I would like to tell you about myself and my family. There are many people like me, that are not addicted to anything, but whose lives are profoundly changed or altered forever by their involvement with someone that has problems with addiction. In many stories as in mine, there are mental health issues as well. The addicts have family—parents, grandparents, husbands, wives, sons or daughters who are affected, their lives impacted to varying degrees. We are called, "Affected Others", and in many cases, we are forgotten or feel isolated. Somehow the name does not do justice to what family members are going through.
Who am I? I have been married for 26 years, I have three university degrees, I am a veterinarian, and I have one daughter who recently turned 19 this year. I used to believe that life was all about attitude and not giving up. I believed that no matter what you had to face, you just put one foot in front of the other and just kept on going. Eventually, with hard work, everything would work out. This philosophy served me very well throughout my life until my daughter started having problems in her grade 10 year with drugs, alcohol and mental health. Like anyone that is middle aged, I have faced lots of adversity but nothing had prepared me for coping with being unable to find a way to help my daughter. Why did I mention my education? Because I was a problem solver, and a caregiver. As a veterinarian, we examine and gather information, we make a diagnosis and we formulate a treatment plan. We also see families or individuals in crisis routinely as they deal with life-threatening problems with their pets. My education and background did not help me with my daughter. In grade 10, she started dropping all of her extra-curricular activities one by one and by the spring I was sure there were drugs involved. I took her to counsellors and to the mental health unit where we lived. In BC, after age 14, the parents have no rights to any information without the child's consent so I was not even get accurate information about the extent of her problems. In May of her grade 10 year I took her to the school councillor to confront the problem but the councillor told me I was wrong, that she had been a councillor for over twenty years and that she would know if drugs were involved. Our daughter was able to hide her problems and still had a B average in school. That year I call the "push, pull and drag" year. If I got her to the school she would go, and she was OK at school. Living with her at home was another story. She took out all her anger and frustrations on my husband and me. He went to work very early so the mornings were the worst. It was hell. That same councillor who said we didn’t have a problem in the spring phoned me in September and told me that if our daughter ever wanted to get help to get her out of the area immediately. The problems were not obvious to all. In October, four years ago, my daughter came home on a Friday and said she needed help. My husband and I spent the weekend on the internet, phoning places, and four days later we were all on a plane to Utah. She stayed in a private facility that treated girls under 18 for just about everything and she was able to take her grade 11 courses there as well.
She stayed there for eight months and had intensive individual counselling, group counselling, and there were nurses and a psychiatrist on staff. As parents, we had weekly telephone counselling sessions, and every six weeks we spent four days there for family counselling. They put her on medication as well. She seemed to thrive in that environment. Did she come home cured? It was just not that simple or easy.
When our daughter was away we sold our beautiful house and we rented a house in Richmond. We also wanted to start again, in a new area. Unfortunately, even my daughter admits that we did not move far enough away. With cell phones, computers, and social networks like Facebook, she reconnected with some of her old crowd. She hated Richmond, she felt isolated, and she withdrew from school. I registered her in an alternative school in the area where we used to live and we spent a rocky Grade 12 year, with me driving her to night classes and back. One of the many low points of that year was when she left our Richmond house at Christmas time and told people she was homeless and that we had kicked her out, and a counsellor got her a place in a shelter. She chose to spend her Christmas vacation in a shelter rather than be at home with us. We picked her up and we had Christmas dinner together, with friends, and then she went back to the shelter afterwards. It was a bleak time. She wanted money and declined our offer of warm clothes and boots. We gave her a bus pass, movie tickets, and I gave her my new Ipod—still in its box because I felt so bad for her. But, she was angry, because we wouldn't give her money and she told everyone that we had given her nothing that Christmas.
But back to my story.
For the first time in my life I had a problem that I couldn’t come to terms with and I couldn't fix. From the very beginning when I suspected a problem I spent a lot of time trying to find different ways of "reaching" her with different approaches, different counsellors and nothing worked. She didn't want to change and didn't want help. There were so many conflicting and intense feelings during that time such as frustration, anger, helplessness, fear, loss, grief, and of course—always some hope. But there were also times of despair. I was never going to give up but it took an immense toll on me. I wanted so desperately to help, guide, protect and "save" her that I lost myself in the process. I lost all of my self-confidence and I felt like a tremendous failure. I had been successful in many areas of my life but I felt it was all meaningless if I couldn't even help my own daughter. My goal was to get her through the turmoil, through the impulsiveness and the self-destructiveness—to gain her time so that she could mature and see the world and her life in a different way.
In the summer of her grade 10 year when her problems were clearly out of control I also quit work. I remember going in to the clinic with my sixteen year old cat knowing that I was going to have to euthanize him that day. My boss happened to be in the office and without any forethought I said, "I just can't stand another thing going wrong. I have to quit." And so, I gave my notice that day after working there for ten years. I didn't go back to work at all for about one and half years and when I did go back it was only for one day a week. For the most part, I can't even tell you where all the time went. I did join a choir, did volunteer, went back to church. More importantly, I started taking counselling at RASS, went to their six week education series on substance abuse, and joined the "Affected Others" support group. At RASS and at the support group I found a safe haven. I could come to talk, to listen, to learn, to cry and to share the ups and downs of the crazy life I was leading with people that totally understood. At first, I cried a lot. There were counselling sessions where I would be looking for the Kleenex box before sitting down. Who else can you talk to about problems like this? There is guilt, shame, isolation and judgement. People don't know what to say, what to do, or how to help. You also don't trust how the information will be used. A lot of problems with addiction and mental health remain hidden. Even for my daughter, I don't want her to be judged or denied opportunities based on what she has been through. People don't rally around families with substance abuse problems or mental illness. Even immediate family members can also judge or make things worse. So, affected families like mine learn to be careful and cautious, sharing only with a few trusted people.
I used to joke that I lived my life minute to minute, hour to hour and day to day, waiting for the next phone call or the next crisis. I also used to joke that for a while, it seemed like I lived my life in my car. Appointments, councillors, schools, work experience—all in the place where we used to live. But it wasn't really that much of a joke—it was too close to the truth.
Having the counselling at RASS and the support group in Richmond shortened up what I call the "learning curve" so I was not stuck, doing the same things, the same way, and getting nowhere. Little by little you see the light at the end of the tunnel. You see that there are better ways of coping and caring, a different way to live, and with that, a better life. You stop rescuing, saving or blaming and you learn to save yourself first. I couldn't change my daughter's perceptions, feelings or behaviour. She had to want to change, to want something different. She had to accept responsibility for her actions and save herself. But I could change myself, and how I reacted. I learned firsthand and from other's experiences, that family members can often end up being sicker than the person with the problem. The counsellors have great sayings that will stay with me forever. You didn't cause it, you can't control it, and you can't cure it. Another one—if nothing changes, then…nothing changes. So simple and so true. But it only takes one person to change significantly and the whole family dynamic changes. I started to change with all of the help I was receiving. My daughter changed as well. But I am wiser now, so I am cautiously optimistic. I would not wish my experience on anyone, because at times, it has been what I call absolute living hell. But, at the same time I have changed in many ways, for the better. I am more forgiving, more accepting, more human, and I know now that when you see people and talk to them you really have no idea what battles they may be fighting for themselves or for another family member.
Adults and youth are under more intense pressures than ever before. It is no longer about simple risk factors and family history. Now there are greater internal stresses, family stresses, peer group influences, along with the influence of rapidly expanding technology. When I hear people say, "Where are the parents?" or "Where is the family?" I know that there are likely family members and friends that are doing the very best they can, just like I was. The people who have problems deserve love and support but so do their families. They need help too, just like I did.
I am very thankful for all of the help I received. I hope that Richmond Addiction Services expends its programs and reaches more people. Thank you all so much.