THE story of my son’s heroin use is not unique. The painful realization that your child has somehow evolved into a manipulative, lying, stealing machine whose only focus is to feed its addiction is common to every addict’s family.
And just like other families who have watched their loved one’s best and dearest qualities become ever more deeply buried, I have learned much, much more than I ever wanted to know about the pain of loving an addict.
Over the last five, painful years, I’ve watched my warm, tenderhearted and highly productive 18-year-old become an unrecognizable stranger. Along the way, I have learned a series of progressive lessons.
I have learned that a child who cannot keep track of his belongings and who chronically “loses” expensive athletic shoes, cellphones and skateboards may have found that these items can be readily exchanged for drugs. I’ve learned that mysteriously broken Bic pens and missing tinfoil are blatant red flags that your child is smoking drugs much more dangerous than marijuana.
I’ve learned that, despite incredible breakthroughs in bio-medical and behavioral sciences, both the criminal-justice system and society in general remain obsessively focused on 12-step programs (such as Narcotics Anonymous), which help a few and fail many more. This simplistic view of addiction can dramatically hinder recovery, not foster it. Sadly, many addicts like my son, having once experienced such a program, will choose jail time over entering another 12-step program.
There are so many other potential options that can lead to the road of recovery. Drugs such as Buprenorphine can prevent withdrawal symptoms and address physical-dependency issues. Cognitive-behavioral and motivational therapies have documented success rates, and mindfulness-based treatments can help in both early treatment and relapse prevention.
I’ve learned that although substance addiction is devastating families across all demographics, the incredible shame attached to heroin addiction has led to a silence that has enabled its escalation. My son’s journey would have been totally different if there had been more candor among parents about the signs of drug use, more readily accessible information on addiction, and if we had gone beyond our comfort level to initiate conversations
The failure of those in the legal system to make use of the full range of scientifically supported and evidence-based treatment approaches is both appalling and enormously counterproductive. The families of addicts know that the path to recovery is incredibly personal and complex, just like the path to addiction.
We need to provide a stronger knowledge base so our judges can consider programs beyond jail time or 12-step programs. And families, friends, members of the community and the justice system, as well as addicts themselves, all need to engage in shame-free, non-punitive and open-minded discussions that acknowledge the failure of our current course and begin to explore innovative options.
My son is your neighbor. Your addicted loved one lives on my street. Whether you realize it or not, we are all dealing with this heartbreaking issue. And it is time to remember that loving and caring for those whose essence is being destroyed by a brutal biochemical force is not only acceptable, it is the most powerful weapon we can unleash.