When addicts suffer, so do families
For every addict who dies, or goes to jail, or threatens self-harm, many more loved ones are feeling the effects.
HANOVER, Pa. (AP) — Sandy Swenson makes the pilgrimage from Texas to Florida every year, not knowing whether she'll create another memory with her son.
A hug. A meal. A surface-level conversation. Anything except talk of his addiction and the chaos spiraling outward from it.
After years of dealing with her son Joey's addictions, these annual interactions are the only chance Swenson has to make new memories with her oldest child. She realized years ago that staying active in his life - getting caught up in his dramas, lending him money, bailing him out of jail - was killing her son and enabling the addict wearing his face.
So she let go.
She stayed in another part of the country. She refused to talk to him while he was high, or while he was upset about the holes he had dug himself into with his drug use. She stopped bailing him out, literally and figuratively.
But every April, she texts him to let him know she's in the area. She names a restaurant where she plans to grab breakfast, or a pool where she wants to catch some sunshine.
And she hopes he'll join her for that hug and small talk, just so she can let him know he's loved, and the door is open for him to come back.
'His addiction was consuming me'
Swenson's experiences battling the exhaustion and sadness of her son's addiction are far from unique.
Nationwide, more than 6 percent of people over the age of 12 was dependent on alcohol in 2014, and almost 3 percent had abused illegal drugs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
In York and Adams counties alone, 97 people died from drug overdoses in 2015, with heroin linked to 68 of those fatalities, according to the counties' coroners. Area rehabilitation centers have expanded, but many still struggle to find enough beds for patients seeking treatment for substance abuse disorders.
But for every addict who dies, or goes to jail, or threatens self-harm, many more loved ones and acquaintances are feeling the effects of that person's behavior. Although experts say these people could benefit from counseling and support just as much as the addicts, these friends and family members are often too worried about helping the addict to care for themselves.
When a person recovers from addiction, in fact, he or she often gets better more quickly than the family.
"The families don't get the kind of help patients get," said Robert Matylewicz, medical director at Clarity Way, an in-patient drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Heidelberg Township. "The family still remembers all the trauma ... they're still not over that."
Joey was a junior in high school when Swenson noticed her normally engaging, charismatic son - who once built a playground for an orphanage, enjoyed scuba diving and earned scholarships to several colleges - started exhibiting what she thought was normal teenage mood swings and weight loss. For Swenson, that trauma manifested in a toxic sludge of shame, exhaustion and maternal anguish, made more bitter by the hope that maybe today would be the day she got her son back.
After several years of denial, she and her family discovered he was not only using but addicted to a litany of drugs - pot, cocaine, mushrooms, heroin ... "everything really," Swenson said.
The years after that realization sped by in a blur. The family tried to lead him to treatment, bailed him out of legal problems, lent him money and, Swenson said, fell for lie after lie about his drug use.
In the process, Swenson gradually lost hold of her own life. As she put out fire after fire for Joey, she stopped seeing friends, afraid they would find out about Joey's problems, and spent less and less time with her other son. The little sleep she received happened when her youngest boy went to school for the day.
Then she realized she had to stop. Not just for herself, but for Joey.
"His addiction was consuming me," she said. "At some point I realized that if I didn't get my act together, I was going to pull the whole family down the drain."
Acknowledging this fact - that the addict isn't the only one who needs help - is the first step families can take to help themselves and their loved ones get better, said Audrey Gladfelter, administrator of the York/Adams Drug & Alcohol Commission.
"Addiction is a family disease, so you can't just treat the person with the substance abuse disorder," she said.
York County Coroner Pam Gay, a member of the York County Heroin Task Force, knows the exhaustion and anger of watching a loved one struggle with addiction. Like Swenson, she was shocked to learn that a family member - her niece, a seemingly thriving woman in her 30s - struggled with addiction.
She watched with resentment as her niece, Kim, lost hold of everything she had - her marriage, her home, her job - and Gay eventually gained custody of Kim's 4- and 7-year-old children. Gay hit an all-time low, she said, when she spent a night circling one of her niece's hang-outs, trying to find her car to prove to people her niece was still using, even though she said she was not.
"It was then that my own 13-year-old son said to me, 'Mom, what are you doing?'" Gay wrote in a newspaper column earlier this year. "I finally realized, just as the drink and drugs had a hold on my niece, they also had a hold on me. This truly is a disease, and I was sick, too. I had let it consume me, too."
Now, she serves as a member of the York County Heroin Task Force, educating the community about addiction. She asks that people educate themselves before looking at addicts with hatred or condescension.
Other addiction experts agree that seeking education is one of the first steps families can take when they feel themselves being pulled down by a loved one's addiction.
Doing so can help families come to terms with one of the most difficult aspect of addiction: that recovery is a process - a lengthy and often difficult one, Matylewicz said.
"The hardest part with families is that, a lot of times, they want things better quickly," Matylewicz explained.
In addition to consulting with experts, families can also attend open Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, maybe even ones where a loved one is speaking, to learn about what they are experiencing, said Bobbie Hickcox, director of Drug and Alcohol Services at TrueNorth Wellness.
But understanding can only go so far. Families and friends of people with substance abuse disorders still need to come to terms with their own emotional struggles.
"It's so terribly frightening, There's so much maternal anguish," Swenson said of her experiences with her son. "To hide this in silence and shame is just too much."
Resentment, shame and nonstop worrying about a loved one takes a physical and emotional toll on people, Gladfelter said.
Group counseling can help in these situations. National groups - like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon - offer regular meetings where people can share their experiences with a loved one's addiction, offering a sympathetic and nonjudgmental ear for people to tell their stories and share strategies that have worked for them.
York County has also developed a strong grassroots movement of independent in-person and online support systems that the commission lists on its website, she added.
Swenson found help through Al-Anon, reading, blogging and, eventually, writing a book about her experiences, "The Joey Song: A Mother's Story of Her Son's Addiction."
Although she still aches for her son to recover, the act of sharing her experiences with others, and knowing they might benefit from knowing they're not alone, has helped her put her life back on track. And in doing so, she hopes, she is setting a good example that her son might one day follow.
"I can't control Joey's recovery. But I can control my reaction," she said.
Gay, too, eventually broke loose from the hold of her niece's addiction. She realized she couldn't force her to get better and, consequently, understood she needed to turn the situation over to her higher power - God.
This March, her niece celebrated 10 years of sobriety. She has her job back and lives with her children again. Although rebuilding trust took time - Gay and her family made her undergo random drug tests and take parenting classes during her recovery - the relationship did get better.
"Here in York County, we hear a lot about the sadness and despair brought on by alcohol and drug addiction," Gay wrote. "Kim and I want all the hopeless out there to know that there is hope - our family is living proof."
But not every addict wants to stop using. And even if they do, many don't stick with their treatments and end up back where they started.
That's what happened to Joey, who, Swenson believes, is still doing drugs, even after years of trying to help him recover with rehab and support.
Although family support can help people with addictions recover, no amount of love or good intentions can force an addict to get clean, Hickcox said.
It's a fact she has tried to explain to countless frantic moms, dads and spouses who call her begging for help for their loved one.
Some of those people hang up on her. Others, she said, are just grateful to have a voice on the other end of the phone, willing to talk. Either way, she tries to point them toward resources to help themselves.
Caring too much, or in the wrong way, can also hurt people's chances of recovering from addiction. Balancing that fine line between helping the person and enabling the addict can prove one of the trickiest challenges friends and families face, Matylewicz said.
"Helping is something that needs to be pre-established," he said. "We basically tell the family whatever you say you're going to do, you need to stick with it."
If caregivers say they're going to pay a loved one's rent, or help them through school or give them a place to live if they stay clean, they need to follow through with consequences if the addicts do not hold up their end of the deal, Matylewicz said. That could mean making a tough decision - like throwing a son or daughter out of the house - if that was the predetermined consequence.
"You don't take away consequences," Hickcox said. "If my son's an addict and he steals money out of my purse, there has to be consequences for that behavior instead of looking the other way."
After years of meetings and self-education, Swenson said she learned to hold her son accountable. This ultimately meant removing herself from his day-to-day life - for his sake and hers.
"It took us a long time to follow through with what we had actually been taught," she said. "We finally realized that what we were doing was helping the addict and killing the son we were trying to save."
Letting go hurt - "like trying to pry these white-knuckled fingers off of where they don't belong" - but several years after following through, Swenson still knows she did the best thing for her, Joey and the rest of their family.
Now, she travels the country, telling others how she is surviving her son's addiction, even if he one day does not. She fills the rest of her days writing and volunteering with a program she created, called Bistro Boyz, that helps displaced children plan meals and learn other life skills.
She has learned to stop blaming herself, both for his addiction and continued drug use. If imperfect parenting caused addiction, she figures, every child would be an addict.
Friends and family don't ask about Joey anymore. They know he is not in recovery, Swenson said, and most understand why she had to distance herself from him.
But that doesn't mean she doesn't think about him. And each year, she makes the pilgrimage to Florida to try to find her son and let him know she loves him, even if she can't make him recover.
Most years, he agrees to meet her, and they create another memory she can hang on to. This year, he didn't.
Swenson can only hope he will change his mind next year. And one day, she prays, she might even have her son back for good.
"I always have hope for that," she said. "As long as he's alive, there's hope."
Information from: The Evening Sun, http://www.eveningsun.com
JENNIFER WENTZ, The (Hanover) Evening Sun. Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.
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The Gayly - 5/3/2016 @ 12:03 p.m. CDT