YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Stigmas can be a big hurdle for those dealing with drug and alcohol use disorders, including the idea that treating the person with the problem will automatically heal the family.
Dr. Dennis Daly, the son of an alcoholic father, suggested to those attending a conference presented by the Ohio Association of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Counselors and Meridian HealthCare that they must consider the impact on the family of the person they are treating.
“You have to look beyond the person with the substance use disorder,” Daly said during the conference April 28 at Kent State University at Trumbull. “You have to look at the family, including the members like the children.”
While a child’s grades, economic situation and sense of family stability may improve with recovery, that family still has scars. They may have gone through a lot as the family member’s substance use brought them to many lows before reaching the point of realizing the need for recovery.
A parent may be experiencing guilt, blame and shame about their teenager’s substance abuse. A young child may have felt he needed to care for his younger siblings because mom was unable to do so. Holidays and special occasions may have become triggers for the anger, arguments and violence that can accompany substance use disorder and tear a couple and the whole family apart.
Daly pointed out that his father missed both his graduations and his wedding, which, he added, was probably a good thing because he was drinking a lot at that time.
“My dad didn’t teach me much, but I learned a hell of a lot from him,” Daly said.
Half of Daly’s siblings dropped out of school and his own grades were not good. But he persevered while starting at a community college when other colleges turned him down. He was part of the first group of Upward Bound students in 1966.
Without supportive adults in their corner, Daly says the abuse of substances can become generational. But those children can also become resilient with strong coping mechanisms, putting their energy into sports, school, music and other places to avoid what is happening in their family. Having adults they can trust and confide in, like an uncle, a coach or a teacher, can make a huge difference.
“I learned a lot. Ever since I was a young boy, I knew I wanted to be somebody, even though I got into trouble. And I didn’t want to repeat the same thing that my father had been through,” Daly said. “Plus, there were people who helped.”
Jim Joyner is president of Ohio Association of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Counselors and a licensed independent chemical dependency counselor-clinical supervisor. He has been practicing for about 50 years and currently does online educational support groups for family members, especially parents struggling with their adult children’s addiction. His program includes 12-session education topics, followed by a support group for families so they can learn they are not alone.
“It provides a site, a safe place, where they can take off the mask and not have to address the faults, shame and guilt that society projects on addiction because there is so much misinformation,” Joyner said.
Joyner realized his own substance problems after he was a practicing drug counselor. He has been in long-term recovery himself for 41 years. He has had a son who struggled with addiction, too.
“The genetic predisposition of addiction is probably the single greatest risk factor for developing addiction. Some 45% to 65% of persons who suffer from addiction had that familial history,” Joyner said, adding it is not just that someone watched his family member drink so he drinks, but his genetic makeup puts him at a higher risk.
Those with substance use disorder may also have underlying mental health problems, which perhaps they are unwittingly trying to self-medicate. One exacerbates the other.
“The health care system in the United States doesn’t treat addiction well in general and even less well those who suffer from addiction and mental health disorders,” Joyner said. “We’re not quite there as a system.”
Joyner said society most recently has been concerned about the opioid epidemic and before that it was cocaine. But more people died in 2022 from the use of alcohol than opioids. Nearly half a million die as a result of tobacco use, primarily because of nicotine addiction.
Even when the number of substance-related deaths drops, Joyner cautions, that does not mean the underlying addiction problem has stopped.
“I always say to folks, ‘We don’t have an opioid addiction problem – we have an addiction problem in America,’” Joyner said.
Substance abuse taxes the health care system, the criminal justice system and social services. It takes a human toll on the family, creating situations where children services take children out of the home. There are 11 criteria in the diagnostic criteria for addiction, and nine out of 11 are behavioral such as lying, cheating, stealing, driving while under the influence and prostituting themselves.
“Society looks and goes, ‘Those people are not sick – they’re bad. They need to go to jail. They’re throwaways. Don’t give them Narcan [an opioid overdose reversal.] That’s just enabling them. If you’ve already done it once, those people like living that way.’”
The problem, Joyner said, is that people look at the symptoms instead of understanding these are the results of substance abuse rewiring the brain, the front of the brain, which does not fully form until age 25.
Joyner said medical research shows it can take a year to two years of recovery to rewire the brain, which can be hard to understand for family members who pay for a loved one to go to a 30-day inpatient clinic.
“[Society] thinks it’s acute, but it’s chronic, and it can’t be cured in 30 or 90 days,” Joyner said, noting he believes Alcoholics Anonymous to be one of the best recovery maintenance programs, because it connects people and builds momentum.
In his line of work, Joyner said he helps family members understand the situation better, because the person in recovery cannot go back to the same toxic relationships and lifestyle.
“That loved one’s addiction is not your fault. It’s not your fight. It’s not your fix,” Joyner said.
One of the fathers Joyner has worked with once admitted he hated his son after spending thousands on treatment for him, watching him steal from the family, break his mother’s heart and wreck cars. Joyner said the father questioned where they had gone wrong in raising their son. But after Joyner’s program, the father learned what addiction is and he was able to love his son again.
Pictured at top: Jim Daly