I See Myself in Every Young Person with an Addiction. This is What I Want Parents to Know.

Justin Kunzelman with his family

I am in recovery from a substance use disorder and work in the field of advocacy, peer support, harm reduction and treatment. I have days where I wake up fighting mad and others where I smile, hopeful at the small bits of progress we are making.

The number one rule for me in working with people with an addiction is to always remember the last dumpster I slept behind or the last blast of crack I took. Never forget where you came from. I believe that drug users are my people. How could I not? I see myself in each person I work with. To this end, I fight for common sense drug policy, user’s rights and patient rights. Realizing there are those who would harm the people in my community, however inadvertently, fuels my passion.

The same is true for being a parent. I have an amazing two-year-old son, Kaleo Lawless. Every time he defies me – like spinning in a circle and giggling when I ask him to turn around, I get frustrated and my wife laughs and says, “He’s definitely your son.”

When we had Kaleo, my passion for helping other people’s children increased tenfold. I understood what the love of a parent meant and gained a new perspective on the folks I worked with.

Being a parent isn’t easy; being a parent of a son or daughter using drugs can seem impossible at times. This feeling of hopelessness is often magnified if your child ever needs treatment for a substance use disorder. There is a lot of bad information and advice out there regarding substance use treatment and recovery and it can be difficult to sift through it.

Here are a few things I’d like parents to know so they can best help their child – and themselves – through treatment and recovery.

1. There are many different paths to recovery.

The most common mistake I see in my day-to-day work is the widespread belief that only the 12 Steps are an effective measure in dealing with substance use disorder. This is simply not true. Although 12-Step recovery is extremely effective for some (I myself used the 12 Steps in my recovery), it is illogical and irresponsible to believe any person who uses drugs must subscribe to that single specific program if they wish to have any semblance of a meaningful life. There are many different approaches to recovery and they are all effective for certain individuals. The 12 Step founders themselves stated (and I paraphrase) that they do not believe to have a monopoly on recovery, simply a program that may be of usefulness.

2. There’s a difference between treatment and recovery.

Treatment is not recovery. Treatment is seeking clinical professional help for behavioral issues related to substance use or any number of underlying issues.

Recovery, on the other hand, is a personal, voluntary lifestyle comprised of sobriety and health, where a person subscribes to a pre-determined set of principles and holds themselves to that standard.   

I have seen countless people enter a program seeking clinical guidance and instead be held to the standards of a recovery program involuntarily, even if it doesn’t fully work for them. This is an all too common occurrence. We must consider the individual’s beliefs, thoughts and feelings when seeking treatment or recovery.

3. There are alternative recovery programs that are lesser known but can be effective.

Many alternative programs have emerged in the recovery world, some based in therapy, some in faith and others in science. For every individual, there is a program. However, the choice should be left up him or her. Examples include SMART Recovery, Refuge Recovery and Celebrate Recovery. Some people have found success simply utilizing therapy and social support, while still others utilize harm reduction or self-help books.

4. It’s ok to use medication to deal with a medical issue.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) — medication meant to curb the negative effects of opiates, such as Buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex) or Methadone — can be extremely effective.

However, in abstinence-only treatment programs and 12-Step recovery participants are taught with fervor that MAT is trading one addiction for another. This is simply not true.

Be careful of recovery principles crossing into the treatment field and ignoring scientific evidence. With the current opioid epidemic we are facing, we cannot afford to fool ourselves. Let’s clear up some facts here.

  • The use of other medication in treatment is widespread; in fact over 90% of patients admitted to a facility for substance use disorder will be placed on medication within seven days of admission. These medications are often the same cocktail and used for nearly every client indiscriminately. Seroquel, Gabapentin, Prozac, among others are often prescribed to users seeking treatment. Although these medications are useful when given for a proper diagnosis used in a nonchalant manner, they can have severe effects on the individual.
  • On the flipside, Suboxone, Subutex and Methadone and other MAT options can be extremely effective when paired with clinical care and support.
  • Medications on either side of things should be a personal choice. Discuss all medications with your doctor, who has gone to medical school, graduated with a degree and has a license. Peer support recovery groups are effective, but they should not determine what medication you use.

Like I said, being a parent isn’t easy. But always remember that helping your child is your top priority. Do your research, take a deep breath and don’t let anyone else’s judgment get in the way of your family’s personal choices for treatment and recovery.

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