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By Jacqueline Lisk
Ashamed. Powerless. Overwhelmed. Scared. Alone.
These are some of the words Heather Ross uses to describe how she felt while living through her daughter Helanna’s addiction.
Helanna started experimenting with substances at age 12. Ross didn’t know there was a problem until her daughter was 14.
“That’s when my straight-A student and competitive cheerleader daughter started rapidly changing,” she says. “It was the first time as a mom, or really ever in my life, that I had come up against something I couldn’t figure out how to fix.”
The next four years were horrific, punctured by overdoses, rehab stays, and “absolute chaos.” Nothing Ross tried – from support groups to therapists to naturopaths – seemed to help.
“Her addiction was always just so many steps ahead of me.”
Ross wasn’t focused on it at the time, but her own health was suffering, too. She was constantly sick and missing work. Her hair was falling out. With every passing day, she seemed to feel worse.
“Addiction is progressive for the people who are suffering from it. It is progressive for families, as well,” explains Timothy Gulick, a certified family recovery coach and certified peer recovery specialist at Mountainside Treatment Center.
Gulick has been in recovery for over nine years and draws on his personal experience to assist others. The people he works with are often worrying about their loved ones 24/7.
“It impacts their relationship, their jobs, their leisure time, and their health,” he says.
Permission to love
That’s why it is so important to seek help. Ross’s healing journey began when she read “Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change,” which was recommended on a Facebook support group. The book explains the importance of self-care and introduced Ross to the Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) approach to supporting a loved one with addiction.
“[The book] gave me permission to just love my daughter through her addiction,” Ross says.
In addition to working with a therapist, life coach, and peer groups, Ross started exercising, eating right, and sleeping well – “basic” things that had seemed impossible when she was consumed with “fixing” Helanna.
“I put my own oxygen mask on first, like they tell you on an airplane,” Ross explains.
And when she did, her relationship with her daughter improved. When Helanna was ready to seek treatment, Ross was ready to support her.
“I had to work hard to open back up to her when she got sober. It took a lot of vulnerability. I am glad I did,” she says. “The only thing I regret is that I didn’t learn the tools that I know now sooner.”
In December 2021, at the age of 21, after 18 months of being mostly sober, Helanna relapsed. She had been sold fentanyl instead of heroin and died. Ross is learning what life looks like without her only child. She savors their happy memories and uses all their experiences, good and bad, to help others as a certified life coach.
One of her clients is Beth Syverson, whose 18-year-old son, Joey, has been struggling since age 12.
“The crisis moment came when he tried to kill himself when he was 15. He had been using cannabis and nicotine, but then he started using psychedelics. He liked it so much, he wanted to stay on the other side,” Syverson says.
She responded by entering “super mom” mode.
“I was like, ‘Okay, Mommy will fix this. Don’t worry.’ I tried to fix it for about a year and completely lost myself in the process. I missed a bunch of work. I lost my inner compass. I put myself at the very bottom of the list,” she says.
Syverson and her wife, Jan Mabie, began working with Ross when Joey was 16, in addition to seeing a therapist.
“Heather was the first person to tell me you need to put on your oxygen mask first,” Syverson says. “You can’t fix another person. All you can do is change your own behavior and set your own boundaries.”
Joey still uses cannabis, Syverson says, but their relationship has improved. Together, they host the Safe Home Podcast with the goal of destigmatizing addiction and helping others by sharing their story. “Joey said, ‘Mom, we’ve got to help other families so they don’t have to experience as much pain as we have,’” Syverson says.
Takeaways for loved ones
Gulick urges people living with a loved one’s addiction to:
• Realize they are not alone and let go of shame and secrecy
• Set “loving boundaries” designed to protect your well-being, not to punish your loved one
• Work on your communication skills
• Attend family support meetings
Doing so could help your loved one, too.
“There is significant research that shows family/loved one support can have tremendous positive impact on someone dealing with addiction,” explains Jill Borrelli, vice president of behavioral health at Point32Health, a nonprofit health and well-being company, and the parent company of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan. “It is important to remember that the unique challenges that come from helping a loved one with a mental or substance use disorder can be taxing, so caregivers should take steps to prioritize their own health as well.”
Tracey Cohen, MD, an addiction medicine specialist and senior medical director at Point32Health, says an important part of healing is accepting that addiction is not a character flaw, nor is it the result of something a loved one has done. “Addiction is well-explained as a chronic, complex illness with neurobiological and genetic components,” Cohen says.
And while there is no one-size-fits-all answer, addiction is treatable. The clinical innovation team at Point32Health is exploring ways to support a “whole-person” approach to care, including a recent pilot with Eleanor Health, an outpatient addiction and mental health provider, designed to provide Tufts Health Plan MassHealth members with virtual and in-person treatment options.
“Our heads and bodies are attached and in considering the health and wellness of our members, we need to address both,” Borrelli says.
Likewise, when considering the well-being of your family, you must prioritize your own health and mental well-being to set a positive example and ensure that if a loved one is ready for support, you are ready to provide it.
If you are affected by the issues raised in this article, help can be found at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan also encourage you to engage with your health insurer to see whether you may be able to access resources to support substance use disorder and recovery. If you are a member of either health plan, visit Harvard Pilgrim Health Care or TuftsHealth Plan to get started.
Point32Health is a nonprofit health and wellbeing organization, guiding and empowering healthier lives for all. Bringing together over 90 years of combined expertise and the collective strengths of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Tufts Health Plan and our family of companies, we help our members and communities navigate the health care ecosystem through a broad range of health plan offerings and tools.
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