Caring for and helping drug addicts and alcoholics can take a terrible toll on the family. We often do not realize the extent of the damage in a family due to drug or alcohol abuse, nor do we see the huge impact it makes on mental health.
I was recently arrived in Albuquerque in 2001 and working part-time as well as taking care of a close friend who was terminally ill with cancer. My first attempt to re-enter the workforce full-time was delayed or postponed as my friend’s cancer continued to spread and develop new tumors and growth. My friend was trying to keep a certain amount of normalcy alive in his family and friends relations, but in many ways the whole existence punctuated with all the medical emergencies and the increasing need for more and more intensive care were taking a toll on me.
A deacon at a church where I was Singles Ministry Director asked me to join him and attend a Promise Keepers event at the local indoor stadium. I was rather stressed and very exhausted and accepted the invitation even though in order to attend without paying an admission fee, I would have to work as an usher.
Thus, it was that I found myself in the lobby/foyer area in the building housing The Pit, our university basketball stadium. I was passing out program schedules and directing people to the various sections they needed to be in when a very well-dressed man with two teenage boys walked up to me and asked a question.
“Do you remember me?” He stood there in front of me and I could not remember him at all. I shook my head. No, I did not remember him at all. He said, “Let me refresh your memory!”
He began to talk and slowly I came to the realization that this man standing in front of me was not the same person emotionally or even physically because he was now free of drug addiction. The transformation was truly amazing. He stood in front of me with a crisp white shirt very neatly pressed and wearing a red tie. His slacks were a cut above the ordinary and were also neatly pressed and creased. When I looked at him from head to toe, his shoes were noticeable for the very bright mirror polish and shine. Overall, he was the epitome of the successful man’s image. If clothes and dress made the man, he was certainly made up in style!
He shared his story, and with his son’s and some people clustered around, he reminded me of how we had met. I was working in Espanola New Mexico at the time he came into my life for a brief six-month span. While in that area and working for various water well companies, I also was deeply committed to reaching drug addicts before it was too late for them. Espanola at that time had the dubious honor of holding a drug addict record. Espanola had the highest per capita percentage of Heroin addicts in the world. Not something you would want to put on a city’s web page!
The man who had come to me and asked if I remembered him was a man who had first been assigned to a Faith-based Christian Rehab Center in Espanola administered by a local church.
He had come in with his hair nearly down to his ankles and his beard had obviously not been trimmed or washed in a long time. His body odor was so strong that I felt like I was standing over an open sewer to be next to him. He was not truly coherent nor able to carry on a normal conversation, such was the toll that the addiction had taken on him.He was sentenced to one year in the rehab facility where I was working as a result of armed robberies he had committed. Now, I remembered him!
When he had come into the home, we first had to clean him up. He was so damaged by the drug abuse he had indulged in that it was much like bathing a paraplegic. The Judge who had sentenced the man to our rehab center was hoping that somehow something would happen that would remove this man from the streets and addictions and restore him to his family. That was a tall order for us to fill on the Judge’s behalf.
So, bathed and shaved and with his hair cut, Marvin sat on the edge of an iron bedstead with a utility grade mattress. I sat down with him and explained some of the basic rules of the home. He did not seem to hear me nor pay attention. I decided to work with him and informed my fellow counselors I would be his mentor/counselor.
We followed certain rules and modes to rehab addicts and alcoholics. We realized very quickly that drugs can cripple and also cause serious brain damage. We also knew that we had to set house rules and regulations to establish respect for law and order and also to set a routine that was regular. This is so essential in drug rehab. Without the standards, addicts do not have any way to measure progress, but with the rules, as they progress in recovery their violations and infractions decrease until the day comes when they are living a ordered responsible live again. Given that drugs do damage the nervous system and the brain, there are a percentage of people we could not really help except to get them off the drugs and at least living clean. People think that drug overdoses always cause death. Not true, sometimes drug abuse leaves the user disabled physically or mentally and forever after handicapped, as to what jobs or tasks they can perform. It is often heartbreaking work to pour many days of effort into someone’s life only to see them fall back into the old filth as soon as they are on the street again. My heart goes out to parents and families of addicts, as there is sometimes no remedy other than a miracle that will undo the damage of drug abuse.
The first one to two weeks of working with a Heroin addict is spent sitting with and monitoring the patient until they have successfully broken the addiction cycle. It is especially difficult for Heroin users because they go through an agonizing withdrawal process. They suffer physical pain and I have never seen any of those I worked with able to eat while on withdrawal. We did not substitute Antibuse for Heroin. For all practical purposes, it is merely the substitution of one drug over the other. The addict is still an addict. Our program took people from addiction to completely clean and ready to mix with society as a normal and functioning human. It is extremely hard to deal with life when there is a huge burden of addiction coloring every action and behavior and influencing every decision the addict makes.
In the drug culture, there is one constant. That is whatever made one high last year is probably not strong enough to have the same effect this year. So while working with the men who came into the home, I encountered people who had sniffed glue or paint, huffed gasoline or paint thinners and tried any manner of other things that were on the shelves in stores. Hairspray was a favorite of many people and just one example of the way a drug addict would try anything to catch that next high. Some of the most difficult and heartbreaking situations were those involving people who had started using drugs as a way to ease the pain of a past traumatic event. There might have been an accident which caused constant pain, or a family member died and in a few cases a client would be feeling a deep sense of guilt because the addict had hurt of killed someone else in an accident or fit of rage. Included in the number of clients in the home were gang members who a Judge might have felt hope for.
Dealing with drug addicts is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. It is intense and stressful. When a family deals with a family member who is an addict, they will often pass the addict off to society to let someone else deal with what they cannot handle nor have resources for.
Marvin went through a typical withdrawal period. At one point a few days after we had admitted him, I went to get a bowl of stew in the kitchen and returned to find him using the headboard from that iron bed frame to batter a hole through the wall to escape in order to find a fix. The first week I worked with him, I may have gotten as much as seven hours of sleep for the entire week. I slept or tried to sleep in the room with him in another bunk. This was so I could monitor his activity and make sure he did not hurt himself.
Over the space of six months I taught him how to take care of himself, to shave and to do some writing. I was eventually able to take him through getting his GED as he had never graduated High School. He tested me constantly, but addicts respect firmness and consistency and once you give in, they no longer will respect you. Parents, remember this! It especially applies to teenagers. Once we have lost the respect of an addict, we can very seldom recover it.
In the process of working with Marvin, I had taken him through our program step by step, allowing more privileges as he matured into a drug-free lifestyle One day he walked out the front door of the Rehab home a free man and drug-free. We had wrestled a few times as I had struggled to keep him from hurting himself. When he was well enough I taught him how to use a set of simple carpenters tools and repair the damage to his room. Often I would teach him through this kind of process that his decisions and actions would always bring consequences. This was another point that was important to teach to the addicts. All behavior has a consequence whether good or bad. Thus, we would require restitution and reparations from those who stole or damaged property, and for some, they would find themselves cleaning yards for elderly and disabled in community service. But we knew we needed to get this point across. No one can be an addict and not hurt everyone else who are close to them.
I moved on to other towns, worked in construction and often was involved with foster care of teen boys and also being a pastor. I forgot Marvin. In foster caregiving, I had a 14-year-old boy in my custody until his mother moved her family to Australia. He had been sniffing propane and gasoline, and it soon developed serious damage to his nervous system. When digging into his past to find the reason for him starting his death spiral into addiction, I found that he was being seriously and violently abused by his mother’s boyfriend. Unfortunately, the boy had brain damage as a result of the beatings and it was a miracle he was alive. He is doing well for himself now, but he and another boy I cared for at the same time had to be removed from their homes until the boyfriends were removed. But the damage had been done, and in the first boy’s case, a permanent disability was the result of the abuse.
In each of these cases, we were striving for as little dependence on medications as possible. There were legitimate needs of course and those were taken care of, but as we worked with professionals, we were able to bring people to the place where the mood and mind altering drugs were not needed for a person to be healthy. It takes time. It does not happen overnight. In most cases, we were given the task of reclaiming a destroyed life because the family members gave up too soon. So we would work with clients and patients until they were able to function well without added medications or continual support. The fact was, it reestablished the clients self-respect and self-esteem if they were able to function without the aid of narcotics. They would realize they could stand and although in baby steps at first, they would start stepping out to live life on their own.
Drug addicts can be reached and rehabbed. Insofar as caregiving is concerned, I would venture to say at least one third of the members of this site are aware of a friend or family member bing destroyed by drugs. Drug addiction and alcohol abuse will destroy the addicts health. And the addict often requires the services of a caregiver in their old age. We do not see all the damage when we look at physical appearance. But it is there and it will follow a family or family member all their life.
Many of the routines we use to care for patients with COPD, Emphysema, kidney failure, UTI’s and stroke victims are needed when an addic’s health fails. In terms of finance, families are even harder hit than normal caregiving situations, because addicts will steal and they will hurt people when desperate for a fix..
I know this is not the normal caregiving article I write. I do know that treating and caring for addicts is a huge hit to a family and most people don’t get enough help or any help that is needed to bring someone out and break them free from this horrible life style.
Marvin, standing there in front of me in that stadium was and is now a bank officer. IMAGINE THAT! He had been convicted of armed robbery of banks and quick stop stores, and now he a bank officer in Albuquerque. Completely transformed and completely new with sons by his side that he had not seen until he was clean and went home for the first time in 17 years. Needing a pick up after caring for a close friend as he died, this could not have been better timed!
I want to leave you with one thought. Your efforts as a caregiver is not wasted. Every act of love and dedication and devotion and loyal care is noted and watched by someone. It is to your credit even when you stand alone, that caring for another who cannot care for themselves is a wondrful thing. And even when we do not see what we want come to pass, and even when our patient dies, we still can know that we did the right and good thing. And every once in a while we catch a glimpse of the reason why we do this. All my reasons have names of the people I cared for attached to them. Nobody can take that kind of truth away from you. Keep on going and hold your head up.