Overcoming addiction, which is now understood to be a chronic, often relapsing brain disease, can be gut-wrenchingly hard. And that’s so often because of the secrecy, misinformation and shame that surrounds this particular disease as a result of common beliefs that it’s a choice or moral failing or as simple as “just stop.” It’s not. It’s complicated.
Writing about this topic and what it’s like to be the mother of a daughter trying to overcome her drug addiction is today’s guest author, Linda Dahl. I invited Linda to share this piece after reading her Harper’s Bazaar article, “How I (Finally) Learned to Talk to My Drug Addicted Daughter” (check it out – it’s excellent). In addition to writing articles for major publications, Linda’s latest novel, The Bad Dream Notebook, which “unflinching [talks] about the ways the disease of addiction can torpedo a family…leavened with dollops of humor,” has just been released.
Linda is the award-winning author of seven previous books of both fiction and non-fiction. She writes about challenging personalities and difficult issues, reflecting her interests in the arts and addiction and recovery. She has two children and lots of animals and lives in an old farmhouse in upstate New York, where she serves with several organizations that work to educate young people about and help them recover from drug use dependency.
Overcoming Addiction: How a chance conversation helped my daughter recover from her drug addiction By Linda Dahl
I had an appointment with a guy at my bank to see about getting a lot of money. Mona (as we’ll call her), my smart, kind, sociable teenaged daughter, kept relapsing. She had “graduated” from pot and alcohol to pain pills, cadged from medicine cabinets or bought at her suburban high school and then to heroin. We had tried therapy, addiction counseling, outpatient and inpatient recovery programs, but the drugs kept winning. You’re probably thinking: That would never happen to my child. It doesn’t happen to good kids with good parents. Except it does. As I learned in the crash-course that every parent of a drug-dependent child faces, it’s a whole different world out there today.
I knew firsthand how the need for more and more of a mood-changing substance – in my case, booze – can wrap its silken, then scaly, wings around you. The brain fog of denial that there’s a problem digs its heels in even as the problems mount. I’ve been in recovery for many years but I will never forget the despair that my addiction brought me. And yet, it couldn’t prepare me for how much worse it is when it’s your child.
Finding Effective Addiction Treatment
When I went to that appointment at the bank, my family was about three years into Mona’s drug “problem,” as I then called it. I was a mess and I knew it. I’d become a single parent after my husband died from cancer originally diagnosed as back pain. I had started smoking – little cigars, of all things – after decades of stopping and relied on sleeping pills at night. I subsisted on pizzas and reruns of “Law and Order.” But I had little time or energy to grieve. Losing her father was even more traumatic for Mona. It sped up her addiction. She got in trouble with the law, she stole from me, she wrecked a car. The list goes on.
I was trying my best to pull myself together and find help for Mona, but like most of the hundreds of thousands of parents in the same situation, I didn’t know the right questions to ask or where to find answers. I didn’t know that treatment approaches can vary wildly in quality and effectiveness and that there aren’t national standards to evaluate recovery centers and hold them accountable. Like so many others, I had to learn on the fly. Anyone who’s had to grapple with the health care system for treatment of a disease knows it’s often an overwhelming process. I was to find that even though the current opiate addiction crisis is one of America’s worst epidemics ever, many health care professionals still lack the knowledge to correctly diagnose and refer patients to the best treatment.
I was fortunate: Help came for Mona and me where I least expected it – from the man at the bank. He had been warm and helpful in the untangling of my late husband’s estate, so I guess that’s why I opened up to him about why I needed a pile of cash. I told him I’d used up our health insurance but I had to find yet another rehab and, please God, one that would really help my daughter not just get off drugs, but stay off them.
Gender-specific addiction treatment, women and addiction
That’s very interesting, he said…His sister, as it happened, was a leading research scientist in the biochemistry and hormonal fluctuations that so negatively affect drug-dependent women. And more than that: she’d helped design a small women-centered treatment center with state-of-the-art, evidence-based techniques to guide addicted females to a healthy sense of themselves and a real chance at a clean and sober life. It wasn’t the kind of institutional rehabilitation center that continues to base its methods on the original model targeted for white middle-aged men in the 1930’s and 40’s. Nor was it some fancy spa place, he warned me. But that was OK because it offered hope.
A year later, Mona graduated from treatment there and a strong aftercare program. Today she celebrates six years of recovery, crediting her experience at that little women’s recovery center with giving her the solid foundation she badly needed. She says she learned to trust again, to find a way to talk about her shame, sadness, and all the other baggage that comes with addiction.
As a country, some of us are still debating whether addiction is a shame-inducing moral failing or the chronic mental disorder deemed by science. But the conversation is shifting away from shame and blame, if only because the crushing, unending number of fatalities is forcing that change. From 1999-2015 (the latest available government numbers), over 61,000 Americans between the ages of 12 to 25 died directly from drug overdoses. As the numbers go up every year, young women are the fastest-growing group of addicts, partly because they’re more likely to be given prescriptions for highly addictive opioid painkillers. Yet over and over, parents who, like me, don’t know much about the warning signs and symptoms of drug dependency continue to find ourselves confronted with a bewildering array of choices about helping our children recover.
I found what Mona needed by chance, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Many parents form or join organizations that advocate and provide resources about effective drug education, prevention and the most effective science-based treatment options. We owe it to our children to be prepared.