The Families of Recovering Addicts Need Help, Too
by James Burrus
Pam Mains was hunting with her husband, some other family and friends in southern Colorado when her cell phone rang on the morning of Nov. 17, 2003. What she heard dropped Mains to her knees in the middle of a dirt road; a gaping hole had been ripped in her heart. Her oldest daughter, Mia, the second of five children, had been found dead by her brother of a heroin overdose. She was 26.
I fell down screaming “God, not her! Don’t take her! Take me instead,” Mains says, recalling the day a piece of her died, leaving an emotional wound that, despite being nearly five years old, is as fresh and painful as ever. “The four-hour drive home took forever. And walking down the steps to the Boulder County Morgue was like walking down to hell; seeing her lying there on the cold, steel table.”
Today, the pain of Mains’ loss competes with the persistent ache of regret; regret for calling the police when Mia stole her car or kicking her out of the house when she forged a check, all in support of her spiraling drug habit. “The what-ifs are really hard,” Mains said. “What if I had kept her grounded longer; what if I had done more to help her? It drives you crazy as a parent. You never get over it.”
Mains’ experience, and that of her family and friends, is on the extreme end of the spectrum of emotional and physical collateral damage caused by those struggling with addiction, be it alcohol or drugs or both.
There are myriad programs, groups, books and materials available to addicts seeking help. But what of the parents, spouses, siblings and kids of those addicts whose lives have been damaged? For those people, Joe Herzanek is nothing short of a savior. As a chaplain working with addicts seeking recovery in the Boulder County Jail since 1993, Herzanek last year published “Why Don’t They JUST QUIT?” and a companion DVD that addresses this issue directly. The book and DVD have its roots in his experience working with addicts and their families, as well as his own recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. “For every addict, there are 6-8 people, sometimes more, that are impacted by that person,” Herzanek says. “Even if they have quit, they have done damage to those relationships, either knowingly or unknowingly.”
And just as Pam Mains did, the first reaction by a close friend or family member to an addict seeking rehabilitation is to blame themselves. “What they want to do is take the blame,” Herzanek says. “They say to themselves, –If I had been a better parent or wife or brother, they wouldn’t have this problem.” But what they need to know is that they didn’t cause the problem, and they can’t cure (it).”
Patsy says that stumbling onto Herzanek’s Changing Lives Foundation website came just in time for she and her husband. The Loveland couple (who did not want their last name used) have been at their wits’ end dealing with their son, Matt’s, growing alcohol and cocaine addiction problem.
“A year ago, he said he wanted to come clean,” Patsy says of their 27-year-old son who works as a carpenter and house framer. “He’s been trying to stop, but it’s hard when you don’t have a support system.”
That system typically involves family and friends who function as a safety net for an addict who is just learning how to live and function as a sober person, free from drugs and alcohol. As Herzanek says, in order to succeed at kicking addiction, fundamental changes must occur. But in many cases, the best efforts can be undermined by the good intentions of loved ones that instead provoke or enable an addict to return to drugs.
“My husband is a huge enabler,” Patsy says. “He’s bailed Matt out of jail three times.” Patsy’s husband has also given their son thousands of dollars for bills, car repairs, and bail and fines associated with the arrests–ranging from drug and alcohol to assault.
Thanks to Herzanek’s book, Patsy convinced her husband to leave Matt in jail after a recent arrest. Because his behavior has alienated his older brother and sister, they, too, refused to bail him out of jail.
During this latest episode, Patsy was left searching for answers to questions she had about addiction and her enabling behavior. “I wanted to find out more about what I could do and what I shouldn’t do,” she says. “Matt is a real nice guy; he’s an awesome worker, and everybody likes him, but he’s still an addict.”
Herzanek’s advice spoke directly about such tough love tactics that convinced Patsy that she was doing the right thing.
“The tough love of saying”no” makes the pain of suffering the consequences of (an addict’s) behavior a good motivator for getting help,” Herzanek says.
“Parents often take responsibility . . . but they don’t know when they have crossed the line from helping to hurting.”
A no-contact order prevented Matt from going home to his girlfriend, so he asked to move back home-again. With guidance from Herzanek’s book, Patsy let Matt come back-with conditions. “If he was going to live here, I had a whole list of things he had to do, and if he didn’t follow the rules, he was out,” Patsy says. “I wasn’t losing another night’s sleep over this.”
By finally finding a support mechanism for her family to deal with Matt’s addiction and recovery, Patsy is optimistic again. “I’m excited; this is the first time I’ve felt hopeful. I don’t want to make any more mistakes. The last time he moved back home, he wouldn’t stick to our rules. He would lie to us and manipulate. it was a terribly hopeless feeling; especially when it’s your own son. But now, he knows that if he doesn’t follow the rules, he has to move out.”
Those kind of real consequences are a must for addicts in recovery and among the hardest for compassionate family and friends to enforce, Herzanek says. And that was a big reason for his writing the book and creating the organization, Changing Lives Foundation.
“Over the years I’ve seen how much family members struggle with this, and they don’t deserve it” Herzanek says. “They want to take responsibility for a family member’s addiction and that can leave them bitter for years, and they don’t understand why.”
Experience: a stern teacher
Much of the power in Herzanek’s message stems from its foundation in truth; qualities born from personal experience. As a teenager growing up in Kansas City, Herzanek was smoking pot at 19. Over the next 10 years, he indulged in hash, alcohol, cocaine and Valium.
As his tolerance increased, so did the frequency of his use.
When he finally began getting help at an inpatient treatment center and embarked down the long, difficult road to recovery, Herzanek started to see the pain he was causing his family as well.
“I was blind to how my actions were affecting my brother and two sisters,” Herzanek writes in his book. “Actually, the entire family did not understand what was happening. Even now, more than 25 years later, some members of my family remain bitter, and we have never been able to resolve those hard feelings.”
So after over 17 years as a chaplain with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office working with inmates wanting to recover, Herzanek took a year off to write and self-publish “Why Don’t They JUST QUIT?” and launch, with his wife, Judy, Changing Lives Foundation.
The “innocent victims”that result from a family dealing with a loved one’s addiction are the primary audience that Herzanek is trying to reach. For addicts, Herzanek is a firm believer in the effectiveness of the 12-step program, so much so that he consistently leads and promotes NA (Narcotics� Anonymous) and AA meetings at the jail.
But for the family and friends dealing with an addict in recovery, he saw the need of something tailor-made for their experience.
That something is a book that, in essence, has been decades in the making. The book is the product of the drug use, the struggle to stay on the road to recovery, and the subsequent work helping other addicts and their loved ones.
The unique approach and clear, strong, brutally honest writing style won it a Next Generation Indie Book Award for Best Self-Help Book 208. And despite not having a big-name publisher, he promotes his book through his website and free email newsletter sent out to subscribers.
“Often the focus is on the addict or alcoholic,” Herzanek says. “When I went to treatment . . . there was little or no attention paid to family members. Now they have events like Family Week where family members are brought in so they can work through these issues, too.”
As much as making family and friends of addicts the focus of his book and the resources it contains, it is the honesty and willingness of Herzanek to make an example of himself that at once gives his advice and proscriptions a grounded authority.
And it’s that authority, in addition to the hope and the solace of the specific actions that he recommends, that has opened the door of recovery for family members as well. “The book . . . is for family and friends, to help them recognize the signs of addiction, what to do when they see those signs, how they can help them stay drug and alcohol free and what they might be doing to make the problem worse,” Herzanek says. “People can’t quit on their own.”
Proof is in the People
For Patsy, just having someone explain what her son is going through as well as what not to do to enable him to continue his addictive behavior was a blessing. “There is a lot of information out there and programs for addicts, but you don’t realize how someone with an addiction problem affects the whole family,” Patsy says. “It’s such a relief to finally understand what we’ve been dealing with for the past several years . . . we are in recovery, too.”
For Pam Mains, the knowledge gained from the book painfully stoked the fires of regret that she didn’t do more sooner that may have saved her daughter’s life. But it also gave her the tools, the strength, the hope that she, too, is on a long path of recovery from the grief, regret and self blame she feels.
“Until I got some help after Mia’s passing, I had myself convinced it was all my fault,” Pam says. “It was too much.” Sometimes it’s still too much. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about what I could have done differently. But addicts con you, they all do. And that’s what Joe’s book helps you understand; that their addiction wasn’t your fault and there’s nothing you can do to cure someone else’s addiction. Knowing that won’t bring Mia back, but it helps make sense of it all.”
Visit the Web site of Boulder County Jail Chaplain Joe Herzanek’s Changing Lives Foundation at www.changinglivesfoundation.org.
* Have you “tried everything?” To learn about individual counseling with Joe Herzanek (in person or by phone) click here.
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