Fourteen years ago my community was suddenly overwhelmed by the beginnings of the prescription opiate epidemic. In my thirty-plus years of addiction treatment experience I had never witnessed the speed with which a drug took control of the citizens in our area. The drug, Oxycontin, was new to us and was creating havoc for our young adults and their families.
Within ten years of the onset of this epidemic, Scioto County, Ohio, had become the regional epicenter for the prescribing and dispensing of Oxycontin. In 2010 over 9.7 million doses of prescription pain killers were prescribed within our county of 84,000, enough for every man, woman, and child to receive 115 doses. Several million doses were prescribed through “pill mills,” of which we had ten operating locally. Within a five year period the percentage of clients being treated for opiate addictions at my agency rose from 5% to 60%. The current rate is over 85%, with a recent transition to heroin.
At the start of this epidemic we were inundated with parents, siblings, and grandparents frantically seeking information about what was happening to their loved ones. The addiction to this new drug was so powerful and progressed so rapidly that many families were overcome by its consequences and within a very short amount of time saw their loved one begin to use, become addicted, go to jail, go to prison, and then, too often, die from an accidental overdose.
In response, we moved quickly to establish a new program to help these families and simply called it Loved Ones. Each week we offered a free, open to- the-public educational/support session to answer the questions asked by families struggling with a loved one’s addiction. We provided information about addiction, the nature of the drug, and about recovery—but we also listened. And as we listened to powerful stories of loss and confusion, we learned from these families. What soon became obvious was that the family’s efforts to help their loved ones were actually contributing to the continuing progression of the disease and its consequences.
The common theme among these families was one of rescuing and spending enormous resources to try to prevent or reverse the consequences of the disease. They did not realize, however, that the root cause of those mounting consequences was the disease itself. So we began to focus our message on transitioning the family away from rescuing. And to this end we developed a useful tool, “Ten Ways Family Members Can Help,” which we distributed to every family member.
The Loved Ones concept evolved into a program of seven sessions, meeting weekly for one or two hours. Session One focuses on the importance of viewing addiction as a disease which allows family members to move beyond blaming themselves or others for their loved one’s addiction. This also sets the stage for permitting families to see the predictability of the disease, especially in terms of its consequences. Session Two outlines the progression of the disease, focusing particularly on how family members are affected, and Session Three describes the progression of problem behaviors and how rescuing intensifies the consequences. Session Four provides an opportunity to outline the importance of the “Ten Ways,” while Session Five describes how recovery happens and the family’s role in helping to initiate and support recovery. In Session Six we bring in a family member willing to share his or her experience with the Loved Ones’ principles, and in Session Seven a person recovering from addiction shares his or her enlightening story. We continue to rotate the seven sessions but a family member is welcome to join the group at any time.
A few years ago we recorded our seven-session series and made a DVD available. I also took what I learned and partnered with a good friend, Dr. Ronald Turner, and wrote the book Baffled by Addiction. As the DVD and book made their way into the public arena, I began to get requests from other communities wanting to start their own Loved Ones program. Although my agency does not directly sponsor these new groups, we work hard to support them. To date twelve other Loved Ones programs have formed within our tristate area. And while the groups utilize a variety of formats, they all stay true to the tenets of the original Loved Ones.
Also, as a part of our Loved Ones program, I offer to meet privately with families, also at no charge. This provides an opportunity for me to evaluate specific information about the addicted person and hear about the family dynamics at play. We then develop a strategy for addressing the rescuing behavior and assess the potential for motivating the addicted person toward treatment.
Over the past twelve years I have seen over a hundred addicted people make their way into treatment because their families took positive action to interrupt the progression of their loved one’s consequences. This has required that family members take difficult courses of action which are almost always counterintuitive to their natural instincts as parents, grandparents, or siblings. The families engaged in these demanding actions need support, encouragement, and sympathy. I repeatedly receive calls from family members who have attended Loved Ones saying, “I know what I need to do, but I need to hear one more time that I am doing the right thing, because it sure doesn’t feel right.”
I believe now more than ever that families can interrupt the progression of addiction, most often by ceasing to rescue, and initiate the development of a new “relationship” with their addicted loved one—a relationship that is not about protecting them from the consequences of addiction, but is instead about using those consequences as motivation toward recovery.
One night a father was waiting for me after a Loved Ones session. It was his first meeting and he had been quiet during the discussions. As we walked out together he said, “I wish I had met you $10,000 ago!” When I asked him to share his story, he told me that he had spent that much over the past three years in failed attempts to keep his son out of prison. I then asked the father how much incarceration time his son was facing when he first started “helping” him. He answered, “Three months in the county jail, but I bailed him out. Then I paid for attorneys to get him out of trouble. Eventually he got in legal trouble that I couldn’t get him out of.” Then I asked how much prison time his son was facing, to which he replied, “Five years.” So not only had the father wasted money trying to prevent incarceration for his addicted son, but he had also inadvertently escalated the duration of the consequences from three months to five years. The son may have responded to the earlier consequence of three months in jail, but he was not permitted to experience that consequence.
We have a “Golden Rule” in Loved Ones: Rarely does anyone recover from addiction until he or she is at least one crisis beyond the family’s ability to fix it, or the family’s willingness to fix it. Our goal, then, is to show families how allowing the occurrence of lesser consequences will provide the motivation for recovery. A “rock” bottom is not necessary.
Ed Hughes has served as Executive Director of The Counseling Center, Inc. since 1989. The Counseling Center is a multi-county program employing 175 staff with offices in Adams and Scioto Counties. The Counseling Center is the parent company for several well-known residential treatment programs including Stepping Stone House for Women, The Marsh House for Men, and the newest residential program, Second Chance Center. These residential programs serve clients from throughout the state. Ed received his Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from Ohio University in 1975 and his Master’s Degree in Public Service Counseling from Western Kentucky University in 1979. He is a Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor. Ed is the author of Baffled by Addiction? Effective Strategies to Help Your Addicted Loved One.