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A Place to Turn: Family Loss from a Drug Overdose Death

I just got back from the inaugural retreat of GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing), a support group for family and friends of those who have suffered accidental overdose deaths. About 40 GRASP members from around the United States made the trip to Tampa FL, and it was great to meet many folks that up until now I had only known via GRASP's Facebook page.

The retreat combined an opportunity for everyone to connect and participate in some experiential exercises around grief and loss as well as take part in a lively workshop led by the dynamic Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) duo of Meghan Ralston and Stephen Gutwillig. Meghan and Stephen educated us about harm reduction and how the failed public health drug policies of the United States contribute to thousands of accidental overdose deaths every year.

Every Path to Sobriety is Unique

An essay by Paul Carr in last weekend's Wall Street Journal which describes how he stopped drinking and what he learned along the way, is a great example of a harm reduction approach to an alcoholic figuring out what he needed to do to get and stay sober and the changes he’s made in his life that have worked so far. He talks about his ‘relationship’ with alcohol and the positive and negative aspects of that relationship leading to the changes that he made in his life.

Many of the comments/responses on the website following the article are disheartening to me because they reflect the gigantic gap in the recovery and treatment community about what elements are helpful for people to get and stay sober. Sadly, there’s an air of arrogance and even contempt from both treatment professionals and those in recovery for this man who found a way that works for him.

Enabling and Shame

As an addictions counselor, it’s always a pleasure to work with parents who have the instincts and skills to maintain good communication with their teenager as well as the courage (and energy!) to set appropriate and consistent boundaries and limits.

Sometimes, however, these skills can be a double-edged sword and work against us, especially when the emotional and behavioral instability of our child keeps pushing us out of our parental ‘driver’s seat’ and into the passenger seat—or even worse, the back seat.

Being in the family back seat contributes to the fear that develops when we start losing control of a child’s behavior. This fear often motivates us to become even firmer in our resolve to ensure our child’s safety while keeping ourselves sane along with the rest of our family.

A Mother Speaks Out

This post is a reprint of an article by Gretchen Burns Bergman, Co-Founder & Executive Director of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing) and the Moms United to End the War on Drugs, a sister campaign of A New PATH. The article originally appeared in The Ally, a newsletter of the Drug Policy Alliance, of which I am a member:

On June 13, 1971, I became a mother when my first son was born. Five days later, President Nixon declared the “war on drugs.” Little did I know then that this war would be waged against families like mine for the next four decades.

As I reflect on the joys and the challenges of motherhood, I feel compelled to speak out against this silent but deadly war that has stealthily eaten away at the fabric of our lives. It has caused countless casualties, wasted taxpayer money, promoted discrimination against people of color, and taken away basic human liberties.

Employing fear-based, nonscientific dogma, this misguided war has robbed children of their futures, while building a massive prison-industrial complex. Grieving and angry mothers, tormented by needless loss, are speaking out to stop the violence, mass incarceration and overdose deaths.

Throughout history, mothers have come forward for the sake of their children to promote therapeutic and life-affirming policies. In the early ‘70s, I belonged to an organization called “Another Mother for Peace.” In the 1930s, a group of mothers were instrumental in ending alcohol Prohibition in the U.S.

Once again, moms are organizing to call for widespread drug policy reform, in order to stop the devastating loss of lives and liberty.

When my son was born, I realized that my most important role had just begun, and all my other passions and interests paled by comparison. Both of my sons were much adored, and we tried to give them every opportunity to ensure fabulous and fulfilling futures.

Unfortunately, both had addictive ill­ness, which would have caused enough heartbreak and struggle, without the blundering roadblocks to recovery created by a criminal justice approach to what was essentially a health care problem. Besides dealing with the pain of lives interrupted by a life-threatening disorder, parents whose children are lost in the maze of addiction must also suffer humiliation, anger and stigma.

My older son spent a decade of his young life cycling through the criminal justice system for nonviolent drug offenses and relapse. This was a tragic waste of human potential, a painful journey for the family, and a tremendous cost to the state. I have several friends who have lost children to overdose, which could have been prevented if their children’s friends hadn’t been afraid of being arrested if they called for medical help.

I believe that we mothers are the silent majority. Far too many of us have expe­rienced the same devastation, but most have been too stigmatized to speak out. To continue to pursue a war that has utterly failed and created so much dam­age is unconscionable. Mothers must speak out with courage and determination to promote policies of harm reduction and restoration – for the sake of our children and future generations.

How to Have Happier Holidays

The holiday season is upon us in full force, and if we believe the media good-times advertising blitz, they'll be full of unlimited joy and good tidings. (I was never sure what tidings are. If anyone knows, let me know!)

Families with addicts usually dread the holidays, the constant worry of their struggling family member spoiling the family's  good times with unpredictable behavior.

Here are some suggestions for not just  'getting through' the holiday season, but to help you and the rest of your family to enjoy it more.

Set firm and  respectful boundaries. This guideline for boundaries hold true 365 days a year, but re-establishing them during the holiday season will lower the likelihood of your holiday being disappointing.

Look at the larger picture. The fact that there are many other occasions down the road to celebrate, reflects an aspect of addiction and recovery that my clients often have a hard time grasping: addiction and recovery are a process that unfolds over time, with progress and relapse, ebbs and flows.

Manage your expectations is another important concept. Having a realistic and flexible sense of what to expect can make adjusting to the normal slips and slides of life in recovery easier.

Pace yourself. Getting better at pacing ourselves with the expected ups and downs so we don’t lose sight of the larger picture of our lives is the idea. It’s easier said than done, for sure, but once we get the hang of it, we don’t feel as overwhelmed all the time, leaving more energy to enjoy ourselves.


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