'Suffering In Silence': For Families Affected By Addiction, The Journey Is Long

Jan 14, 2016

Vermont has tried to keep up with the opiate crisis by offering services to those directly affected by addiction. But the parents and spouses of addicts face a lonely and confusing journey of their own.

It's a Tuesday night at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, and downstairs in a conference room, Sue Avery opens another meeting of the local Nar-Anon group.

This story is part of State of Recovery, VPR's week-long look at the progress that's been made in fighting opiate addiction in Vermont and the problems that remain. Read more here.

Nar-Anon is a national organization, like Alcoholics Anonymous, that invites family members affected by addiction to talk about their challenges in a confidential and supportive environment.

Avery sits at a head table and a group of eight family members of people addicted to opiates sit down in a semi-circle, facing her.
 
In the next 90 minutes they tell their stories of frustration and heartbreak.

One woman's not sure if she should continue supporting her son or cut him off. She's worried that he'll end up on the street, or worse. Another woman says her son is in a rehab clinic in Florida, and she's hoping for the best. A third says she finally had to call the police when her son started stealing from her.

Each story's a little different, yet in each parent's voice is a sense of insecurity and fear, that whatever decision they make will ultimately be the wrong one.

After the meeting, Avery says her group is a place where the family members can focus on their own healing.

“Addicts need help. And guess what? Families need help too," Avery says. "Because the families are the ones in the trenches. They're the ones behind these people, and they're the ones who are suffering in silence."

Avery's a 69-year-old Brattleboro native. She's raising her 14-year-old granddaughter, the child of her own daughter who continues her recovery.

Sue Avery is raising her granddaughter, whose mother is recovering from a heroin addiction. Avery leads the Nar Anon group in Brattleboro.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Avery says it's hard for family members coming from small rural towns to share their stories.

There's a stigma around addiction. She says many times people show up after their child or spouse is in a serious crisis and they come looking for help.

“You know, people don't want to talk about it yet," she says. "They don't want to talk in a room where they might be sitting next door to a neighbor, or even a relative. It's been a problem that has been under wraps for so many years that it's going to take time to get it out and into the open."

Kurt White, who oversees the outpatient programs at the Brattleboro Retreat, says there's a growing recognition that grandparents, parents, spouses and children need support to stay healthy. That's because they're the ones often putting in extra time to deal with the addict.

“We talk a lot about families these days," says White. "I think if we can help the family units to be healthy, then you're helping the addicted person to be healthy also. And by be healthy I mean, know how to cope with problems when they come up in these extremely stressed kinds of systems."

“Addicts need help. And guess what? Families need help too. Because the families are the ones in the trenches. They're the ones behind these people, and they're the ones who are suffering in silence." - Sue Avery, Nar Anon meeting leader

Jennifer Heald lives in Swanzey, New Hampshire and she began going to the Brattleboro Nar-Anon meeting a little more than a year ago. 

She started going to the meetings as her son Dan was battling an addiction to heroin.

Doctors prescribed oxycodone for a back injury he sustained in a skiing accident and Dan became addicted to the pills.

When doctors stopped the prescription, he turned to heroin, which Heald says was cheaper and readily available.

“If we can help the family units to be healthy, then you're helping the addicted person to be healthy also. And by be healthy I mean know how to cope with problems when they come up in these extremely stressed kinds of systems." - Kurt White, Brattleboro Retreat director of ambulatory services

Heald says she went to that first Nar-Anon meeting for some answers.

“We went there that night thinking, 'Okay, we're going to go; there's going to be this group, and they're going to tell us what to do. They're going to tell us how to fix Dan,'" Heald says. "They're going to give us like a list of like 10 things. You need to go home and do these 10 things. And I remember leaving there thinking, 'Oh my goodness, this is so much bigger than we even know now.'"

Heald says that first meeting was shocking, not only in the number of parents and spouses who were dealing with heroin addiction, but also in just how long some of their struggles had been going on.

And she says in each story she heard connections to her own life.

"We listened to other people's stories and what they had been going through with their children, or spouses, and they'd been going through it for years," Heald says. "And it was our story, every single one of them had the same story that we did, we were all just in different phases of the journey."

Heald attended the Nar-Anon meetings regularly as things got progressively worse at home.

After finding out that her son had broken into a neighbor's house, she called the police, and Dan spent time in prison.

"We listened to other people's stories and what they had been going through with their children, or spouses, and they'd been going through it for years. And it was our story, every single one of them had the same story that we did, we were all just in different phases of the journey." - Jennifer Heald

It was a time, she says, of desperation, confusion and heartache.

She says the Nar-Anon meeting was a place she could talk freely, and listen to other stories while she was trying to figure out what to do with her own life.

“You know that when you go there, it's a safe place to talk," she says. "And, there's no judgment. Nobody looks at you and says, 'Oh my gosh, you've got a child addicted to heroin, and he stole from you.' I mean, nobody judges. And there's just a certain sense of compassion there for each other, because you know the struggle. You know what they've been through."

When Dan got out of prison things were good for a while, Heald says.

He was spending time with his 2-year-old daughter, and trying to get into a rehab program with the addiction treatment drug suboxone.

One Wednesday morning in January, Heald went up to check on him because he had not come downstairs.

And she found him dead in his bedroom. He had overdosed on heroin.

“It's just something you never, ever think you're going to see or face," Heald says. "It was horrible. And that was the end of Dan's struggle. But his family still has to – we have to deal with the grief. Ellie grows up without her dad. There's so many things to overcome and deal with. And you know, we do the best we can every day. "

Dan Rounds, far right, died of a heroin overdose. In this photo he is shown with his partner and new born daughter. He was 25.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

That was a little over a year ago.  

Heald still attends the Nar-Anon meetings with Sue Avery, and she's not setting a limit on how long she'll go.

"I guess time will tell," Heald says. "And I think my role will change in that, because I feel like as I heal, and different people come to the meetings, and maybe they're new in this journey of addiction, I feel like, as long as I feel comfortable and possibly I'm maybe helping somebody else in the process, I will continue to go."

At a recent Nar-Anon meeting, Heald says she sat with two other parents who recently lost their children to addiction.

And she says at the same meeting, there was a parent who was coming for the first time.