My name is Sandi, and I am the mom of an addict. On August 27th, 2016, my son Scott lost his battle with addiction and overdosed alone in transitional housing following the successful completion of a 3 month dual diagnosis program in Calgary. His relapse occurred less than 24 hours after he was released. He was 28 years old and had been struggling for many years. I didn’t see it coming.
Since that time I have gone over every conversation, every action, every inaction, every interaction I had with him. Where did it all go wrong? What did I do right? What did he do right? What could we both have done differently? How could I have saved him? I was his mom. That was my job, my purpose, my mission. Where did I fail him? Regardless of what I did or didn’t do, or what he did or didn’t do, he died anyway. And not a day, an hour, a moment goes by that I don’t grieve for him, for all the things he will miss, all the things he will never experience.
He went out west to Calgary to attend 1835, an abstinence based 12 step treatment facility. He remained in recovery for almost 21 months, and it was a beautiful, incredible time. Scott was always a wonderful son. He was never abusive to me, mean to me or said things to hurt me. I know how lucky I was and I would not trade that time for anything in the world. I hold it very close to my heart. His relapse was a shock, and I realized how little I actually knew or understood about addiction. The fact that he was even able to try again was nothing short of a miracle.
Which brings me to the reason for writing this. If only I knew then what I know now. We are failing our substance users in the worst possible way. We talk about things like enabling, hitting rock bottom, removing support, when we should be having very different conversations. We need to take everything we know and throw it out the window. Addiction is a disease. When will we truly begin to treat it like one? If you have cancer, you are treated with the best possible medical assistance money can buy. You are embraced by recovery groups. You are offered emotional support by people who understand and sympathize with what you are going through.
What do we do with substance users? We offer them broken systems. If I could change how we treat addicts it would look very different. There would be no abstinence based programs that do not accept medically assisted treatments. I love the idea of the 12 step programs that create a community and sense of belonging and acceptance. This is vital for so many in recovery, many of whom have lost their connections to their families and friends. People they have known all their lives no longer want anything to do with them. They have been hurt. Most abstinence based programs for family and friends of substance users preach a very dangerous and harmful message. They say “give it to God”. Follow the three C’s. “You didn’t create it, you can’t control it and you cannot change it”. I don’t accept that. I could never have turned my back on Scott. I could never have put him out on the streets. God gave “it” to me, and I will carry that responsibility to my grave. That and the fact that I failed my son. I did not truly see his addiction as a disease. I saw his strength. I saw his beauty. I saw his desire to be sober. But I also saw his unhappiness, his despair, his pain. And I did not know how to help him with it. If I only knew then what I know now, I would have driven out there and been there on the day he was released, and I would have taken him to an ayahuasca ceremony. And then I would have brought him back home to be with his family. I now know about the molecular/physical changes that happen in the brain with long term use of heroin and fentanyl. Fentanyl was his drug of choice. He found opioids and he found God.
So why are we so invested in each of these options, so dug into the idea that we have the answers? Why are we not combining medically assisted treatments with recovery programs that offer that sense of connection and community? Who would want to be sober when you have no community? And who would want to be substance free but in pain, emotionally and physically? Drugs are different. I recall Scott telling me that even after 20 months he was still experiencing user dreams. So not only was he dealing with the physical changes by way of the healing of the brain, his subconscious was tormenting him nightly. In these dreams, he WAS using. He could feel it. He experienced the high. How can one succeed when they are coping with it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year? When I think of what I expected him to do I am ashamed. I detoxed him more than once. I know the agony he went through. I have heard it described as being able to feel your blood moving through your veins. The pain was intense. Unbearable. Looking back I understand why the recovery rates are somewhere between 5 and 15 percent. What is more amazing to me is that anyone survives.
I share this with you because I don’t want you to look back and wonder what you could have done differently. I don’t want others to have those regrets and carry that guilt. I want your child, brother, partner or friend to have a chance.
We need to demand better treatment options, ones that address the whole person. We need access to medically assisted treatments, along with a community they want and need to be a part of. Without those things together, we will continue to lose our loved ones. They will continue to struggle and fight their addictions minute by minute, and most will not survive.
A wise man said something to me that I have thought a lot about. He told me that he does not believe the opposite of addiction is connection. He believes the opposite of addiction is joy. Since he walks the walk and talks the talk I give a tremendous amount of weight to his thoughts, and I listen when he speaks. I can’t say I disagree with his assessment. I think so many substance users, whether they are in recovery or not, have lost the ability to feel the joy of family, the joy of love, the joy of connection and acceptance. And maybe that truly is where the connection leads. Connection is the link to that joy. And when you experience that joy again, perhaps it means you are truly on the road to recovery. But until we get it together, stop fighting things that work because of an ideal, and throw away the things that don’t, we will continue to lose people. An entire generation is being decimated. All those lost souls in pain, all the talent we will never know, all the gifts they could give to the world, gone. And all because we, as a society are stuck in our beliefs about right and wrong, what works and what doesn’t, about good and bad. If we truly love them, we will give them every opportunity to recover. Really, what do we have to lose? What are we so afraid of? It is the best chance they have to not only survive, but thrive. As someone who loves a substance user, you will never have to ask the question I have asked myself a thousand times…