William C. Moyers
Beyond Addiction by William C. Moyers
Improving our understanding of alcohol and drug addiction
Family members are critical to our understanding of addiction. A spouse or a parent or a grandparent sees the illness not from the alcoholic or addict's perspective but as someone whose own life has been directly affected by his or her loved one's substance use. Often it's these personal insights that are the key to helping addicted people come to terms with the reality that they need help. Or more help.
Also, these personal experiences are a powerful public message that helps to unmask the stigma of addiction, especially with the news media and policymakers. A mother's front-page story about losing a child to an overdose of pain medication or a couple's testimony at the statehouse about how treatment kept their family together is irrefutably compelling. Family members don't lie.
The other day, I got an email from a man prominent in his community. His daughter struggles with substance misuse and mental health issues, though she had been doing well since treatment three years ago. The father is ready to step out of the shadow of his family's private fight. He's on the agenda for a public forum we've set in September in the community where his standing is high. The email said:
"I feel you need to be aware that a couple of weeks ago my daughter told my wife and me that she began drinking beers again. Three years ago she was treated for an addiction to prescription meds and alcohol was not a problem for her. She enjoys having beers but doesn't enjoy getting intoxicated. She's acknowledged she took a couple of hits on a marijuana joint. Because I work with my daughter I see her regularly. Frankly, she seems fine although she has technically relapsed. She knows she's on a slippery slope and the stats are against her. But she isn't overly concerned about her choice to resume drinking. And has no desire to take other drugs."
The father concluded: "In view of this recent development I understand if you don't want me on the panel at the event.
I'd still like to attend, if that's OK."
First things first, I replied. Here's my counsel:
"Technically" speaking, the daughter has relapsed -- which means she has started to use again after being diagnosed as dependent and told not to use again. It's not the end of the world, however. It isn't unusual for people to put down one drug and pick up another. That's why nicotine is such a problem among people who are otherwise clean and sober. People in the younger generation especially, whose addiction often is caught before it becomes chronic, may seek help for one drug but later find themselves dabbling again in another without the consequences or returning to the drug that got them into trouble in the first place.
I don't recommend such an approach. Many of us who try to moderate our use or substitute one drug for another eventually -- and with a lot of pain -- figure out that doesn't work. Abstinence is always a surefire option. But the old adage that "one drink or drug is too many, and a thousand are too few" doesn't always stick, either. The stats are unreliable. But I know plenty of people who admit they had a problem in their past and have learned to use substances in moderation or differently. They seem to be doing fine, too.
Perhaps this man's daughter is one of them. I don't know. But he owes it to her to discuss his family's concerns and fears that her use could once again send her spiraling to an unpleasant place. Just don't shame her into running away and not asking for help if it does, I told him.
And of course, I told him, I need him on the panel. Not to discuss his daughter's journey. It's his story as a parent that'll resonate across the community forum and help others who hear his witness. "Technically" never trumps reality when it comes to the journey all of us are on.
August 16, 2014