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Recovery and Family Involvement: The Impossibility of Growing in Isolation

By Sasha:

Growing up, I always had an inkling that my family life was different from those around me. When I would play at my other friends’ houses, I was always confused when their mothers were up and active, cooking and bringing us snacks, and sometimes playing alongside us. As I grew older, I was told that my mother was always in the hospital because she had Lupus; and the many times that my younger siblings and I stumbled upon her laying unconscious on the floor, I was told that she suffered from strokes. When she would drive me to karate practice every weekend, her eyes glazed over, the car drifting into the curb, and more often than not, bumping into other cars, I thought that she was just tired. I learned the truth about her opioid addiction when I was in high school. Whereas, before I had always defended my mother from the rest of my family, never understanding why they resented and blamed her for her illnesses, eventually I came to resent her as well. I was angry at my family for hiding the truth from me, and more than anything I was confused. I never learned about addiction or substance use in school, and I couldn’t fathom how my mother had become like that. I had heard so many stories about her in her prime: a would-be engineer, she worked alongside my grandfather and uncles building houses, excelling at physics in college, and could’ve gone to the Olympics for her swimming. Unfortunately, all of this set the stage for some very angsty high school years, and some poor life decisions that could’ve led me down a very different path. My two younger siblings also learned the truth about my mother at the same age that I did, and it has profoundly impacted their growth. Had my younger brother not had the support of my eldest sister, I’m sure that he would be incarcerated at this point, due to troubling behavior caused by his grief.

As I learned more about addiction and came to understand it as a disease like any other, the resentment I felt toward my mother as a teen faded away, turning into grief. I knew that there must’ve been something within her that drove her to use, that she, like me and like each individual, was a complex being with her own demons to fend off; and that somewhere along the way, she used the wrong weapons against them. More than anything, it pained me to know that she felt so terribly that she needed to subdue herself. At this point, the years of drug abuse and mental health issues left her a different version of the vibrant, caring and intelligent individual that she was – mentally absent and isolated from her family, as well as any other social support that she might have once had. I knew that my mother’s potential was still there, though, and I desperately wanted my other family members to understand this; at the end of the day, she was a person, who made some mistakes, but still a person in need of human connection and support. Among my siblings and relatives, I did not suffer the worst of this family disease. Understandably, for some of my family members, the damage was done and could not be repaired.

So, that was that, and life went on – my mother in and out of the hospital constantly to get her fixes, my younger siblings growing up with this newfound weight, and my older siblings and relatives trying to get over years of pent up resentment and trauma; all while I tried to plan my life around taking care of (enabling) my mother. Recently, after another lengthy episode in and out of the emergency room, followed by a visit to a psych ward, for the first time a few doctors actually listened to my mother. They made some diagnoses that put all of the pieces together: schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. All of a sudden, for many of my relatives, the surface-level anger and frustration faded away. This was the underlying cause of what had been going on the past twenty or thirty years, and with the right medications and environment, treatment was possible. Now, things are different. My mother has gotten that connection, compassion, sympathy, and understanding, albeit among some leftover frustration that I felt she was missing over the last several years, and our family is starting to come back together.

I, however, have a newfound resentment: that throughout all those years, she was alone and blamed for something that could literally happen to anyone. She was stripped of her dignity and respect instead of getting the help that she deserved. I felt this way even when she wasn’t properly diagnosed. Humans are, by nature, social beings – we need one another and thrive in environments where we work together to build each other up. Common sense dictates that, during the recovery process, social support and human connection are critical to positive outcomes; there is research out there that shows this. But besides that, should we not want to be there for those to whom we are closest? Should we not want to help them grow, and grow alongside them, with the goal of finding happiness and meaning in our lives together? Moreover, it’s important to remember that usually, happy and well-functioning people don’t just pick up a drug and decide to abuse. Substance use often fills the void when individuals are lacking something in their lives, whether it is meaning, stability, emotional outlets, or any number of factors. Instead of finding ways to fill these voids in positive ways, we demonize and stigmatize those who misuse, and stigmatization by the family and loved ones only widens that void.

While I understand why my older siblings and relatives felt the need to hide my mother’s illness from my younger siblings and me, I wish that they had helped us understand addiction and substance abuse from a young age, and given us the opportunity to be a part of her recovery process early on. Substance abuse can have severe and traumatic impacts on family members, especially children, but understanding the illness from a young age could have better prepared us to deal with these traumas as we grew older. Whether I like it or not, though, what’s done is done – all that I can do now is look toward the future and focus on supporting and uplifting my younger siblings and mother as best as I can.

More than anything, I want others who have a relative or loved one struggling with a Substance Use Disorder to provide the support that I was not able to. It is important not to invalidate the traumas that loved ones often endure because of addiction; it is a family disease, and sometimes it’s difficult to look beyond years of dishonesty, abuse, and instability brought on by those who misuse. Regardless, wherever possible, we, as family members, must strive to provide the support that we would need should we ever be in that position, because nobody is immune to this illness. That is why I’m working with Huther Doyle to develop the Family Engagement and Wellness Center, so that the loved ones of our clients can receive the support that they need during the recovery process. The Center will be fully equipped with a small library centered around addiction, recovery, self-care, and wellness, two computers and a printer for research purposes, and other activities to promote wellness and relaxation for clients as well as their loved ones. I hope that with the proper resources, loved ones and family members can be better enabled to develop their bonds with and support to one another.

Sasha is a student at the University of Rochester, majoring in Anthropology and Public Health. She is currently serving in the Urban Fellowship Program with Huther Doyle.


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