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Start Where You Are

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Five years ago I moved back to my home state, found a new (to me) condo to buy, and started a brand new job. I was overwhelmed but curious to see if I could pull it all off.

Which by that time, I technically HAD pulled it off. I had driven all my belongings in a big box truck TWICE from out of state to my new home, visited dozens of houses for sale & navigated finding a new job despite suffering from excruciating ( new)- & changing- job anxiety. It was a lot of work by myself, financially & emotionally. I had recovered from a 24 yr marriage ending a few years earlier and had now navigated the ending of a three year relationship. I was still figuring out the inner independent woman in me.

As I sat in my new office, wondering where to even start- I pulled out some of the items from my previous office. I had previously went to a state activity certification for the elderly population. This box was full of sensory materials such as sound healing therapy and tactile exercises along with adult coloring books which were becoming all the rage at that time. I opened up to the coloring page “start where you are” that I had colored at that conference.

So that’s exactly what I did. I hung that amateur adult coloring page up on the cabinet in front of me and BEGAN.

New patients, new co-workers, new hospital. I went to compliance meetings where I didn’t have a clue what the culture or focus was. Was it low-key? Rigid? What did they expect from me? Well, there was no way to know all that without the gift of the process of TIME. What I did know was federal guidelines. So I started with those and worked backwards to see how the facility could meet those.

So imagine my surprise today when I opened up my email and saw Shelly Youngs beautiful post titled “Start Where you are!”

In it, she describes perfectly, my own experience with my son with substance use disorder, as she is telling her journey.

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During family weekend, seven months into treatment and recovery, I am seated across from my son. We are sitting “knees to knees,” face to face, eyes to eyes within a circle of four other families. 

The counselor says, “Holding eye contact, take turns sharing one resentment, one regret and one affirmation with each other.” 

Holding my gaze, my son nods my way as if to say, “you go first.”

With a trembling voice that breaks mid sentence with deep remorse, I express my greatest regret, “I regret not starting sooner, waiting, to get help and end your suffering.” 

My greatest regret still is not accessing proper care and treatment sooner. People were telling me not to try at all (there is nothing you can do, you can’t cure it) and to banish him from our family to force change (detach, tough love). Some said it was my fault (enabling) and then others said it wasn’t (you didn’t cause it). Some said you have to “wait until they want it” and others said you have to wait until rock bottom. No one said what exactly that meant or looked like so I’d know when it was and when and how to respond. 

There was so much confusion and ambiguity in how to respond when your loved one presents with the adverse effects of a neurotoxin on the brain that I felt torn. Stuck in the middle of an idealogical battle rather than a health condition. Add to that, I’d been raised in an alcoholic environment where I was conditioned not to respond at all. Intervening in someone’s substance use no matter how severe it seemed wasn’t modeled in my family. (until I intervened on my mother, when I was 40 years old) Add to the confusion, a medical system that defined addiction as a health condition but in practice treated it more like a moral issue or lack of willpower (nurses in the ER with my mother) while also contributing to addiction with overprescribing and fraudulent prescription writing (Local Dr. supplying young adults with a supply of opioids and xanax). An insurance system that refused payment for evidence based treatment protocols and mental healthcare with the code, “not medically necessary.” A religion that treated it as a sin or a lack of God or spiritual connection. A government that for years defined it as a crime and conditioned families to treat it as a crime or a moral issue with the failed, “war on drugs” and the “just say no” prevention campaign. A society that encouraged substance use, normalized it, marketed it, until you got sick, hurt yourself or someone else or violated the social contract of use or used the substances that were not approved by society and then treated it like a crime. Families were primed to either not respond (deny, cope, suffer) or to respond with harsh consequences (kick out, detach, abandon, banish) and to do so silently (stigma). All of which cause harm to the individual and the family system. 

In the confusion and disorientation we all suffered trauma. The manifestation of a slow, conditioned, harmful response to substance use disorder, a treatable health condition. It is that trauma which we are now in recovery from. The suffering that ensued by being told to wait for a potentially fatal health condition to get worse before getting proper care for it, the denial of our reality and gaslighting by the insurance company by refusing to pay for evidence based care. The shaming by some therapists, certain support groups members, family and friends for securing attachment and providing care. The pressure to reject my own maternal instincts and betray my intuition in the name of “tough love.” The exhaustion and terror of trying to keep someone alive without medical or community support. The anguish of isolation compounded by the shame of stigma where there never should have been any in the first place. 

As a mother, that is what I am in recovery from. A cultural system failure and the gross lack of continuity and consistency in the system of care.  

For more than 200 years addiction has been defined as a health condition that impacts the body and brain. Dr. Benjamin Rush, who happens to be my great, great, great, grandfather not by blood but by marriage, pioneered the therapeutic approach to addiction in the 1800’s. “Dr. Rush recognized that the person using the substance loses control over themselves and identified the properties of the substance, rather than the person’s choice, as the causal agent.” In other words, the toxin on the brain and in the body was the problem, never the person. Two hundred years ago and still families are suffering the impact of the confusion born of a flawed healthcare, criminal justice, education system and a lack of consistent coordinated response and disparate ideologies around substance use. Two hundred years and some people are still debating “choice.” Ridiculous.

My greatest regret is not following my instincts sooner, not trusting my inner knowing sooner to drive my response. In the end, my inner knowing and my instincts were correct and a clear, compassionate, therapuetic response made way for proper care and treatment, recovery and healing. What propelled me was taking a stand for healing and grounding in addiction as a health condition and treating it no different than any other health condition. Love, Science & Attachment Theory all the way. Then immersing myself in learning about recovery and what it takes to be a recovery ready family. 

The good news is there have been great strides in the understanding of addiction. Powerful research and evidence based treatment grounded in science has paved the way for a compassionate therapuetic response to addiction although access still lags for many communities and the barriers to care are many and differ from state to state.. The recovery community continues to grow, blossom and advocate for policy change that has a powerful effect on peoples lives. People are recovering out loud and sharing their stories and pathways to accessing care and supportive communities.

If you’re looking for specific support, education or resources, or just want to someone to witness where you are right now, reach out. 

I’m here, holding space for your healing and recovery. 

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Shelly Young