At a recent workshop in Bryn Mawr, parents of addicts gathered in a college auditorium for a summit called “Other Faces of Addiction.” Those other faces? They’re the people who support addicts in recovery.
The evening kicked off with some seated yoga, to bring into focus the idea of self-care.
Afterward, Bill and Pam Roberts stood up in front of about 30 people to talk about their family’s addiction history. Their three adult children are all in long-term drug recovery.
“We’re ding-batting a thousand,” says Bill. “It’s a family disease. My father was an alcoholic, and it’s all through the family.”
Their story is not unusual. Half of those treated for opiate addiction in New Jersey are 25 or younger. As more parents deal with the fallout of close calls and trips to detox, some are banding together to support each other.
More than 10 years ago, the Robertses watched one child after another face addiction; they felt like the topic itself was taboo. According to Pam, the emotional stress of close calls took a toll on her health. “That trauma of dealing with anxiety, year after year,” she said. “I was just terrified that somehow I would let my guard down, and they would die, and somehow it would be my fault.
Then there was the guilt. “That was killing me,” said Pam, adding that it was hard to find places catering to her family’s situation. Usually, parents and family members of addicts are referred to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for support.
“The way the addiction field deals with this by kind of the ‘tough love’ stance … that kind of stuff runs very counter to what comes intuitively as a parent,” said Jacqueline Hudak, clinical director of the Center for Couples and Adult Families at the University of Pennsylvania.
And addiction can make parental boundary-setting more challenging. So parents such as Bill and Pam Roberts are in a bind: How to love and support their children in recovery, but not enable their drug habits. And, on top of that, do so without neglecting their own mental health.
While their kids recovered, the Robertses found they missed the parent debriefing meetings hosted by the treatment center their children attended. So they decided to host some informal gatherings of their own in 2006.
Before their second meeting, they got a call from another set of parents in crisis.
“Some friends of ours called up and said … their son tried to commit suicide in the basement of his dorm room, strung out on drugs,” said Bill. The Robertses invited this family to come to a meeting, and were struck by what happened. “The other parents didn’t tell them what to do, but they told him what they did. So that was the genesis of the whole thing.”
After that, the Robertses met weekly with interested parents. The group grew through word of mouth. Eight years later, their model has helped inspire 25 other parent support groups in seven states.
The groups provide referrals to services for kids, and they give parents a place to check in, for as long as they need. Many are now financially supported or administered by Caron Treatment Centers.
A digital ‘community’ for parents of addicts
Across the Delaware River in Camden County, some parents and supporters of addicts were having a very different kind of meeting.
Babette Richter of the South Jersey AIDS Alliance was demonstrating how to use naloxone –- known by the brand name Narcan — a drug that stops an opioid overdose in its tracks.
New Jersey has a new law allowing parents and supporters of addicts to carry the drug, but it’s not easily accessible.
Patty DiRenzo whose son, Sal Marchese, overdosed in 2010, lobbied hard for that bill to save parents from going through what she did.
Still, the trainings aren’t getting to every family that needs help.
“There are so many parents that I know, that should be at my trainings,” said DiRenzo. “I don’t know how to nicely say … call them out!”
In addition to lobbying, DiRenzo has an amped-up social media presence. Her Facebook and Twitter accounts are a clearinghouse of information on parent support groups, treatment options and addiction news.
“I always tell people you can find me on Facebook, friend me, inbox me if you want to ask me anything,” she said. “If you need to ask me questions, I will be there for you. Because I know how it feels not to have somebody to talk to.”
DiRenzo credits social media with changing how parents of addicts connect with one another, adding it’s a good way to find meetings or get a recommendation for a treatment center.
And, she said, it provides a community she didn’t have while her son was alive.