When New Market resident Debbie Rice learned her two eldest children were addicted to heroin, she felt entirely alone, even demonized by her friends and relatives.
“Even those closest to me, family and coworkers, because they’re not willing to educate themselves and understand, they became the most critical,” Rice said. “And they’re the ones you think you can turn to.”
The problem of where to turn for help may seem odd at a time when recovery programs for addicts are receiving unprecedented publicity, but hardly any attention is focused on groups for an addict’s loved ones struggling with addiction in their own way. Healing for these people is just as important, said Sheri Singer, who has herself dealt with the problem and now oversees just such a group.
“The only way to find out where these support groups are is to keep talking about it,” Singer said. “Often, the way people find these programs is through word of mouth, and that’s sad. There’s so many groups like this.”
Of course, not everyone is ready to embrace what they hear at family support groups like Singer’s, a 12-step program called “What About Us?” that meets in Carroll County each week.
Loving from a distance
In fact, most families find themselves at odds with the three C’s, Singer said, referring to a fundamental cornerstone of both family support and addiction recovery programs.
The first two C’s stand for a loved one’s inability to either cause or control the actions or recovery of the addicts in their lives, Singer said. The last C stands for “cure,” she said.
“As a parent, that third ‘C,’ that you can’t cure it, that’s a tough, tough pill to swallow,” Singer explained.
Kathleen Stringfellow, who heads a family support group in Frederick County as part of the nationwide Narcotics Anonymous network, summed it up neatly.
“It’s sort of like saying, ‘don’t feed your child,’” Stringfellow said. “They can’t see their child in pain, they want to believe their loved ones.”
Stringfellow’s addict was her late husband, and his addiction before getting clean was cocaine. And while her husband recovered and stayed clean for years before his death, many hard trials lay along the way to recovery.
For Rice, the memories are even fresher. If not for the support of ‘What About Us?’ Rice said she likely would never have found the strength to ask both of her older children to leave her house.
“I’ll never forget the one thing that was said the very first meeting I went to; that God has a plan. So, whether my son is in the bedroom upstairs or on the street corner in Baltimore, if he’s going to overdose and God is going to take him, he’s going to take him either place,” Rice said.
And while not everyone involved in a 12-step program turns to God or religion as a higher power, the concept of a power beyond oneself is a key component in steeling families for the hardship.
Disabling enabling behavior
Until the addicts themselves take steps toward recovery, most of the typical behavior family members exhibit — lending the addict money, even giving them a place to stay — can become enabling to the addiction, said Tim Weber, a former heroin addict.
“It honestly wasn’t until I was homeless in Baltimore that I walked into a hospital, after my family had quit throwing money at me,” Weber said. “As an addict, that’s the only way that it’s going to work. If you have something to grab ahold of other than recovery, you’re going to try every avenue other than working on yourself.”
After that revelation in 2003, a 37-year-old Weber landed a meager, $180- to $200-a-week job to pay rent at his sober home with just enough money left to take a bus to recovery meetings. In the 12 years since, Weber has opened a network of sober homes in Carroll County to help other addicts.
More recently, Weber founded ‘What About Us?’ as part of his sober home network after noticing the need for loved ones of addicts to themselves find recovery.
The road to recovery
It may seem like tough love, but shutting an addict out can be beneficial to family members and the addicts themselves, Singer said.
“The best thing that you can do for your addict is to work on yourself and your own recovery,” she said, recounting her own experience. “What I found was that, with a lot of the things that were driving me crazy … It was me making myself crazy. And when an addict sees someone in their family getting better, that has an effect on them.”
Self-betterment for family members also teaches them not to fall back on enabling behaviors when an addict begins recovery on their own and are gradually allowed back into the family circle.
Now, almost a year since both of Rice’s older children began their own roads to recovery, Rice and her daughter, 14-year-old Cheyenne Humphrey, have welcomed Rice’s two older children back.
Looking back on her separation from her older siblings, Humphrey said that, while letting them go was almost too much to bear, all three siblings are now much stronger for seeking help and healing in their own ways.
Humphrey is happy to now reap the rewards of their hard work, alone and together as a family.
“This past Christmas, I cried out of happiness because I thought, ‘Finally something counted!’” Humphrey said. “Because I have pictures of them so high at previous Christmases and other holidays, and I felt like those never counted; but this one did.”
Taking the first step
Still, the first steps toward recovery for family members, just like for addicts themselves, are the hardest, Stringfellow said.
That said, learning to dispel deceptions, both those told by addicts and the self-deception of concerned family members, is ultimately worth the pain of confronting addiction.
“Later, when you’re in recovery, you’ll think, ‘How could I have believed that crap?’ And it’s because if you don’t believe it, then you have to do something,” Stringfellow said. “If I confront my kid or if I find it, then I have to do something.”