5 things we wish we’d known: Advice from families who have lost a loved one to addiction
1. Pay attention to early substance use.
“Experimenting with marijuana at 16 was followed by experimenting with prescription pills and finally heroin. His face, my voice are words that echo in my head from the moment we lost him,” shares Lou from New Mexico, who lost her 19-year-old son Michael after a two-and-a-half-year struggle.
“Use often begins with alcohol, nicotine or marijuana — the most commonly used substances among teens. Protecting the brain during this critical period of development is an important part of prevention,” explains Dr. Robert DuPont.
Talk to children about the importance of not using any substances. “Young people respond to the science of brain development; give them the facts to protect themselves and make the healthy choice of no use,” explains Dr. Caroline DuPont, an experienced addiction psychiatrist.
2. Don’t wait for rock bottom.
“People are told the disease has to ‘run its course’ and to practice ‘tough love’ until they hit rock bottom. Now with fentanyl, rock bottom was an overdose, a fatal overdose,” shares Justin from Indiana, who lost his son Aaron at age 20 to a heroin overdose.
But how do you start that conversation with your loved one about treatment?
According to Dr. Mark Gold, a renowned addiction psychiatrist, and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, “Start with affection, such as ‘You’re one of the most important people in my life,’ which helps reassure the person.
“Then cite specific behaviors that you are concerned about, whether episodes of impaired driving, arrests, missed work or other changes. Then suggest or even insist that they undergo an assessment.”
3. Recovery takes time.
Karla, the mother of Alicia, age 28, shares: “I wish I would’ve known that recovery is not about 3 months, 6 months, a year in rehab. It’s a lifetime. When they release someone from rehab, it’s not the end. It’s the very beginning.”
A provider should work with your loved one to develop an individualized treatment plan, taking into account the severity of their disease, any co-occurring disorders, and a variety of other factors that help determine the best course of treatment. Patients with a moderate or severe substance use disorder will likely need a comprehensive three-to-five-year treatment plan; while those with a mild substance use disorder may require a lower level of care.
4. Find quality treatment.
Finding a treatment provider can be daunting. There are many factors to consider when choosing a provider and treatment plan that are right for your loved one.
Dr. Gold explains, “It’s critical to know which physicians in the community are trained in Addiction Medicine or Addiction Psychiatry to find quality addiction treatment. Some important things to look for in a program include whether the program is licensed and accredited. Do they use a validated assessment tool to determine what level of care their patients need? Do they have a full-time Psychiatrist or how many hours a week do they have Psychiatrists, Addiction Medicine and other experts on-site? Do they have experience providing therapy and medications for patients with opioid or alcohol use disorder? How do they develop a patient’s treatment plan? Is it personalized? How long does it last? Do they do follow up, after treatment assessments, for 1 or 3 or 5 years? Addiction is a chronic disease and requires long term planning and care.”
5. Find support.
“It feels like you’re drowning when you’re worried about your kid and desperately trying to find help. And the stigma around this disease can mean backlash and judgment from some of the people closest to you, but help does exist,” shared Doug Griffin from New Hampshire, who lost his daughter Courtney at age 20 to a heroin overdose.
There are support networks, family groups, and other ways to find help and lean on others in crisis. Call the Addiction Policy Forum helpline at 833-301-HELP to speak to a counselor or visit the addiction resource database to find local services: https://www.addictionpolicy.org/.
Finding help, friends, and experts is key to navigating this difficult chronic health issue. With more than 20 million people struggling with substance use disorder in the United States, you are not alone.