About six months ago I attended a holiday gathering where I spent a few hours catching up with people I’d known for years through work and networking. To say I was bombarded with personal stories about the impact addiction, mental illness and family dysfunction has had on their lives would be a gross understatement. It was a reoccurring conversation that joined me at every table.
By virtue of the recovery writing and work I do, I didn’t have to broach the subject once on my own. The elephant in the room introduced itself in every conversation.
The stories people told were shocking, but not surprising. Many began the conversation with “I’ve been reading your book and your blog, I couldn’t wait to talk to you. I haven’t been able to talk to anyone about my ____.”
You can fill in the blank with wife, daughter, son, grandson, father, grandmother and so on.
In the midst of an epidemic of addiction that is sweeping the nation and ravaging families, many are still afraid and ashamed to talk to the people around them about it. Much less reach out for support. When they find themselves in a safe presence, it’s as if they can’t contain what they have been bearing privately.
Below are a few of those conversations. Some details have been modified in order to respect their privacy.
One conversation that struck me was with a very dignified, successful colleague. Jason pulled me aside to tell me he’d read my book and felt like I described everything he was feeling. He asked if I might have any words advice pertaining to his wife, a high level executive who has been smoking crack cocaine for three years.
“Crack. My wife smokes crack. I can’t even believe I’m saying that word. I haven’t decided what to do, I’m going out of my mind over it.” He whispered.
While I prefer to give direction to the experts I trust versus advice, what I did say is that I’ve learned there is no drug addiction uglier than another. Crack, meth, heroin, etc., may feel like scary words, they can hit with a jolt as terrifying as the word cancer. But the truth is, whatever chemical has someone in a death grip is the worst one for them.
Addiction is a chronic, progressive, fatal disorder, regardless of its entry.
This exhausted husband explained how he has been shouldering his burden alone, trying with all his might to keep it from the knowledge of their teen son, extended family and even the neighbors.
Because…what would they think?
His wife’s addiction took advantage of that fear of exposure, knowing he’d protect the secret as long as he could, so she could continue in the habit until it sent her to jail or an early grave. Keeping the secret would also prevent him from getting support and learning healthy ways of managing his life.
It’s a secret no one should have to bear, it’s too much. Eventually something will thrust the problem out into the open. Addiction is chronic and progressive, it’s a problem that doesn’t just go away because we hide it well. It grows until we can’t pretend everything is fine anymore.
What a weight he had needlessly been carrying alone.
It doesn’t mean we have to wave a flag of our personal business for the world to see, or unload our struggles to every cashier. But the reality is that there are more people affected by addiction than addicted, at this point everyone knows someone. For every one person in the grip of it, there are ten to fifteen around it who are affected. The crisis of addiction is invading every town, every family.
We need to talk about it.
Although I personally haven’t had this type of crisis near my daily life for more than five years, I’m still talking about it. I feel compelled to, I know what it’s like to walk the floors alone at night, tormented over someone you love. It’s torture to carry the weight by yourself.
It’s okay to be real and honest about it and it’s crucial to find support. A problem shared is a problem cut in two. There are people to talk to who know what you’re going through. I’m one of them.
Another woman I spoke with described how her son has been addicted to opiates and eventually heroin. He has been in and out of the family home for six years, they have lived in absolute havoc around his struggle.
Interestingly she went on to tell me about her husband’s law partner calling the office just weeks before to request extended time off. They were stunned to hear that his beautiful 25-year-old daughter had died that weekend from an accidental overdose.
Though working closely together, neither of these men had shared their hidden misery with the other, yet they’d been going through it at the same time, side by side in adjacent offices. They couldn’t believe they’d both kept it to themselves and suffered so much anguish in silence right next to each other.
Both have said the fear of being looked down on, judged and ostracized had kept them silent when they could have been one another’s support. Instead they carried the pain alone.
Later an acquaintance approached to ask about my family and my work, going on to describe her own introduction to addiction and recovery after going through a nightmare of events with her sister as well as her young adult son.
She went on to tell me how she still hadn’t told her in-laws that this son from a previous marriage was in recovery, though he’d been doing very well for more than two years. They had commented one too many times in front of her, in light of the growing epidemic, how they’d “never help an addict or even have one in their home.”
Not knowing they actually had…on lots of occasions.
“I might have thought the same way myself a few years ago.” She told me, “But after what we’ve gone through, I now prefer to think of an addict as a person.”
As a public it’s well past the time to get educated as well as to have understanding and compassion for what is going on in every community. This is an epidemic. It’s not stopping, it’s not even slowing down. Everyone knows someone who knows (and loves) someone affected by addiction.
As a dear friend told me last week “If everyone affected by addiction in some way started talking about it, everyone would be talking about it.”
We are only as sick as our secrets.
Family members become as fearful and sick as the one struggling. If not sicker. These are good people, trying to manage life as normally as possible, which can be stressful on its own. While trying to keep a horrendous challenge at home under control. We need one another. So many are going through the same things, but we don’t know that until we become open and real with one another.
And for anyone not closely affected by this epidemic that is causing so much fear and sorrow? Be compassionate in how you treat others along the avenues of life, you never know what someone might be bearing alone. Or what you could end up going through yourself one day.
And try not to judge, you never know what secrets someone might be keeping from you.
“We’re all just walking each other home.” ~Ram Dass
Together we make progress,
Author of Unhooked
If you feel alone in your circumstances, please email or message me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I will do all I can to be support. But even better than that, I can direct you to information, resources and experts. No one should have to go through it alone.
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