In New England, Two Different Approaches to Supporting Addicts' Families

By Britni de la Cretaz 01/24/16

“I’m not in crisis, but I have positive progress to report,” she starts. “My son has entered treatment.” The rest of the people in the room clap.

In New England, Two Different Approaches to Supporting Addicts' Families

In the dark parking lot of a Citizens Bank in Quincy, Massachusetts, a white awning shines like a beacon, the words “A New Way” backlit in capital letters. Inside this new recovery center is an open meeting room, where approximately 30 adults sit around a table, three women at the head. A Christmas tree stands at the back of the room.

On a whiteboard on the far side of the space, a few words: “The message is HOPE. The promise is FREEDOM.” One of the women at the head of the table reads from a script, welcoming everyone to this meeting of Learn to Cope, a support group for loved ones of people who struggle with addiction. She opens by asking if there’s anyone in crisis.

Their child’s disease is not their fault and they can get their lives back even if their child doesn’t get well.

A hand shoots up and a woman speaks. “I’m not in crisis, but I have positive progress to report,” she starts. “My son has entered treatment.” The rest of the people in the room clap. Everyone in the room can relate, because they, too, are hoping that their child will decide to seek help, or they remember the day their child entered treatment for the final time, and what a relief it was.

As the opiate crisis rages on in New England, and across the nation, it leaves more than just addicts in its wake. Behind every person cycling in-and-out of detox beds or being lost to overdoses are families, people who love the people who use. And while there has been an increase in services to help the people struggling with addiction themselves, there are far fewer options when it comes to support for the families.

Joanne Peterson began Learn to Cope in 2004, and is now the executive director of the organization. She says she knows how hard it can be to have compassion for someone struggling with addiction, who seems to be unable or unwilling to get well, but “that’s somebody’s daughter or son, somebody loves that person, and they’re human first” before they’re a drug addict.

Since its founding, Learn to Cope has grown to include 23 meetings throughout the state of Massachusetts, and one in South Florida. They boast 180 facilitators who run groups all over the state, and Peterson tells me that they have to be constantly training new facilitators because “burnout is high.” In addition to the in-person support groups, Learn to Cope has a private message board with over 8,000 members from all over the country—and beyond. Peterson describes it as “a lifeline for people who don’t live in Massachusetts and don’t have meetings they can attend.”

Back in the meeting room, the parents at the Learn to Cope meeting speak about the logistics of loving a drug addict. They discuss programs, jails, and drug testing. They speak of locking doors, hiding money, calling their child obsessively just to see if they’re alive. They ask the guest speaker, a woman in recovery, what they can do to make their child want to get sober.

“What was it that someone said that made you finally decide to get better?” one parent asks. The speaker shakes her head. “Nothing.” These parents are looking for a magic bullet, determined to find a way to help their floundering child. Between themselves, they share tactics, contacts, and program recommendations. They commiserate and identify. They speak about how well their children are doing, children who have put together a week or a month of tenuous sobriety. They hold onto hope that it will continue.

Half an hour from Quincy, in the quiet South Shore town of Duxbury, Massachusetts, another support group for loved ones of addicts is taking place. In the brightly lit, carpeted basement of a building on the property for the Miramar Retreat Center, a circle of approximately 20 chairs fills the small space. This meeting—formerly called Addict in the Family but now known as The Family Restored, after the umbrella organization that runs it—is different, in that it is geared towards family members of addicts but instead of being run by other family members, it is run by addicts in recovery.

Before the meeting begins, a parent is talking to one of the facilitators about someone who had recently relapsed after having a few months of sobriety. “It’s such a shame,” she laments. “He was doing so well.” Without missing a beat, the facilitator says, “Apparently not.” And then, an explanation. “We’re really good liars, so it’s hard to know what’s really going on in our head, even when everything looks good on the outside.”

There’s no sugarcoating things in this room. From an addict’s mouth to parents’ ears, the facilitators tell the room that, while they’re not doctors or professionals and they don’t have degrees, what they do have is the experience of being hopeless addicts who have found a way out. “We’re here to bring hope,” they tell the circle of faces looking to them for answers.

In this basement, that hope is apparent. More than one person shares that this meeting is the highlight of their week, and the parents can’t stop gushing over the helpfulness of these facilitators. Despite the heavy topic at hand, there’s a feeling of joy in the room that can’t be ignored. The facilitators are living proof that recovery is possible.

The Family Restored started in Portland, Maine, in 2012, as a family support group facilitated by recovered addicts, as a way for these people in recovery to be useful in a different capacity. They hoped to spread a message that seemed like “a foreign idea—that you, as a parent, can be OK even if your child is not sober,” The Family Restored board member and Director of Events, Julia Whyel, tells me over the phone. That one meeting has grown to five across Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, and they’re spreading slowly “because we want to keep the purpose tight and the message strong,” the facilitator tells the attendees of the meeting — the “quality over quantity” philosophy, of sorts.

And, while both Learn to Cope and The Family Restored began as purely support groups, both organizations recognize that there is much more work to be done, and have expanded their services appropriately. In addition to the in-person meetings and the online message board, Learn to Cope provides education, advocacy, and prevention work. Peterson has testified at the State House numerous times, and she routinely speaks to parents, the medical community, law enforcement, and even the United States Department of Justice, “educating people on the family’s perspective, what families need, and what they go through” when their loved one is struggling with addiction.

Through funding provided by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Peterson pays four regional managers, as well as someone who handles the website part-time. At each Learn to Cope meeting, people have the option to attend a free training where they can learn to administer Narcan—which reverses the effects of an opiate overdose—from one of the group’s 90 Narcan trainers. After completing the 20-minute training, they can take Narcan with them to keep in their home, in the event of an overdose. Peterson says that there have been approximately 80 reversals as a result of Narcan provided at Learn to Cope meetings since December 2011. You can also purchase home drug tests for $15. 

According to Whyel, about two years into running the family meeting in Portland, it became obvious to The Family Restored that access to treatment and sober living is an obstacle for many families. So in 2014, they launched their scholarship fund, which helps pay for treatment at 12 step-based programs, which are often self-pay because they are not covered by insurance. Whyel tells me that their 2014 goal was to place 10 people in treatment, and they came close to doubling that. As of December 2015, they have placed 38 people into treatment, sober living, or both. Through fundraisers, The Family Restored is fully supported by their community, people in recovery, families of addicts, local organizations that support people in recovery, and donations on their website.

In the spring of 2015, The Family Restored also conducted a closed Big Book workshop for women in Cumberland County Jail in Portland, ME. They’ve been cleared to do the workshop again in 2016, with both the women and the men, and they support their continued step work until they are released or transferred. In one case, they were able to place a workshop participant in sober living upon her release.

Both organizations stressed the importance of breaking the stigma associated with addiction. For Peterson, she started Learn to Cope because “I wanted to get my dignity back because my family was so stigmatized.”Now, her son is in long-term recovery. But she says it’s been a hard year for Learn to Cope, as the number of overdose deaths has been much higher than in previous years. It’s forced the organization to develop a protocol at meetings for when someone loses a child, because it can be frightening and traumatic for everyone in the meeting.

For many in an The Family Restored meeting, they speak about finding something here that they'd been missing. Several of them expressed that, despite going to Learn to Cope meetings for several years, they were looking for something more. They've found it here. “I feel so good when I leave here,” shares one mother. “At Learn To Cope, I just kept hearing sad stories — I felt depressed.” She looks around the room. “Here, there's hope.” Another mother concurs. “Last week was my first time here, and I've been excited to come back all week.” 

The key difference between the two seems to be that, in Learn to Cope meetings, the focus is on the addict, and how to help them get well. In The Family Restored, the focus is on the loved one, and helping them get their life back, regardless of what their addicted family member is doing. But attendees at both meetings felt that what both spaces offer is a sense of community, and a group of people that understand what it’s like. “How many places can you go and talk openly to your friends about the fact that your son is incarcerated and stole $5,000 from your checking account?” laughs one woman at the Learn to Cope meeting.

At the end of the meeting of The Family Restored, one of the facilitators turns to a mother who has asked for help finding the strength to kick her active son out of her house. “Your son is either going to get well or he won’t,” he tells her. “Nothing you did made him a drug addict and you can’t make him not a drug addict. But you can be well regardless, and we can help you and your family.” A wave of relief washes over her face, and in that moment, she realizes that she is safe and help is out there. He tells the room, “We have ways for family members to use Steps, even if your loved one doesn't.”

Says Whyel, “The most important message we try to convey to families is that their child’s disease is not their fault and they can get their lives back even if their child doesn’t get well."

“Families can heal no matter what,” Whyel tells me, and I believe her.

Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, feminist momma, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.

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