God at Work - Providing Help for People and Their Families who Struggle with Addiction
Drug and alcohol abuse is a growing problem in the world. About 96,700 people die in a year from some type of drug overdose . Unfortunately, not even Christians are exempt from addiction. Christian singer Toby Mac lost his 21-year-old son Truett to an accidental drug overdose in 2019.
Even through tragedies like Toby Mac’s, we cannot forget God is still good. God still provides people with help who are struggling with addiction. He also provides help for family members who are affected by a loved one’s addiction. We see God working in places like Learn to Cope.
Joanna Peterson, the founder of Learn to Cope, is no stranger to the effect of substance abuse. She lost her niece to a fentanyl overdose three years ago and lost her brother to alcohol and anxiety medication addiction. She also has a son that is currently in long term recovery. She started Learn to Cope in 2004 to help families of loved ones who suffer from addiction get help.
In an interview with True Christian Magazine, Joanna Peterson explains ways to help identify signs of an addiction, how addictions start, what age range is most impacted by addiction, and how it impacts families, ways to help people who want help, and what services Learn to Cope provide for families.
What are some of the signs of an addiction that you know of?
“Well, the signs can vary but mainly it’s when somebody will regress from family members and friends. Maybe they are not going to work every day or not going to school every day like they used to. Their appearance can change with opioids. It could be weight loss. They get sort of a different look in their eye. Usually a parent, a mother’s intuition usually will kick in knowing that somethings wrong but not really able to pinpoint what that is.”
What if they are not a parent? Maybe they are a loved one like a cousin or an uncle?
“No, actually any family member or someone that loves this person will know that something’s different and one of the first signs is when someone is withdrawing from the family or friends, and maybe has a lot of secret phone calls, or has to leave the room and go to the bathroom a lot or texting on their phone a lot. You might ask, ‘oh who’s that?’, ‘oh no one you know’. Or more secretive about things. That usually gets people wondering what’s going on, something is wrong.”
Is that the biggest sign that you can tell if someone has an addiction?
“Well, that and things missing from the home. Sometimes, in order to keep up with their habit – especially if it’s a very addictive drug like opioids – they can’t really maintain paying for them when buying them from the streets and many times they lose their job because they’re using and not feeling well a lot and going to work. And they have to have a way to maintain their habit or to afford their habit so sometimes they turn to stealing from family members and friends.”
What steps to take to get help for a loved one that wants help?
“Well, that can vary and it’s quite a process, because most of the time they’re not going to want help. So, it depends where you are in the country as far as what’s available for resources for treatment. Also, it depends on insurance, if they have insurance, if they don’t have insurance, if a family can afford to pay for something privately. Treatment can cost $30,000 a month. And then there’s all different pathways. There is medically assisted treatment, there’s abstinence, there’s 12-step groups where somebody can go to 12-step meeting after they left treatment.
But one of the keys is getting them to agree to go which is very, very difficult and it’s a process. And it can take a long time. And the family really needs support or the loved ones while their going through that because they might bring them to treatment and think, ‘oh they’re finally here’ and then they appear at the door the next day because they left. So, it’s really hard.”
Do you have resources available for families that need help?
“We do. So, there’s a national website that a lot of people use, and it’s called SAMHSA. It’s a substance abuse mental health services association. It’s samhsa.org. And they have a national treatment locator. So, you can go from any state and click on that and find treatment resources there.
Here in Massachusetts, we have bureau substance addiction services help line that we give to people. It’s an 800 number that they can call. And what we do is we are a national peer support for families, so a lot of the families will share their experiences at meetings. We have confidential meetings every week and a lot of times we learn resources just from families. What worked or what hasn’t worked. And one place a treatment might work for one person, and it doesn’t work for the next. So, it’s really, really difficult to navigate.”
What impact have you seen that an addiction has on a family?
“Well, it affects the family as a whole. It affects the marriage, the parents, because sometimes two parents might not agree and be on the same page. Sometimes, well like our family went through this in the beginning. I thought I could just fix the problem myself. Also, stigma, you know it’s not something you want to just tell your friends all the time. Oh, my daughter is using drugs, my son is using drugs, because there’s a very heavy stigma there and they don’t want people to think it's their fault or they might even be blaming themselves and saying to themselves, ‘what did I do wrong?’ And it doesn’t matter how well you parented; this could happen to anybody’s child. So, it definitely puts a huge strain on a marriage.
The siblings really suffer because not only they are watching their brother or sister lose themselves with the addiction, they are losing their parents because their parents are so focused on ‘how do I save this person’s life?’ I always used to describe how I would be at my daughter’s soccer games or my younger son’s basketball games, but I was there physically but mentally I was somewhere else because I was worried how I am I going to pay for this treatment center? Did I lock up my packet book or my purse?
We are worried constantly, and we’ve seen a lot of families break up over this. Many, many of our families have become caregivers for their grandchildren because their son or daughter has passed away from an overdose. So, now their taking care of their grandchildren and they might have one child in college, one child in high school and now they have an infant or toddler. And they think that they’re heading to retirement, but now they are raising another family member. So, it really impacts the family as a whole.
We see even when someone finds long term recovery – which we do see that happen a lot, it gives us a lot of hope – it takes a very long time for them to earn their family’s trust back. Because normally this is not something that can be fixed overnight. It’s a process and it can be, you know, 3 to 5 years before you see them get their first one-year drug free or alcohol free.”
What percentage of people at a certain age that struggle with some type of substance abuse? Is there a certain age range? Is it more younger people than older people who suffer some type of substance abuse?
“I think it starts at an early age. It usually starts with their first bad decision which could be smoking a cigarette, or it could be trying marijuana at an adolescent stage or drinking alcohol. You know that can lead to eventually making more bad decisions. If they’re around other areas or, you know, when they’re young and go to underage drinking parties, you never know what someone’s going to have at that party. So, what we see normally within Learn to Cope is the age range we see is 18 to 26. But almost always that person started with something else with underage drinking or smoking marijuana, smoking cigarettes. It always starts with the first bad decision leads to more bad decisions.
There’s a reason somebody can’t rent a car until their 26 because the adolescent brain is not an adult brain until they’re at the age of 26. So, it’s a risk, so an adolescent would take risks but unfortunately the drugs that are out there today, they can try something one day and be addicted to it within the next couple of days with the heroin, fentanyl, and prescription pills that are out there. So, the more education that there is available for adults that have children in grade school the better.”
How does the addiction begin? Is it out of peer pressure or something else?
“It could be a combination of things. You know like I just talked about an adolescent, upper middle school, or high school they might go to a prom or something and afterwards might be alcohol there. So, you know if everybody else is doing it maybe I should. So that’s peer pressure, it could start with that. Or it could be, I tend to believe, that it’s a generational thing. Because not many families do not have someone that has not been addicted to alcohol.
If you think about it back in the 30’s you know during prohibition, there were many people that died of alcohol overdoses that became addicted to alcohol. So, if you have someone in your family that is an alcoholic or has been addicted to prescriptions, you know, the chances of it happening to another family member are very high. So, a lot of people will warn their kids, if you have a brother or sister, when were young, that became an alcoholic, that means it can be in the genes. Its highly addictive. Alcohol is one of the most dangerous substances out there.
So, you know, as long there’s education, there’s no guarantee even with education, that someone’s not going to go down that road. But, you know, you could have three kids in a family, one that becomes an alcoholic and two others that drink and they’re okay and seem to get through it. You just never know which one it will happen to. So, the best form to not to become an alcoholic is not to drink and not to try drugs. But there’s no guarantee that’s going to happen in any family.”
What kind of services does Learn to Cope provide for people that want help?
“So, we’re there for the families’ members. Here in Massachusetts, we have 26 meetings. They are all virtual right now because of COVID, but we will be going back in person soon. We are also keeping our virtual meetings available for people that have gotten used to it or that have joined or never able to get to a meeting. But we’re there for the family.
We provide education, we have experts come to speak at our meetings to teach us about addiction, or we have people in long-term recovery to tell us their stories, how they have overcome their addiction. We learn about different pathways to recovery, about medications, or 12-steps, or smart recovery.
We are also a pilot for nasal naloxone which is an antidote for overdose. So, we teach people what the signs and symptoms of an overdose are for opiates because a lot of people are using the prescription opiates or fentanyl. So, we train people on how to use Narcan and we pass that out in Massachusetts. And we’ve had a lot of people have to use it and save their family member’s life. So, it’s a lifesaving thing to have. It’s sad that we have to have it, but we’re very grateful that we do.
So, we are basically there just to help the family get through this and to navigate it and not blame themselves for it and hopefully see their loved one get into recovery eventually.”
Is there anything else you would like to share with us about Learn to Cope?
“One thing I would like to share is, you know, if you know of a family that is going through this, there’s nothing better than when someone reaches out to help. So, if you do know a family member, or a friend or a neighbor that might be going through this, I can guarantee you they’re living the lowest point of their life because it’s a really lonely place to be. They’re afraid to talk about it with others because of stigma. But when someone reaches out to them and offers help and says, ‘hey you know what, I see you’re going through a hard time, is there anything I can do?’, I can’t tell you how helpful that is for a person just to support them. Like I said with stigma, it’s a really lonely place to be.
And certainly, you can offer, if there’s ALANON meetings in the area. Those are good, or you could give them our website even. We have virtual meetings that people can join from anywhere in the country really. And our website is Learn2Cope.org. We can put them in touch with a meeting or a sibling meeting. We also have grief meetings for people who have lost people to overdose as well that we can connect them with.”