COVID-19 has hit the recovery community hard with many of those trying to be substance free relapsing because of isolation and lack of support. Unfortunately, we have lost many lives over the last 4 months due to overdoses. Like so many other families that have lost loved ones to this opioid epidemic, I divide my life into the before and after. The before was May 28, 2012, and the after was May 29, 2012 when my son Justin died of a heroin overdose. Today, eight years later, I ask myself what has changed and what have we learned?

Through the efforts of many grassroots organizations like Drug Crisis in our Backyard, we have brought awareness of the rampant use of heroin and opioids in our community, we have helped countless families understand substance use disorder (addiction) as a disease and rallied together in an effort to support each other live with the symptoms in a loved one. As a community, we have been pleased to see agencies work together for the better good. We have participated as hundreds rally in Albany to stop the stigma associated with addiction.

We have learned so much in the last eight years. We learned things that I wished we knew while my son was still alive. We learned that continued attempts at recovery raises the chances of success.  Once is not enough and sometimes 10 times is not enough, but the important thing is to keep trying. Even if you think you’ve heard everything before just maybe you are ready to hear it now. Remaining hopeful under the most distressing circumstances is difficult but very important to the recovery of your loved one.

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Medication-assisted treatment is the first line of defense against opioid use disorder. This includes Suboxone, methadone and Vivitrol.  MAT with behavioral therapy increases the chance of recovery. We cannot make anyone get well; they have to do this on their own. However, recovery is possible with the support of family, professional intervention and a solid support network-AA, NA, Smart Recovery, or any like-minded mutual aid group.

We learned that this is a brain disease. We learned that more than 50 percent of the people that use substances suffer from some form of mental health issue which might include social anxiety, generalized anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, ADHD, and bipolar. Early intervention by parents, teachers and friends can help an adolescent before they seek alcohol and drugs to ease their mental health symptoms.

We learned that early use of any drug by a child, including alcohol and marijuana lead to higher rates of addiction. The adolescent brain is still developing, and it is imperative to delay any use until after early adulthood. Drinking and vaping marijuana is not a rite of passage!

We learned that there is a family propensity for the disease of substance use disorder, same as is with diabetes and heart disease. If you have a family member no matter how distant, the chances increase for addiction in the bloodline. Educate your children on this important health condition in the family.

We learned that people suffer in silence because of the stigma associated with addiction and mental illness. People think that they are the only ones when in reality approximately 20 million Americans age 12 and up, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2017, need treatment and only a small percentage of them seek help. We learned that Americans consume close to 80 percent of all painkillers according to Express Scripts 2014 report, manufactured in the entire world.  That many insurances will only cover only a short treatment stay and there is no wonder that this is a revolving door with people coming out of treatment and relapsing within hours. With opiates, months and years are needed for the brain to recovery, to learn how to live without the drugs and learn strategies to manage the desire to use again.

We learned that the family, the siblings are victims to this disease. They watch their brother or sister create chaos in the house and struggle with the anger that they feel toward them. If the sibling dies, they then feel guilt for not trying harder and being there for their sibling. They need help too. This is a family disease everyone in the family is affected. Family therapy is strongly recommended if someone is addicted to a substance. There are also support groups for families:  Alanon, Naranon and Spotlight Family Support Group.

For the many families that are in crisis today, there are supports that did not exist when we were struggling with my son’s addiction. Family Support Navigators have been trained in NYS to help families learn strategies to live with active addiction in their household. One evidence-based model that we recommend is CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training).

This model helps families practice self-care and communication skills to influence change.

Recovery coaches and peer advocates are trained and certified to help those in early recovery stay the course during the most difficult times. Recovery coaches help guide the recoveree in their journey to a stable sobriety that is hard to maintain without the extra support.

Accepting that your loved one has a disease and at least for now this is the reality, is very important. Denial has no place here and is non-productive. During one of the many sessions we spent with Justin’s addiction psychiatrist, he said as long as there is life there is hope. Truer words were never spoken, and I think of this statement often. When I first heard it, there was no connection for me because deep inside I never believed that Justin would die. The pain and anxiety caused by living daily with the disease of addiction clouded my judgement and caused such anger and resentment that I couldn’t see my son’s pain. I only saw the symptoms of the disease: lying, stealing, and manipulating. So, now I know the truth and pass this onto others. 

As long as there is life there is hope. It is important to believe that they can die and once they are gone there is no going back and trying again.  Now that there are many more resources for help for your loved one don’t let shame or embarrassment get in the way. There are more people dealing with substance use disorder then you could imagine.  Please reach out to one of our Family Support Navigators at 845-745-0896 or email us at ssal@drugcrisisinourbackyard.com. 

We are accessible through our website www.drugcrisisinourbackyard.com   and on Facebook.

Susan Salomone is co-founder of Drug Crisis in Our Backyard.