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Addiction is an isolating disease for everyone. Since Ian's death, I've learned that almost everyone has a loved one or knows someone with a substance use disorder. Most people are very private about their loved one's disease. Most don't talk about it because it is very emotionally, physically and mentally draining. Over the past almost ten months, I've had a lot of people tell, message or write me about their loved one's addiction.
Ian was always encouraging us to learn about addiction. Before his death, I sought out addiction support groups for family members. After Ian's death, I searched for groups that support people who lost loved ones to a substance overdose. These groups are not a one size fits all. You may have to try a few out and then attend and treat it like a buffet: take from it what you like and leave the rest.
At the beginning of December, my sister, Felicia, and I attended a bereavement group for those who lost someone to an overdose. One question asked was: How many felt a stigma surrounding the death of their loved one? I think almost everyone in that room raised their hand. Felicia and I looked at each other for validation because we hadn't raised our hands. I was saddened and astounded that so many felt that way. That we are still that far behind as a society. That they couldn't grieve as openly as another who may have lost their loved one to some other disease.
Many diseases start as an individual choice. Lifestyle choices happen. Those behaviors, if not changed, become a disease and it may take longer than addiction to kill you, but ultimately may be the reason you die. Smoking can cause lung disease, excessive sugar intake can cause Type II diabetes, obesity can cause heart disease, high sodium diets can cause high blood pressure/stroke, the list goes on. Just like the stigma that once surrounded cancer, the stigma surrounding addiction has to change. The language and communication about people with substance use disorders has to change.
Here is the technical part, so please focus as it's important and the first step to understanding. Because there are a lot of words, I'm going to break this down:
A moderate to severe substance use disorder is what we call addiction.
Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain.
It is considered both a complex brain disorder and a mental illness.
Addiction is the most severe form of a full spectrum of substance use disorders, and is a medical illness caused by repeated misuse of a substance or substances.
Mild substance use disorder is what you may know as college binge drinking or other harmful behaviors that are dangerous, but not full on compulsions like an addiction.
Words matter and can have a huge impact in regard to mental health. There are many stigmatizing words and phrases used in relation to addiction that need to be replaced with less detrimental words. These are words that I've used in the past and I am trying to change in my vocabulary.
Here are some suggested changes: instead of "addict" use "person with substance use disorder." Instead of "clean" use "abstinent or not actively using." Instead of "former addict" use "person in recovery/long term recovery."
Using first-person language isn't about being sensitive, polite or politically correct. It's about changing the isolation and the feeling of being an outcast so those people who need it may seek out the care they need. It's about saving lives.
A few days before Christmas, I decided to sign up to become an ambassador for one of the support groups I had looked into. I found that a lot of the national groups don't have a presence in our area, which is ironic since Ohio is one of the states hit so hard with the opioid epidemic.
I filled out the information requested on the form and hit submit. At that moment, the doorbell rang and I answered. The mail carrier was there and gave me a few items, including the magazine for Alpha Sigma Phi. My oldest son, Austin, belongs to the Alpha Sig fraternity. The cover was featuring one of their new philanthropies, Shatterproof. The organization for which I had just signed up to be an ambassador.
I used to believe that everything happened for a reason. I stopped believing that with Ian's death. But when I saw that magazine, for a minute I thought that maybe there are no coincidences after all. Either that or Ian is somehow guiding our way to continue the goal of educating others about substance use disorder.