It has been roughly 17 months since I wrote a piece for CT Online about my son’s struggle with addiction, and it is amazing how far he and our family have come since then. I felt compelled to write a follow-up, not just because he is my son, but also because in the past year, I have discovered that so many professional counselors’ and counselor educators’ family members suffer in silence.
Last year, I used an author pseudonym in my article. I did this for two reasons. First, out of respect for our son because he was still in residential treatment and I couldn’t ask him for permission at that time. Second, I wanted to preserve anonymity for both of us, afraid of the effects that discussing our story and revealing our identities might have. A lot has changed over the past year, however, and today, both my son and I are so much stronger for having the courage to speak out. We no longer hide behind the effects of this horrible disease. I have learned that by speaking up, the addiction no longer holds any power over our family. I hope in this article to offer some solace, support, understanding and love to those who are suffering in silence. We healers deserve to heal too, and my heart goes out to you all.
On Feb. 16, 2018, the police called us at 2:30 a.m. from the other side of the country — 2,600 miles away — to tell us that our beautiful, precious son had been found on the side of the road, passed out. We later learned that the heroin in my son’s possession had been laced with fentanyl–he had no idea. Heroin users never have any idea what they are truly getting. They assume it is the same product that they are used to, draw up the same “dosage,” and a few seconds after injection, it’s all over. The police told us that they had found our son just in time. He was in the cab of his truck, his foot still balanced on the brakes, the heroin and needle next to his side, the tourniquet still strapped to his arm and accompanied by his faithful dog, who barked like crazy as the police pounded on the door. It is a miracle our son is still with us. It is even more miraculous that he now has over 14 months in recovery and in order to pursue what he calls his life’s work, is studying to become a substance abuse counselor.
I wish I could share with you the “miracle formula,”– a path that if everyone could just follow, they would be “OK.” If only … But, this disease of addiction doesn’t work that way. It has a mind of its own, and its victims must find the recovery that best works for them.
I attended the American Counseling Association Conference & Expo in New Orleans this past March and went to a session proctored by Geri Miller (author of Learning the Language of Addiction Counseling). She, along with two other presenters, Jennifer Kline and Ben Asma, tried to describe the nature of addiction to the audience: how tolerance builds up, how the brain becomes “hijacked” by the opioids, and the realities of withdrawal. They did an outstanding job relaying what actually happens to a human being, and came as close as I’ve ever heard to describing the abject horror a person suffering from addiction must endure.
For those of us who have never experienced or witnessed a person in withdrawal (I am not a person in recovery, but am a licensed addiction counselor and professor who teaches addiction and counselor education), it is hard for people to truly understand its hell. My son had to go through it on the floor of a jail cell, writhing in agony. An addict no longer uses to get high – that ship has sailed a long, long time ago. They use only to avoid withdrawal.
When withdrawal starts, you begin to feel like you are becoming quite physically ill. Soon, you begin to sweat all over, then have uncontrollable bouts of freezing. Your skin begins to crawl; you start seeing double. Your gut aches as it never has. And then you begin to wretch violently.
Simultaneously, you lose control of your bowels, and getting to the toilet is no longer an option. The pain continues to grow as you lose the ability to stand up. Your stomach contorts and your head is in agony. You want to rip out your hair, your eyeballs, anything to make the wretched pain stop. You continue vomiting and soiling yourself, every few moments. There is no reprieve, no solace, no hope. You are so “dope sick” now that you think you may die and loathe yourself so much that you no longer believe you are even worth saving. You know the one and only thing that will make this sheer hell on earth stop is if you can get some drugs in your system. You swear by all you have left within you that you will “quit tomorrow.” You must tell yourself this lie, because to realize that you can never quit on your own is too unbearable to fathom.
After several hours, or even a day or two of the above, you will do anything (just about) to get more drugs. You despise your very being, your reflection in any mirror, and the lies you constantly tell to the ones you love the most. Your shame and guilt seem insurmountable. Your spirituality is gone – it was one of the first things the drugs took away from you. There is no longer any hope, just the temporary relief of the heroin (or worse) coursing through your veins.
Each day, or several times per day, this hell is reenacted. Depending on tolerance, what you took, how often, withdrawals can start again in a matter of hours. When a person must detox without the benefit of using buprenorphine or a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone to slowly, medically and safely wean them off the substances, the hell can last for days or a week or more. Withdrawal from heroin use is rarely fatal; however, there are many serious side effects and people can die from dehydration. If they are not safely detoxed, their pulse often becomes thready, their PO2 oxygen levels drop, their blood pressure plummets and they may even slip into unconsciousness or start seizing. This is what happened to my son. The guards had to rush him back to the hospital after 36 hours to give him IV fluids. He was so gravely ill that he barely remembers this part. The hospital personnel patched him up and within a few hours, he went back to his jail cell. How we treat people who have unwittingly taken too much OxyContin and become victims of the pharmaceutical trade is unconscionable. It is now known that a person can become addicted to OxyContin within five days. And we treat these people, human beings, worse than wild animals.
To know my son survived this horror, alone, with nothing but Tylenol and something mild for nausea (which is vomited immediately), tears at the very fabric of my soul and violates all I hold sacred in this world. How he was treated was vile, but not uncommon. Many others who suffer from addiction and end up in jail receive the same treatment. They will face the legal system, as my son did, and pay for their crimes. But the horrendous lack of treatment, access to care or compassion, combined with the sheer inhumaneness they face, brings me to my knees. If people only knew…
There is no question that many people do horrid things when they become victims of addiction; the realities are painfully obvious. A cornerstone of recovery is the process of paying for mistakes and learning how to make amends. Forgiveness from loved ones can come at a very heavy price, and forgiving oneself can ultimately become the hardest fought battle of all. Addiction is such a cruel, insidious disease, particularly because so many have such a difficult time in separating the behavior from the person. Understanding the horrible acts that some people commit, while also trying to see them as a person in severe emotional, physical and spiritual pain, is a significant and sometimes difficult juxtaposition. For those living with addiction, free will has been overtaken by the demands of withdrawal, and the self-deprecation that follows each usage is beyond daunting.
My intention in writing this piece is to help convey the utter destruction of opioid addiction and the ugly and purulent aspects of withdrawal. Once we truly understand this part of the disease, our entire paradigms change. It would be unconscionable to treat someone with cancer, heart disease, diabetes or emphysema this way. Yet we allow this to go on day after day after day. We lose over 116 dear souls to opioid overdoses in this country every day now, and the numbers continue to rise. We all share this plight because addiction can, and does, happen to anyone. Once we understand this, we can stop the blame and shame that has for centuries accompanied this disease and begin to proactively act.
Our son is still fighting this disease; he will for the rest of his life. So far, he is winning, but elements that test his recovery are always there. We continue to celebrate his victiories. The entire family went to his open Narcotics Anonymous meeting to watch him get his one-year keychain and cheered like crazy fools. The look of pride in his eyes said it all: it’s as if his life is now just beginning. He’s been volunteering 30 hours per week at a county outpatient and residential treatment center since September 2018 as he works on attaining his certification to treat those with substance use disorders. His compassion for those fallen is unparalleled; he “gets this.” His family couldn’t be prouder. What an incredible difference he is making in the lives of others every day. He is my hero, and I stand in awe of his contributions and bravery.
My other goal in writing this is to discuss the stigma that helping professionals face when our own loved ones confront addition. That reality persists, and when I feel brave enough to reach out, I have overwhelmingly found that so many others also suffer in silence. Because we are counselors, therapists, professors and educators, we—and others—believe that not only do we help heal others, we must somehow have all the answers and will always know and have the ability to intervene in cases of addiction — especially with our loved ones. The assumption (I surmise) goes that there is something gravely wrong with us when a loved one succumbs to addiction. Why didn’t we intervene and stop them? Unfortunately, it’s not a matter of becoming aware and then simply “stepping in.” Addiction is a bio-psycho-social-emotional disease, insidious in its approach, and deadly in its tracks. It is not exclusive and honors no perceived barriers — not religion, socio-economic class, ethnicity or any other categories or factors. Because secrecy, lying, excuses, stories, deception, and falsehoods are all part and parcel with this disease, even the most astute of us do not always recognize the signs of impending addiction. Before long, victims are well into their disease and, by necessity, the level of deception grows with each passing day. It’s called survival.
To blame the person who is addicted for using their survival instincts is antithetical to any help we can give them. So too is to blame the family members and loved ones, no matter their profession. The isolation I felt this past year was heart-wrenching, lonely, judgmental, sad, destructive, and purposeless. I have also found that this sense of isolation is shared by many of my comrades. I am mentally exhausted from hiding in the shadows, fearing recriminations and judgments from those who refuse to listen or understand.
As I test the waters and disclose our story, I am buoyed by the knowledge that there are so many of us who need a voice. We need to raise awareness that this disease knows no bounds and its victims are all of us. It’s time to stop letting addiction win. It’s time to stop being its unwitting counterparts. It’s time to treat the addicted person, the family, and the loved ones with humanity and compassion —- the same way we treat others with any type of potentially deadly disease. I’m determined to not let my professional colleagues suffer in silence. I feel your pain; I understand. Now, let’s get the word out.
Suzanne Whitehead is coordinator of the counselor education program at California State University, Stanislaus. Her main research interests include promoting increased access and humane treatment for those afflicted with substance use disorders; crisis and disaster counseling; and equity for DACA recipients, immigrants and refugees. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.