The scarlet letter – fighting the stigma of addiction

Letter A Tin LettersWhen I first really “got it” that my son was addicted to opiates, I was saddened, shocked, terrified and embarrassed. Somehow, it felt like I was responsible, that I had failed as a parent, that I had led my child astray. I felt like I was wearing the scarlet letter “A” for all the world to see. I expected to start bleeding spontaneously from my heart, my hands. If I had known then what I know now, the isolation would have vaporized and I would have felt in good company. My neighborhood is no different than the rest of the nation, where 20% of high school kids abuse prescription meds, according to a recent CDC study. Helloooo, neighbor! Is that loud teenage cursing coming from your house or mine?

Those feelings abated as I became more educated. For those who insist that addiction/alcoholism is a disease of character, I refer to babies who are born addicted… what juvenile delinquents they are and how they demonstrate a stunning lack of willpower and character. That generally turns the conversation in a different direction.

I know that most people don’t know what I know about addiction/alcoholism:  that it was defined as a disease more than 50 years ago; that brain imaging reveals the misfiring parts of the addict’s brain; that nutritional approaches show great promise for recovery. I try to share that knowledge with others because wisdom is key to recovery for parents and their beloved children.

As addiction becomes more understood and more public, we have an opportunity to support the other moms who are joining our ranks in fear, despair and sorrow. Together, we create a life brigade of experience, strength and hope.

You don’t get a Get Out of Jail Free card just because addiction is a disease

1254880_shiny_brain_[1]I understand that addiction/alcoholism is a brain disease, but that doesn’t let my beloved addict off the hook or give him excuses like, “I can’t help it!  I’ve got a disease.”  And it doesn’t give me an out either.  If I think, “He can’t help it!  He’s got a disease,” then I am giving him a Get Out of Jail Free card.  I am giving him a reason to keep abusing drugs or alcohol.  I am enabling his  self-destruction, pure and simple.

Yes, my child has a disease, one that he needs to manage as he would diabetes or cancer or heart disease. Here are the rules of the game for those with impaired hearts or bad pancreases or chemically-dependent brains: keep away from the things that are bad for you.  Avoid sugar or fatty meat or – for the chemically dependent – any mood altering substance.  Pot, crack, alcohol, pain pills; these are all the same to the diseased addict/alcoholic brain.  Addicted to one means addicted to all.

As an aside:  I know many parents think, “It’s just pot!  How bad can that be?”  I was one of those naïve parents.  I didn’t know that pot had eight times the THC as in years gone by, or that it was causing psychosis among some users. I didn’t know there were more kids in rehab for pot than for all other drugs combined.  And today’s national landscape makes the picture even murkier: if pot is so dangerous, why is it being legally sold around the country?  That’s a mixed and confusing message for teens and adults alike.

My personal mantra for parental recovery is, “Give your beloved addicts a reason to change.”  The flip side to that is, “Don’t give them an excuse to use.” Don’t let them play the disease card.  Hold them accountable for the choices they make.  We can’t stop them from putting their hand to their mouth or a needle in their arm.  But we can stop making up excuses for them.

Going “sky high” to prevent addiction and honor lost children

SafeLaunchSaferLock is a product designed to keep medications out of the wrong hands. On the SaferLock website, we found this “Sky High” approach to preventing drug abuse while honoring children lost along the way….

SafeLaunch is an innovative nonprofit focused on primary addiction prevention. “We started SafeLaunch to educate parents about brain development,” says SafeLaunch Co-Founder Janet Rowse. “It turns out that most people don’t know that the real risk of teen drug use is due to the fact that the developing brain is up to 600% more susceptible to chemical dependency. We believe that when parents understand the actual addiction risk of early drug and alcohol exposure, they will act to protect their children. Everyone has heard the phrase “‘prevention is the best cure.” SafeLaunch gives parents the tools they need to protect their children from exposure to drugs and alcohol; this is the real cure for addiction.”

One of easiest actions parents can take is to sign the SafeLaunch Parent Pledge, which gives parents simple action steps to increase their children’s chance for a successful, healthy life.

Along with the parent education and teen media contests that SafeLaunch promotes locally along California’s central coast, the founders do something no other drug prevention organization has done: they’ve taken their mission to the air.

Drawing on Co-founder Ron Cuff’s experience in naval aviation, SafeLaunch connects with thousands of families at airshows and aviation events across California. “When we realized that Ron’s solid white Cessna 182 is really just a funny-shaped canvas, we saw the opportunity to use the plane as a teaching tool,” says Janet. The alignment between the aviation community and SafeLaunch is strong. Both are focused on safety, and both encourage youth to think seriously about their future. The Flights Above Addiction interactive exhibit has become a favorite at these events where kids have a chance to paint their dreams on the fuselage of the all-white plane. “We tell the young artists that a great life is like a great flight: You need to plan your destination and keep a clear head to arrive safely,” explains Ron.

In just three years of this program, SafeLaunch has educated over 1000 families about addiction risk and inspired hundreds of youth to think about their futures.

On a poignant note, SafeLaunch invites parents from across the country to pay tribute to a child’s life tragically cut short by drug or alcohol use. “When parents send us their children’s picture and stories, we permanently affix their names and ages to the underside of the wings of the plane and put their stories in the Wind Beneath our Wings album that we share with young families at the air shows. The names and ages are a cautionary tale told silently,” explains Janet.

Keep up with SafeLaunch in action on their Facebook page

The opioid tsunami is just ramping up….

The CDC’s most recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report paints a bleak picture of skyrocketing opioid overdose rates. The new 2015 data indicates that, in 2015, the five states with the highest rates of death due to drug overdose were West Virginia (41.5 per 100,000), New Hampshire (34.3 per 100,000), Kentucky (29.9 per 100,000), Ohio (29.9 per 100,000), and Rhode Island (28.2 per 100,000).

A picture speaks a thousand words, and the CDC’s map reveals that the opioid tsunami has barely nicked the western US, with the exception of Washington State.  Note to states west of the Mississippi – you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The report also suggests four ways to prevent overdose deaths and reduce the drivers of this epidemic:

1) Improve opioid prescribing to reduce exposure to opioids and prevent opioid use disorder by training providers and implementing the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain.

2) Improve access to and use of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs).

3) Protect those suffering from opioid use disorder (OUD) by expanding OUD treatment capacity and enhancing linkage to treatment.

4) Implement harm reduction approaches including naloxone distribution and syringe services programs.

I would add: Raise your voice if your child struggles with opioid use disorder. Join the other advocates saying “Enough of this shame and stigma while our children suffer from a preventable and treatable disease.” Admittedly, it takes a lot of courage to speak up, but there are ways to advocate from the privacy of your home. For example, support the anti-stigma work of groups like Shatterproof. Loudly or quietly, claim your power as a parent to change the course of this disease that is killing our kids.

The best holiday gift of all from parents of addicts and alcoholics

Reflections on Motherhood and a child with AddictionDecember marks the official kick-off of the non-profit fundraising season, and I’d like to ask ParentPathway readers to support a non-profit that is focused on PREVENTING substance use and abuse.  Your support won’t cost you a penny when you shop on Amazon (any time, from any device!) because of an affiliate marketing program that will give PathwayToPrevention a small commission on every sale that originates through a Pathway to Prevention link.

How does this work?  If you plan to make any purchases at Amazon, simply enter the Amazon site through one of Pathway to Prevention’s links, and then shop away for anything and everything you want. Consider entering Amazon through one of our recommended books, below. You don’t have to buy either book: just enter the world of Amazon through this portal, and shop away.

  • Saving Jake – When Addiction Hits Home by D’Anne Burwell.  This articulate chronicle of a young man’s chemical dependency could be written by so many of us:  a loving family, a talented child, the search for answers, the hope of recovery. The book is sprinkled with resources and evidence-based information about the epidemic of chemical dependency that is gripping our nation.
  • The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of her Son’s Addiction by Sandy Swenson. One Amazon reader commented, “It took years for (author) Sandra to realize that she could not save her son. That loving him meant letting go. She concludes the book without knowing what lies ahead for her son. This is not a happy story, but it carries a powerful message. While our children might move into a place where we can no longer follow, we must not blame ourselves for our failure to save them. Our children, much as they might blame us, must assume responsibility for their choices. Their lives depend on it.”

Prevention work takes time, money, dedication and expertise.  Learn how Pathway to Prevention turns evidence-based information into free, downloadable, sharable resources for parents and educators, and please keep this worthwhile organization going strong with your Amazon purchases.

What does it mean to be addicted to loving an addict?

Photo of a mother and son.A while back, my friend spent the night in the ER,  courtesy of her daughter’s addiction.  She wasn’t there for her daughter; she was there because of her daughter.  The addiction was making her sick.  She was so consumed with fear over her daughter’s whereabouts and safety that her heart felt like it was exploding in her chest.  Afraid that she was having a heart attack, her son rushed her to the emergency room. Ironically, they gave her Xanax –her daughter’s drug of choice—to calm her down.

Addiction, the family disease, kills addicts and those who love them.  Sometimes the addict is unscathed while his or her family pays the price.  Many addicts in recovery are horrified to learn how much their parents suffered while they skated merrily along, oblivious or numb to the collateral damage they caused along the way.

Loving our children “’til death do us part” is not healthy or sane.  But where is that “off” switch that lets us walk away from our children for our own sake—and for theirs?  And where do we find the strength to flip the switch? Sometimes our own health issues force us to cry “Uncle.”  Sometimes we run out of money or other resources.  And sometimes we have a moment of clarity and see that we can’t save them unless they want to save themselves; if not, we are all going down with the ship.

The simple act of removing ourselves from the equation often gives the addict an incentive to change.  When cardboard boxes and dumpster diving replace clean sheets and home cooking, that just might trigger the addict’s own moment of clarity.

My child’s addiction is not the sword that I want to die on.  Loving our children means resolving not to participate in their self-destruction. And loving our children means loving ourselves enough to retreat from the line of fire so that we can be present in a way that is healthy for all.

“Once upon a time I was just a mom” and other insights from Sandy Swenson

12196101_722392971226415_7560179514246009591_nThis is a guest post from Sandy Swenson, author of The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction, which is available in bookstores and libraries.



Once upon a time I was just a mom.

A regular mom.

When I held my little miracle in my arms for the very first time, I rubbed my cheek on his fuzzy head and whispered, “Joey, my beautiful son, I will love and protect you for as long as I live.” I didn’t know then that my baby would become an addict before becoming an adult, or that the addict taking his place would shred the meaning of those words to smithereens.

When Joey tumbled into my world, he arrived without an instruction manual, but I was the best mom I could be as someone with good intentions and no experience. I stumbled through parenthood like everyone else — rocking my baby to sleep, kissing the scraped knees of my little boy, setting unwelcome limits for my sometimes testy teen, and hoping I was doing things kind of right.

Then, slowly at first, came the arrests and the overdoses, the needle marks and the dealers, interspersed with big fat lies. My loving child was turning into a monster, manipulating me and using me and twisting my love for him into knots, but I was befuddled by this scary new world I didn’t even know I was in and that I knew nothing about. You see, I thought I was still just a regular mom stumbling through regular parenthood like everyone else. (You see, a mothers trust and belief in her child’s inner goodness aren’t easily cast aside.)

Addiction is a disease, but not even the professionals have it all figured out yet — and they aren’t trying to figure it out while in a blind panic, running through the fires of hell with fears and dreams and maternal instincts tripping them up. So, I shouldn’t feel like a total failure for having missed so many clues and for not being able to love and protect my child as I promised… but still, sometimes I do.

Joey became an addict in his teens, lured to drugs and alcohol by a culture that glorifies substance abuse — the same culture that later, so ignorantly and harshly, passes judgment. I am judged for helping or fixing or pushing (or not helping or fixing or pushing enough) the sick child of mine who won’t be helped or fixed or pushed. I am judged for over-reacting and under-reacting, enabling and letting go, and, most hurtful of all, as a mother whose love must be somehow flawed.

Once upon a time I was just a regular mom, stumbling through parenthood like everyone else — and then I had to figure out how to be the mom of an addict. I had to figure out how to love my child without helping to hurt him, how to grieve the loss of my child who’s still alive without dying, and how to trade shame and blame for strength.

To be the mom of an addict is to be an ambassador of truth and understanding.

No more shame. No more silence.

Note to self, from the parent of a young man in recovery

Stack of love letters on rustic wooden planks backgroundA while back, Interventionist and Family Counselor Ricki Townsend sent a powerful e-mail to some of her friends after reading Wayne Dyer’s children’s book, No Excuses.    Ricki wrote, “We must remind ourselves and our children that they can become anything THEY want to be at any time in their lives.  Too often, we start to get in the muck with them instead of surrounding them with love and light and the possibilities of who they can be.  I love this children’s book because it prompted me to remember that I need to hold that vision for our children when they are forgetting it.  The journey is THEIR choice to make.  They must want the new improved life for themselves more than we do.  No, it doesn’t happen overnight, but with each step they can grow, head in the right direction and find peace.”

Thanks, Ricki, for sharing your wisdom on this critical point.  Note to self: keep out of the muck, stay out of the way, leave it up to my son to learn what it’s like to be dirty—or clean; to be addicted—or to be free.

After all, that decision is his to make, as are all the decisions he needs to make as a young adult.  And I can’t be more committed to his recovery than he is.  Epiphany! My powerlessness is really a gift to him, and to me. It frees me, and it puts the burden of responsibility on him, where it rightfully belongs. That’s a journey towards health that I can lovingly support.

Teen Addiction is a Risky Business


Perceptions are not realityHalloween is coming, so it’s  a good time to revisit some of the demons of addiction and possibly vanquish them from my life.  Guilt is one of the tenacious remnants of my son’s addiction. I know, I know:  I didn’t cause it, I can’t cure it, I can’t control it. I understand that intellectually, but still….couldn’t I have done something different along the way to derail it?

Possibly not, according to a Time article that focuses on the teen brain and its quest for risk.

In the article, Valerie Reyna, professor of human development and psychology at Cornell University notes that “Because teens have a different style of information processing…they may get lost in the details about specific risks and overly focused on possible rewards, while ignoring the overall ‘gist’ of the problem — i.e., the ultimate consequences.”  Their greater tolerance for uncertainty and the unknown may help them step out into the world, a key task developmentally.  That tolerance for the unknown, coupled with their sense of invincibility, also underpins their willingness to try drugs or alcohol.

It’s actually freeing to understand the powerful biology that drove my son’s initial trysts with drugs and alcohol.  Being a more demanding/friendlier/better/worse/more disciplined/less controlling mom probably wouldn’t have curtailed his initial experimentation.  It all comes down to the decisions he made under the influence of his risk-seeking or risk-adverse brain.  I was powerless over his adolescent risk-taking, just as I am powerless over the alcohol that made his and my life unmanageable.  Note to self:  see Step One and stop being so hard on myself.

The Heart Strings of Teen Substance Abuse

Young mather and her son playing with kiteIn many cultures, mother and child are seen as forever linked by a string that binds them through eternity, a perpetual umbilical cord of sorts.  As a mother, I know that heart connection with my son. I feel his joys and sorrows, I sense his fears.  I take pride in his accomplishments. I have hopes for his happiness and fulfillment. And sometimes I even do his worrying for him, pretty well, I might add.

These vicarious expressions of joy and concern are natural and healthy, if kept in check.  But becoming all-consumed with my son’s affairs is dangerous, and it is telling.  While I may delude myself into believing that I can control or cure his addiction, the reality is that I am not that powerful. I didn’t make him an addict, and I can’t break him of his addiction.  Obsessing over my son also reveals my lack of faith in his ability to create his own destiny.  It speaks of my lack of faith in power greater than me or us.

So what’s a mother to do with the pressing urge to manage and obsess over her child? Another parent gently reminded me that, “Before your child was in your hands, he was in God’s hands.”    With this wisdom in mind, I can imagine my son as a kite soaring freely through the sky while I hold tightly to the string.   And that imagination is freeing to both of us.