Substance abuse can create chaos and upheaval for adults, but for the children in their lives, the effects can do long-lasting harm.
More than 12 percent of children in the U.S. live with an addict, and they are at a higher risk of developing an addiction themselves or committing suicide later in life.
At Philadelphia’s Stephen and Sandra Sheller 11th Street Family Health Services, a new pilot program is bringing together kids who live with an addicted family member to provide support and foster resiliency.
A group of kids, between the ages of 9 and 12, sit together with a therapist to talk about how to recognize if somebody is suicidal. Some squirm in their chairs, while others sit still but stare off. All of them have something in common: Someone in their family has a problem with drugs and alcohol.
“I didn’t cause,” say the kids in unison. “I can’t control it. I can’t cure it. But I can take care of myself …”
They recite the seven C’s. It’s a mantra of sorts. First, the kids recognize that they didn’t cause and can’t control the addiction in their family. Then, they affirm that they can take of themselves by celebrating who they are.
This pilot program is the first community-based version of Camp Mariposa, a weekend sleep-away retreat with locations around the country where kids struggling with family addiction can be with others like them.
Karen Moyer of the Moyer Foundation and her husband, former Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer, founded the camp after taking temporary custody of their niece several years ago. Her mother was struggling with addiction. Karen Moyer worked in tandem with a therapist to create a camp where kids could talk honestly about what’s happening at home.
“These kids are coming to camp every other month and feeling a safe environment, and are again empowered because they are around others going through what they are going through,” said Karen Moyer.
Careful questions, blossoming trust
The new pilot program, which works as a weekly group instead of a sleep-away camp, is a partnership between the Moyer Foundation and the Independence Blue Cross Foundation.
The kids, who are referred to the program by their parents, a school counselor, or a health professional, have had seven sessions together so far. They’re starting to trust each other more. In group, they ask questions about addiction — but cautiously.
“What would happen if you were to take too much of the wrong prescription,” one child asks tentatively.
“You could die,” responds another.
“Or OD,” says another kid.
“OD? What is OD?”
“Overdose,” several kids answer at once.
“Oh,” a child says, quietly.
They talk about drugs and alcohol in a roundabout way. The kids can be more likely to talk about something they saw in a movie or something that happened to a friend, than what they’re experiencing at home.
One little girl tells the group, “I watched a show, it’s by Tyler Perry, he had enough cocaine to take down a horse.”
“A horse?” asks another, in disbelief.
Instead of prying for more details, group leader and creative arts therapist Lindsay Edwards often answers with a knowing “hmm” and lets the group move on. She acknowledges it, but she doesn’t dwell.
Edwards says she sees the kids come in with very strong emotions. Sometimes, they take on too many responsibilities for their age. Above all, she says, she sees a lot of wisdom, which can be a double-edged sword.
“I think that with premature wisdom, there is loss,” she says. “And I experience loss of innocence, and I think that with any loss, there’s loneliness. To feel joined in a group of peers who are experiencing similar things, can feel comforting.”
A family’s journey forward
Donna Brown has two children in the program. She grew up with an alcoholic mother and a stern grandmother. Brown herself has struggled with alcohol, but more than anything, she’s says she’s struggling with the legacy of addiction.
As a child, she often had to look after herself while an aunt brought her along to a crack house. When asked how she would have responded to a program like this when she was little, Brown is almost speechless.
“Oh my goodness, how would it have made me feel? It would have … ah. Just thinking … oh my goodness,” she stumbles, “Because, see, I never got to live out my dreams. Even now, it’s hard to get to my dreams, because I buried them so far.”
Like many adults who grew up with addicted family members, Brown struggles with feeling hyper-vigilant and, at times, full of rage. But beneath her strong emotions, there’s a deep well of love for her children. She saw how growing up in a family touched by addiction was affecting them.
“What I seen was just the verbal, talking down on each other, and just wanting to lash out and hit each other, every moment they get, they were trying to hit.”
And although it’s early days, Brown says her kids are getting along a little better.
Back in the group, it’s almost time to wrap up. The kids will soon leave the group and go home. For many, home can be scary and confusing. The things that happen there can be beyond their understanding.
But for now, the kids take turns celebrating who they are. Edwards brings out something that looks like a big, multicolored sun. There’s a circle of cloth in the middle and fabric ribbons that look like rays.
Each child takes a piece of fabric. Brown’s son celebrates himself by telling the group a riddle. He stumps the whole room. One girl makes a beautiful braid with two pieces of fabric.
And when it’s time to go home, everyone leaves the room a little bit lighter than when they came in.