It would be nice if we could go a month—or even a week—without reminders that the opioid epidemic continues to loom large. Unfortunately, we can’t. Every time a fresh face walks through our doors, we’re reminded that the world outside just isn’t working as it should. But those who see news about the opioid epidemic on TV don’t see it from the same perspective as those who actually meet the sufferers and get to know their families. They don’t see the pain experienced by those who can’t stop using. And they don’t see the countless children of opioid addiction affected by their parents’ disease.
We haven’t talked about the children of addiction before. The pain, the neglect, and the fear that mommy or daddy might not wake up in the morning. In this context, we’ve also talked about how to help them. Nonetheless, the children of opioid addiction face a few unique challenges. To some extent, one might say that any child of addiction could face these same troubles. In the cases of opioid addiction, however, they seem to be much more common. We’d like to talk about these challenges below, and how children of opioid addiction might grow to overcome them with a bit of care and assistance.
Make no mistake about it, addiction is a family disease. Some children of opioid addiction grow to emulate their parents. Others grow to lead lives of codependency. And then there are those who simply find themselves in constant emotional turmoil, the result of being denied a healthy and normal childhood. These children deserve our sympathy. More than that, they deserve our help. But before we can help, we must identify the common problems.
Unique Challenges These Children Face
In October of last year, The Fix published an article about children of opioid addiction living in Kentucky. The primary focus of this article, penned by McCarton Ackerman, was naloxone. Ackerman noted that many Kentucky communities were teaching kids how to use the overdose reversal drug to save their family members. Kentucky also passed bills to limit doctor shopping at that time. Unfortunately, cutting off one supply doesn’t eradicate the disease. The fish rots from the head, as they say. And in this case, the “head” is a vile and cunning disease. Even with these programs in effect, close to 26% of surveyed residents in Northern Kentucky knew someone who struggled with heroin addiction.
Ackerman interviewed addiction expert Dr. Mina “Mike” Kalfas about the children of opioid addiction and the push to teach them about naloxone. Kalfas said:
“This is telling them, if you do find a brother, sister, mother, uncle, not breathing, here’s something that you can do about it. These kids are realizing that drugs can kill them. This is part of an environment where they might find someone dead.”
Let’s think really hard about that statement for just a moment.
When you were a child, how did you react to the death of your first pet? It might’ve depended on how your pet died. When a dog gets run over by a car, it’s sudden and shocking. But when a pet gets sick, the sadness lasts much longer. The grief of losing a loved one becomes intensified by the suspense of waiting for them to die.
Now imagine yourself as one of the children of opioid addiction. Imagine that this pet is a parent or an older sibling. Perhaps you don’t know why they act funny sometimes. Finding them unresponsive on the bathroom floor is a shock to the system. Or, perhaps you know exactly what’s going on. Then, one day, someone hands you a vial of clear medicine. They teach you how to use it because a family member’s life might depend on that knowledge. Every day from that point forward, you’re left wondering whether or not today will be the day you come home from school to find a half-dead body on the couch.
This is what happens to children of opioid addiction when they learn to recognize the disease for what it is. And things only get worse from there. Because, as you can imagine, this type of dramatic upbringing stays with them for quite some time. As they get older, a new plethora of challenges awaits them.
What Happens When They Grow Up?
As noted above, some children of opioid addiction grow up to emulate their parents. The scariest part is that their parents sometimes usher this along. We once knew a patient whose mother taught him how to use a needle. This happened when he was only thirteen years of age. He continue using for more than ten years before legal issues landed him in treatment. In other words, his childhood suffering was extended by over a decade once he began using himself. And this extension of suffering happens to many other children of opioid addiction who never begin using at all.
Some of these children grow up to pursue wildly unhealthy relationships. Whether intentional or not, they often become drawn to those who engage in substance abuse. One writer on Psych Central recalls their own experiences with codependency. These experiences often revolved around trying to save others. When we feel as if we’ve failed to save someone we love in the past, it’s only natural that we try to seek some sort of balance. Unfortunately, we often wind up doing great harm to ourselves while making little progress in our efforts to save everyone.
Children of opioid addiction also experience a great deal of trauma. Some suffer abuse or neglect. Others simply find it difficult to withstand the torment of watching a loved one slowly kill themselves. As they grow older, this trauma informs their entire worldview. When you spend the bulk of your childhood wondering whether or not your mom or dad will live to the end of the day, it’s difficult to see the world as a particularly joyful place. The result is that these children learn to face the world with doubt and cynicism. Unlike other children, they never had much reason to develop a sense of enthusiasm or eager curiosity. It only stands to reason that the anger and depression they experienced as children would carry into adulthood.
In short, the children of opioid addiction face grim lives if they don’t get help early in life. Fortunately, this help isn’t so hard to find. In fact, we here at New England Recovery and Wellness are currently doing a few things that we hope might prove beneficial to children of opioid addiction—both those who are still young, and those who have grown to face the challenges enumerated above. We’ll talk about some of our efforts below, before discussing how you can assist us in this gravely important cause.
How to Help Children of Opioid Addiction
For some time, New England Recovery and Wellness has been working with police stations, churches, and other organizations who wish to help opioid addicts. Recently, we added high-profile politicians to our list of allies in the fight to end chronic substance abuse. With the cooperation of prominent men such as Chris Christie, more opioid addicts will be able to seek treatment. And as more addicts receive treatment for their disease, fewer children of opioid addiction will be forced to watch their parents suffer on a daily basis.
As for children who grow to become addicts themselves, we already help them in many ways. Many such addicts graduate from our programs and move on to lead joyful, purposeful lives. Some of them may be harder to treat, especially if they started when they were young. By contrast, some of these same long-term addicts find themselves more than ready to accept a program of true recovery. After years of suffering, they simply want something better. All they need is to know that people care about their well-being. At New England RAW, we offer the compassion they need.
We mentioned that some adult children of opioid addiction suffer great trauma, which sometimes affects future relationships. Our program of recovery helps these individuals as well. We employ a method of trauma therapy known as EMDR to help these patients overcome their suffering. Through trauma therapy and addiction counseling, they learn that their parents’ illness was not their fault. Upon accepting this, they can begin taking responsibility for their own condition. The key here is acceptance. We must never forget our past, but we must learn that we can’t let it dictate our present.
You can do a few things to help children of opioid addiction as well. First, share this post so that others know more about their struggles. Second, write to your state and local representatives and ask what they’re doing to help. Christie isn’t the only politician who cares about addicts and their families. Many politicians enter their field because they want to enact change and help people. If you’ve witnessed—or experienced—the struggles faced by children of opioid addiction, then you have a unique perspective and they need to hear from you. Finally, if you know a parent who’s struggling with opioid addiction, stage an intervention. Help them make the choice to seek treatment. Do it not only for them, but for their children as well.
Also, don’t forget that some are able to use unique skills to their advantage. If you’re a lawyer, for instance, you might become a child advocate. Or if you have experience with social work, you might try finding an organization that focuses on helping children of alcoholism and addiction. These are only a couple of the options that you have available to you. Think about whether or not you might have something unique to offer, and then find a way to make it happen!
For more information on opioid addiction and how you can help fight it, contact us today.