National Drug and Alcohol Addiction Recovery Month Reminds Us that Recovery is a Process

With National Drug and Alcohol Addiction Recovery month coming to a close, it is important to remember that recovering from addiction is a long, grueling process, not just for the addict, but for their family and friends as well. Addicts do not choose to become addicts; rather they fall victim to a disease that consumes their lives, bodies and wallets.

Unfortunately, addicts can only begin to recover when they decide they are ready. No amount of love and support can force them to change if they are not ready. This is a fact that took my family and me years to learn.

For most of my life, my two older sisters were opiate addicts. Between them was a constant push and pull of pressure and guilt; they were either condemning each other for continuing to use, or they were pressuring each other to quit their clean streak.

Despite their on-and-off (mostly on) addictions, they always made sure I stayed clear from temptation. They constantly reminded me how awful of a disease it was, how much they wished they could stop and how happy they were to know that I would never lay a hand on a needle.

Their addiction took a toll on our relationship, but I eventually put it on the back burner. Was it frustrating to be asked for money? Sure. Was I upset when they cancelled on holiday gatherings? Of course. But they were my sisters, and I loved them, and I forgave them. Until they hit rock bottom.

One night, I sat on my parents’ couch watching TV as I waited for my middle sister to come over. When she finally showed up, she was shaking and mumbling and the only words I could understand were, “I’m so cold.”

Minutes later, she collapsed on the kitchen floor, in what I can only describe as a seizure-like episode. My parents rushed in to help her into the car to take to the hospital. It happened in a matter of minutes, but it felt like years.

When she had recovered from her overdose, I begged her to get help. I told her I couldn’t imagine losing her, I wrote her a letter pleading her to go to rehab, and I constantly reminded her how much potential she has.

She did go to rehab, but she didn’t last. She would check in and check out of rehab several times before calling it quits. She knew she needed help, and she knew that my parents and I would give everything we could to see her healthy, but it was never enough.

Fortunately, the day finally came when she decided to make a change. It took years of countless rehab stints and NA meetings, but she is finally a recovering addict making a new, happier, healthier life for herself.

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Unfortunately, my oldest sister never got to that point. Her will to change never surpassed her body’s need for drugs. Despite having two beautiful children, going back to school and earning a degree to be a surgical technician and having a support group overflowing with loving family and friends, she was never able to fully recover from her addiction. She passed away in June of 2014 after complications from her drug use caused the failure of several organs, including her heart.

Everyone in my family, myself included, took the blame for her death. We all felt we hadn’t done enough, as if there was one final push we could’ve given her to get clean, one more plead to convince her to change, one more attempt at rehab that would stick this time.

A year later, I have finally come to terms with her death. No amount of begging or pleading or love or support could have given her the will to change. That’s a decision she needed to make on her own and a decision that her body refused to make.

It’s easy to blame the addict for their addiction. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say that addicts could change if they tried hard enough, or that addicts are lazy, or that they chose to become addicts. Those misconceptions are not only false, they are harmful to addicts and their loved ones. We know that our addicts did not grow up wishing to be a slave to needles and bottles. We know that they are trying to fight their disease every day, and we know that to fight that disease, they must suffer withdrawals, a living hell that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemies.

If you know someone who is suffering from an addiction, always offer your support, but don’t kill yourself trying to make them change. When they are ready to commit to getting clean, they will need you there. They will need you to cover them with blankets when withdrawals bring on chills. They will need you to hold their hair back while they are sick. Their detox will cause an uproar in their body that will last for days, and they will need you there to help them survive.

When their body finally accepts the change, they will need you to help them get back on their feet. They’ll need good luck before job interviews, reassurance after being rejected, a place to stay until they have their own and home-cooked meals to build up their strength. Most of all, they will need to know that there is at least one person who doesn’t think they are a failure, one person who knows that they did not choose this life and that the addict is not who they really are. Be that person. Remind them constantly that they are more than their addiction and that they have more potential than they believe they have.

You can’t change them, but once they change themselves, you can help them grow more than they ever knew possible.