad, he knew it hurt him, and he knew it hurt us, his family. He was a smart young man. Why wasn’t “Just say no!” working? I would tell him just don’t do it. Why is that so difficult to do? To understand? For years these were the questions I was wrestling with, I just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) comprehend what was happening.
Addiction is a disease.
It takes over physically, mentally and emotionally. Just say no doesn’t work when you’re crawling out of your skin, when the addict voice begins to take over and says, “Just this once… it’ll be OK, you can stop tomorrow… no one will know….” And while the craving is beyond understanding, the person suffering from addiction truly believes he will die if he does not use. Can you imagine having that kind of crazy talk in your head and not being able to stop it? Not being able to rationalize it? It’s hard to imagine, but what I do know is that it’s all consuming. It is a disease. Some people may not like thinking about addiction as a brain disease. It might be easier to think of it as a character flaw, a personal lack of control, an attention-getting behavior. Thinking that the ‘other person’ is weak-willed or self-indulgent or self-destructive may somehow keep us safe and being able to say they have a problem while conversely stating that we do not. That is a safe place to be, at least it was for me. I have learned the hard way how very wrong I was.
I can tell you from this devastating experience, that what somebody who suffers from the disease of addiction goes through is unfathomable. You can’t love it out of someone, you can’t threaten it out of someone and you can’t tough-love it out of someone. I think what frightens me the most was the fact that there is no control or choice when one has the disease of addiction. The work that has to be done is inconceivable. It is a life-long fight that never ends. The addiction is always there, right on the person’s shoulder, waiting for that opportunity to begin its’ assault again. How does one live like that? What kind of strength does it take to battle addiction? To recover? It is herculean work, but it’s do-able. Bryan did it for 8 years. He lived boldly, wildly, beautifully, uncertainly, imperfectly, magically. Yes, Bryan lived and for that I am eternally grateful.
So, when someone reaches out their hand — grab it, hold it as long you possibly can.
Thank you for listening.
With love always,
The following information is from Don Troutman, Founder, CSTL, Fair Oaks, California. Like Don, I hope these facts help people leave their misconceptions behind as they approach chemical dependency as a preventable and treatable brain disease. There’s no room for shame and stigma in this evidence-based conversation:
1. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act clearly identifies addiction to alcohol or other drugs as a mental health issue and a substance use disorder (SUD).
2. Twenty-three million Americans are in long-term recovery from substance use disorder. This list includes a past United States President, professional athletes, Fortune 500 executives, actors, musicians, as well as our everyday neighbors.
3. Substance use disorder (the severest form of which is commonly referred to as “addiction”), is a chronic brain disorder from which people can and do recover.
4. In the past year, 8.4% of adults (or 20.2 million adults) in the United States had a substance use disorder.Percentages for the Sacramento region are likely quite similar.
5. What causes substance use disorder? Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, states that that 50 percent of a person’s vulnerability to drug addiction is genetic.
6. Despite an increase in the understanding of the science of substance use disorders, research shows that people with substance use disorders are viewed more negatively than others.
- Negative attitudes have been found to adversely affect the quality of health care and treatment outcomes.
- Stigma and shame may keep individuals and families from finding the help they need to get better.
7. Just as substance use disorder impacts individuals, families and communities, recovery improves individuals, families and communities.
8. Finding the right support network is vital to the recovery process. Sober housing, where people choose to live productive lives without alcohol or other drugs, can be an important part of sustained recovery.