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This family didn't wait for 'rock bottom' to help a loved one with their addiction

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The term hit bottom often comes up in conversations about addiction. Loved ones are told if they let the addicted person face tough consequences, they may stop using substances. Some addiction experts are trying to debunk that idea. They say loved ones should try to play a different role. From member station WBUR, Deborah Becker has the story of a Massachusetts family that tried both approaches to help their son.

DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: Close to a third of all adults in the U.S. say someone in their family has been addicted to opioids. Ken Feldstein is among them. His son Brendan was in college when he became addicted. Ken and his wife felt alone as they desperately looked for advice.

KEN FELDSTEIN: We felt we couldn't, you know, talk to neighbors or friends about it. The stigma is so, so strong.

BECKER: They went to peer support groups. And while helpful, Ken says the advice was clear. Distance yourself from your loved one, or you're enabling, almost like putting a syringe in your child's arm.

K FELDSTEIN: So big gulp of that Kool-Aid. And it sounded very reasonable because nothing we were doing was working.

BECKER: Ken says they opted for the so-called tough love approach and didn't allow Brendan to come home. Ken was anxious.

K FELDSTEIN: He didn't get any better when we made the decision to not let him stay at the house. And he could have died.

BECKER: Ken did not want to take that risk and welcomed Brendan back into the family.

K FELDSTEIN: So I landed on love. I still feel that love wins.

BECKER: Brendan noticed the shift.

BRENDAN FELDSTEIN: I'll never forget the look on his face. It was just a mixture of love and sadness. Of all the experiences that I had in trying to get sober and failing, that stayed with me.

BECKER: For Brendan, treatment alone wasn't working.

B FELDSTEIN: You know, did it give me a bed and food, and was that helpful? In a survival sense, yes. It did. The experience helped me remain sober. I think I used the day I got out.

BECKER: That pattern was about to change. Brendan had been in another treatment program for just a few weeks when his mom went into hospice care at home. The rehab's rules were if he left for any reason, he could not return. But Brendan went anyway to help his family.

B FELDSTEIN: I ended up carrying my mother in my arms like a child up the stairs. It was a sort of literal and figurative moment of strength for me.

BECKER: Brendan truly realized he had reached a turning point when he opened the fridge and saw his mom's liquid morphine.

B FELDSTEIN: At the time, I was alone. I held it there for a bit.

BECKER: But he put it back.

B FELDSTEIN: I decided in that moment, never again - not doing it anymore. You've caused enough hurt. It's time to step up and give this family, you know, a reason to hang on.

BECKER: Brendan has not used drugs in the almost-decade since. A strong 12-step fellowship and the support of his family, he says, were key to his recovery. Some addiction clinicians are encouraging providers to lean on so-called social supports like families. Alicia Ventura from Boston Medical Center is teaching this approach to thousands of providers. Ventura says with the deadly opioid fentanyl permeating the drug supply, treatment needs to evolve.

ALICIA VENTURA: We need to start trying new things. And part of that, really, is going to be improving their interactions with their families and taking advantage of these people who innately love them and want to care for them.

BECKER: Research does show that human connection is key to overcoming addiction, and people whose loved ones can be involved are more likely to go into treatment and recovery. Ken Feldstein says it shouldn't be one approach versus the other, and each family needs to do what works for them.

K FELDSTEIN: You got to be able to do the thing that you do best as a parent, and that is love your children. And whatever form that takes, I don't think that's enabling.

BECKER: Because, he says, there's no one way to achieve recovery. And for most people, even his son Brendan, it's a complicated, unique journey. For NPR News, I'm Deborah Becker.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Deborah Becker