When a parent finally realizes that their child’s drug use isn’t “just a phase,” they begin the terrifying journey to finding some kind of remedy. It would be helpful if that journey weren’t marked by wrong information, stigmatizing opinions, predatory service providers and an uneducated medical community. Yet, that’s exactly what we encountered back in 2005 when our son Joel’s meth and heroin addiction sent him to a bed in our house for four days straight. He hadn’t been living with us for some time, so it had been easy to turn a blind eye. However, when I found myself shaking him, checking for a pulse and holding my finger under his nose to see if he was still breathing, there was no denying the facts.
No one in our circle had ever battled addiction – or so we thought. That’s the thing with shame and secrets – it perpetuates the stigma and keeps us in the dark so that when we do finally admit we need help, it’s hard to find. Only later – in fact, after Joel’s death – did we learn how many “in our circle” had similar family issues.
Our story is not unusual. It breaks my heart to read the stories on this page and on so many others. But what I would like to highlight is how hard it is to find help when you finally realize you need it. A parent searching for some kind of “rehab” or “treatment” doesn’t know what they don’t know. The providers that pop up in a Google search are the ones who can pay for search engine optimization and a robust online presence – not necessarily the best option. The terror of having a zonked-out kid lying in a bed upstairs led us to choose the first one who answered the phone. They seemed to know what they were talking about, demonstrated empathy, could send an interventionist and transport him to treatment the minute he said yes. We were worried about the cost and where we would get the money, but, at that moment, we were more worried about losing him for good.
Thirty days later, he is physically detoxed, but his brain is still addicted. We could see it in his thought processes and in his inability to make a plan moving forward. But when we asked this gold-plated, award-winning service provider for advice on the next steps, it felt like one of those infomercials where you can’t really see the product until you fork over your credit card. When they learned we were tapped out, they handed us a printed list of sober homes and said, “good luck.” You don’t know what you don’t know. We naively thought he would be all fixed in 30 days, and these experts never clued us in that it wouldn’t be that easy.
Fast forward 12 years – jail, treatment, jail, treatment. Finally, a program that the State of California provided as part of AB109 came the closest to providing a holistic approach to Joel’s recovery. It included mental health care, physical assessment, job training (real jobs, not minimum wage where you can never beat the cycle) and medically assisted recovery. Joel remained substance-free as long as he was tethered to the program – almost four years. Once the accountability period ended, he began to miss meetings, started isolating and ultimately, overdosed and died on November 27, 2017. There’s a lot more to that downslide, but I’ll leave it there.
Our story is why we are such passionate advocates for recovery-oriented communities of care. Families and victims of this disease should not be forced to search the internet for resources. They should be able to find them right in their own community. Access to care should be available regardless of ability to pay, housing status, mental health condition or pending legal issues. We should demand pre-arrest diversion to end the drug to prison cycle and provide quality drug treatment to those incarcerated for prior crimes. A united community of care would remove the barriers to re-entry by providing inclusive, recovery-friendly work opportunities and peer-run recovery centers that offer support and accountability. In short – a holistic versus a siloed approach to substance use treatment. It is time that our governments – federal, state and county – recognize the ineffective war on drugs has left a devastated, littered battleground, and it’s time for evidence- and community-based treatment.