Since I started speaking out about our family’s struggle with addiction, I’ve met with a lot of people. Naturally, most of them ask what made me decide to speak publicly about addiction, especially at a time when there was still so much silence around it.
I tell them about the pivotal moment in June 2012 that set me on a course of advocating for Islanders battling addiction and their families. This is how it began.....
First of all, having a child battling addiction is one of the most painful things that you can ever go through. It is an ugly disease with ugly symptoms that cause people to go to jail. You live in shame, fear, and silence. You don’t feel you can talk about it to anyone because of the stigma attached to addiction. You feel alone. You are also scared to death that you will bury your child.
Please take a moment to imagine yourself in my place. You have a child who is dying a slow death and you can’t share your pain with anyone. This was my existence for many years.
In the fall of 2011, our son’s disease escalated to IV use, which is very serious. When we found out, we were crushed. I felt something shift inside of me that day. I felt like a part of me had died. I began to lose hope.
The worry and stress took its toll on me. I began to experience my own health problems in January of 2012. I was put off work by my doctor. The lady who never took a sick day was forced to take four weeks off to figure out how to live with the fact that my child could die any day, and there wasn’t a darn thing that I could do about it. I could no longer protect him. The monsters of his childhood were no longer in his closet or under the bed. He had one living inside of him and it was heartless. It goes by the name Addiction.
My son and I are very close so it really bothered him to see me sick like that. It wasn’t long before he came to us and said that he was tired of living with addiction. He wanted to go for serious help and was willing to go off-Island to get it. This was a HUGE deal because he was a homebody who loved his family and didn’t like to travel too far. To say that we were thrilled and relieved would be an understatement.
Our family doctor wrote a letter of referral for him to go to Homewood treatment centre and his psychiatrist wrote one as well. They both felt that was a great option for him. Their referral letters were sent to Addictions Services with his application for off-Island treatment.
While we waited for his application to be approved, my son tried to get his things in order so that when he came back from Homewood, he could enjoy his new life without any baggage from his past life. Part of this included confessing to a drug-related crime. He was sentenced and served his time while he waited to go to Homewood. By having his debts paid to society, he could have the fresh start that he desperately wanted when he got back from treatment.
In June, his application was DENIED! He would not be going to Homewood.
We were shocked! How could they go against the recommendation of two doctors? How could they say no to someone who was desperate and ready for help?
In addition, they are well aware of how much pain a family goes through while they wait for their loved one to ask for help. Addiction is a family disease because everyone who loves that person hurts in some way. When you treat the person battling addiction, you treat the whole family. This was an opportunity to heal a family. Yet, they denied his application.
I was so upset. We all were. I requested a meeting with the Chair of the committee. My son and I met with him and another person from Addictions Services. They proceeded to tell us the treatment path that everyone had to follow. They even drew it on the white board. It didn’t matter that our son’s addiction was advanced, dangerous and deadly. It didn’t matter what he thought would give him the best chance of success (residential treatment). It didn’t matter what two other doctors thought. Our son had to follow their path, which started with the least effective treatments first.
I was armed with studies that showed how ineffective those options were for a young person who was an IV user addicted to opiates like my son was. The success rate was less than 3%. It didn’t matter. My son was going to follow their path and that was it. They were not changing their minds.
This was when I realized that our Addictions Services was “system-centred” and not “client-centred”. The client had to meet the needs of the system and not the other way around. That is wrong! That is very wrong. Addiction is a difficult disease to overcome. Many die because they cannot do it. The last thing families need is more obstacles. The very system that was supposed to help him was going to be the obstacle to his getting well.
When it was clear that we weren’t going to get anywhere with them, my son and I stood up to leave the meeting. I said, “This is not right. I don’t know what I’m going to do about it but I can’t accept this answer. I will be doing something, though. This is so wrong.”
Crushed, my son was nearly in tears. He was so shocked, he could hardly find the words to express how he was feeling. He said, “I’m sorry, mom, that I didn’t say much in the meeting. I just didn’t know what to say. I was so upset.”
For the first time in my life, I asked politicians for help. None came.
My son, feeling trapped in a life he didn’t want, went on a downward spiral that ended with him back in jail. So, instead of the Province funding his stay at a residential treatment centre on the way to the new life he so desperately wanted, they were paying for him to be in jail.
I could not give up. At that point, I knew that the only chance that my son and others had to break free from the prison of addiction was if the silence was broken. I had to go public to raise awareness. Besides, I knew that no amount of stigma was ever going to hurt as much as watching my son slowly dying with no help in sight.
I had shared our family’s story with a university class earlier in the year (when we were waiting for our son’s Homewood application to be approved), but with this new revelation about the broken system, I needed to go even more public. I talked to Jim Day at the Guardian.
I added my voice to the conversation that was started by a few other parents (Cathy DesRoches and Theresa Kenny, to name a couple). I wanted to educate Islanders because unless you are battling an addiction, or are the parent or spouse of someone who is, you would have no idea how broken the system actually is. I certainly didn’t until addiction entered our home.
I haven’t stopped talking.
I will not stop talking until addiction is treated like any other disease.
There’s a saying that talk is cheap. I don’t believe that. When we talk, we educate. When we educate, we build compassion. When we build compassion, treatment improves. When treatment improves, lives improve. When lives improve, families and communities begin to heal.
Please join the conversation. Every voice matters.