Editor's note: This is the third story in a four-part series about Sound Community Services, a nonprofit, New London-based organization devoted to helping people with mental health and substance use disorders heal and build lives of connection and meaning. You can read the first story here and the second story here.
NEW LONDON – As families file in to the Opioid Awareness Support Group on Monday night at Sound Community Services, therapist Amy Faenza smiles warmly, directing people to information packets and the piles of mini-chocolate bars in the center of each table.
“Uh-oh,” says one woman, eyeing the chocolate. “Chocolate is my stress reliever, so believe me that pile will be dust soon.”
The group laughs and settles in around the table. Amy makes introductions and explains the structure and format of the meeting. One by one, participants explain why they’re there.
“My daughter’s coming home from treatment in two weeks, and I guess we want to know what to expect,” one woman says softly. “She does seems very committed to her recovery; she went and got help on her own … but honestly we never thought this would be what we’re dealing with in retirement. It’s still hard to comprehend. … She lied to us a lot. It’s been a rollercoaster.”
Across the table, a couple shakes their heads in agreement. “We’ve been raising our grandkids for the past year,” the man says. “We want to do it,” the woman adds. “We want them all to be healthy. But let’s face it, we’re older and at this point it’s tiring.”
“My son is doing well,” another woman says. “But he was doing great before and then relapsed, so this time, I’m not as hopeful. I’m still kind of angry, actually.”
Amy nods. “It can feel frustrating, helpless, hopeless, those are normal emotions. I want to emphasize that you are important. Parents are often the last people that addicts have who are willing to help them try to get well. I can tell you from my own experience, that people who want recovery, stick it out.”
As evidenced by the voices around the table, the opioid addiction crisis has taken a hard toll on Connecticut families.
According to the state’s Department of Public Health, Connecticut residents are more likely to die from unintentional drug overdose than a motor vehicle accident. As the depth and scope of the opioid crisis intensifies – 1,076 Connecticut residents died last year from an overdose – a new program places a focus on those who are often overlooked: the family members and relatives of those with addiction.
Sound Community Services, a local nonprofit specializing in outpatient programs, counseling and support, recently received a $16,000 grant from the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to run an educational and support group for the families who have a loved one dealing with opioid addiction. The absence of family support can complicate efforts for an addict to achieve recovery, said Rachael Mullen, a substance abuse clinical coordinator at the agency. And misinformation about the nature of addiction can leave loved ones feeling anxious, with unanswered questions.
In today’s world, public conversations about substance use disorder are often beset with arguments about its nature and root causes. With the lack of medical consensus about a definitive cause, much of the public debate around addiction invokes questions of responsibility: how much of addiction is choice, how much is willpower, and how much compassion and help does the addict ‘deserve.’
The opioid crisis seems to have ramped this conversation to a fever pitch. The National Center for Health Statistics reported in late December that life expectancy in the United States has declined for the second year in a row - due in part to the rate of fatal overdoses; nearly than 64,000 in 2016. Among the people we’re losing to the epidemic are seemingly the least likely addicts – promising young athletes, college professors, successful business owners.
The baffling question is “why?” Why do people pursue actions that ruin their lives and break the hearts of those around them? The answer is nuanced. Right now, our best research points to a combination of genetic predisposition, emotional or physical injury or trauma, exposure to substances at a young age, and lack of family/social support, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In its earlier, less harmful stages, substance use can function as a solution: for loneliness, for social anxiety, for shame, for memories too painful to be borne. When substance use works, it provides feelings of well-being and consolation. It provides instant and effective relief for people who are tortured by anxiety; or persistent ideas about their own worthlessness; or regret. It’s terrible as far as medicine goes, professionals say, but it’s medicine still.
“The mental constructs, the self that gets created when we are hurting, can be very powerful, and very entrenched,” explains Gino DeMaio, director of Sound Community Services.
“Everything in a person’s life can be connected to this narrative, and when that ‘self’ originates faulty thoughts on a consistent basis, it can be very difficult for people to pull free on their own.” He likens it to having a tape player in your head that is always playing back wrong instructions, or misinformation.
It's important to understand that although personal pain might dispose a person to addiction, it's not a prerequisite. Many otherwise self-described "happy, normal" people can find themselves ensnared. Well-adjusted people still cope with enormous amounts of pressure - to be successful, to be involved and reliable, to be patient with elderly parents and young children, to be attractive, to be entertaining, to be strong. Modern life, with all its conveniences, can be exhausting. One pill to get the housework done or to get through the conference call, or to just get a good night’s sleep, can morph into a substantial problem over time - a problem that the individual never intended.
Whatever the particular 'why', for the addict, the problem is as traumatizing as it is self-reinforcing. As relationships, finances, health and work are pushed to the point of breaking and finally collapse, the person with addiction becomes more desperate for relief from the piercing psychological pain that attends these losses; and the profound sense of shame and failure for not being able to fix things.
“That’s what we are battling day to day here,” Amy says, “people hating themselves. It’s a dark world. Living with the shame of the things they’ve done can be very difficult in recovery.”
At the same time, she says, building an outer life that reflects inner change can be incredibly powerful. “Starting fresh with new friends, a new community, a new cellphone – this can all be very effective in building the kind of life the person really wants,” she explains.
Part of the curriculum teaches family members how to observe healthy boundaries and navigate the emotional territory of active addiction. “There is a huge amount of manipulation and dishonesty with addiction,” Rachael explains. “The addicts say to themselves: ‘In order to get my needs met, I have to manipulate.’ And the parents [and other family members] say to themselves: ‘What if I say no, refuse to give them give money or allow them in the house? What kind of parent am I?’”
Rachael also noted that the agency opted for a group approach that would build a self-empowering community, since one-on-one counseling can be isolating. “Statistics show an addiction group treatment works best,” she says. “You need the support of others. When I sit with other families, I know that I’m not alone in this. In order to heal, we need to have the whole system involved.”
The families of opioid addicts often carry their own burdens by either blaming themselves for the problem or by not getting help due to guilt or discomfort, she explains.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” she says. “But this has become a shame-based disease. And our society, unfortunately, perpetuates the shame to the point where people feel humiliated and embarrassed.”
Although there is no single, surefire “cure” for addiction, there are a variety of effective, evidence-based treatment approaches and tools. If one doesn’t seem to be having any meaningful affect, another can be tried. Which means there are lots of reasons to hope.
“Recovery starts with ambivalence” Gino says. “It takes courage to show up for help. It takes courage to enter that arena.” But when we do, the effects ripple out in ways we can’t anticipate, or truly understand. “There isn’t language in the human brain for how interconnected we are,” he adds. “We’re hard-wired for good. Even nonprofit organizations like this one, have a soul.”
For more information on the free Opioid Education Family Support Group or to enroll in an upcoming session, contact Jason Hyatt at 860-941-7252. For more information on Sound Community Services offerings and programs, visit soundcommunityservices.org or call 860-439-6400.