Laurie Allen, whose son has struggled with addiction for nearly a decade, describes the quiet agony of parents, spouses and loved ones of addicts—and how employers can help ease their burden.
We come to work late, exhausted and distracted. We leave suddenly and cancel calls and meetings at the last minute. We're on the phone, upset and angry. We try but can't always get through the day. We suffer from the disease of addiction.
It's not ours, though. It's that of our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. The anxiety, fear and chaos that addiction inflicts bleed into every aspect of our lives—including the workplace.
For most of the last decade, my 27-year-old son has struggled with the disease of addiction, most notably, heroin and other opioids. He has overdosed on fentanyl and been revived by Narcan. He has been in the emergency room more than a dozen times, and his hospital and detox stays number in the double digits. There have been arrests, jail time and attempts at recovery. He spent part of this past winter homeless, living on the streets.
Anyone who has a loved one in active addiction can offer a similar account. But often, we don't share this painful part of our lives, especially in the workplace.
“People have a lot of shame about this,” says Andrew Moss, director of Maryhaven's Addiction Stabilization Center in south Columbus. “The business community can help by providing a culture of safety, where it's OK for people to disclose what they're going through. It's pretty terrifying, and it affects their wellness level.”
Ashley, now a stay-at-home mother of three, remembers when her husband—now clean and sober for seven years—was in active heroin addiction. “You're living in a constant state of anxiety, and then you try to go to work. I'd go to get in the car in the morning, and I'd find needles, or the gas tank would be empty.”
Other times, there was no car to take to work, because it had been stolen or wrecked. “I'd get the calls at work, and you never knew if it could be ‘the one.' You never knew when they're going to OD. … Even on days, when there was ‘nothing' going on, there's something going on.”
Although those in active addiction may be quick to claim they are hurting only themselves, “it's not just affecting them,” Ashley says. “Everbody's touched by it.”
Brenda Stewart's two sons, now in their 30s, have struggled with addiction since they were teenagers. One of them is “in remission,” as she puts it; the other is not. Stewart, founder of The Addicts Parents United (TAP), says, “Addiction is a family disease that affects many more people than just our children.” She has seen parents quit their jobs and move out of state because they couldn't sustain the constant struggle of trying to “save” their addicted children. Other parents had to be hospitalized themselves.
The “caregiver fatigue” experienced by family members of those living with addiction is no different than other diseases, and in some ways, more difficult to cope with, says Dr. Delaney Smith, medical director for the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County (ADAMH). “Families are up all night, fielding phone calls, dealing with the latest crisis. It affects your ability to function.” In some ways, the toll exacted by living in the crisis-to-crisis world of active addiction is not unlike that of post-traumatic stress disorder, Smith says.
Indeed, years of experience have caused my heart to skip a beat when certain phone numbers appear on my screen. If the phone rings late at night, I prepare for the worst. A few months ago, my doorbell rang at 1:10 a.m. and when I looked out the front window, I saw a police cruiser. “This is it,” I thought.
It turned out that my garage door was open, and the officer wanted to let me know. It took several minutes for my heart rate to return to something resembling normal, but it was impossible to sleep after that.
At various times in my career, I worried that my job performance suffered as a result of the sleepless nights and near-constant stress. A few years ago, I decided I needed to tell the company for whom I was working about my son's problems with addiction. They were understanding and compassionate, but it was a conversation I didn't want to have.
Ashley also came to a place where she knew she couldn't hide what was going on in her personal life. “They could tell at the end,” she recalls.
Stewart advocates for an “open and transparent workplace” where people don't feel they have to hide what's happening. “It can be as simple as having educational materials available. That shows employees that [the employer] is open to listening and talking about it.” On another level, a simple hug can help people know they're not alone, she says.
Although addiction is a medical illness and protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, it presents itself in socially unacceptable ways and engenders more scorn than sympathy. By its nature, opioid addiction is so powerful that it causes those in its grip to manipulate, commit crimes and put others in danger in ways difficult to comprehend. Says Smith, “It's not a ‘casserole disease,' where your neighbors or your church rally around you.”
Maryhaven President and CEO Shawn Holt says businesses should treat addiction as they would other serious illnesses. “We should rally around families the way we rally around a family dealing with cancer or diabetes. Businesses also need to understand that like other diseases, there will be appointments and hospitalizations and emergencies.”
Chances are, Holt says, if you are a large employer, you have an employee who is affected by the opioid epidemic. “We need to do a better job educating the business community.”
Moss says he was surprised at the reach addiction has, even among those in the recovery field. At a leadership retreat, he learned that every person attending had been affected personally by a friend's or loved one's illness. “Everybody could identify a point in their life where addiction had touched them.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 2.1 million people suffered from opioid use disorder in 2016, Smith says. Although it's difficult to put a precise number on the number of those affected locally, the overdose rate tells an alarming story. Ohio's overdose deaths continue to rise, with 5,232 reported in the 12 months ending June 30, 2017—an increase of 39 percent, according to federal figures.
Stewart says it's important to understand that like their loved ones, family members also suffer from an illness and can recover—whether their addicts do or not. “Seven years ago, I wasn't able to function,” Stewart says. Through support and new skills, however, she has learned that she needs to put the focus on herself rather than succumb to the devastating effects of addiction. “I say that my son is in remission, and I am too.”
While other parents and friends talk about their children's accomplishments, I often remain silent. Sometimes my son's biggest accomplishment has been making it through the day.
The support and fellowship found in groups like Nar-Anon, Al-Anon and TAP give parents and families a safe place to share their fears, anger and grief. We learn how not to let the addict's disease rule our every waking moment.
A few months ago, I had an important meeting scheduled. As I was preparing to leave, I received a phone call from my son, who was in the emergency room again. My first thought was to cancel the meeting and head to the hospital.
But before I rushed off, I called a trusted friend. I remembered what I'd learned from other parents about the futility of trying to react to every crisis.
I knew my son was medically stable, safe and receiving care, and that my running to “save” him wouldn't change the course of his disease.
It wasn't easy, and it went against all my maternal instincts, but I kept my meeting.
Sharing our stories gives us the experience, strength and hope (key phrases in 12-step recovery programs) we need to live with this devastating illness. One of the phrases I remember from attending my first Nar-Anon meeting is this: You can choose to go through this alone, but we hope that you don't.
Laurie Allen is a freelance writer.