How to Support Veterans With Addiction

Cassie Hellyer
Photo by Israel Palacio. Image of camo-printed army helmets.

“I just didn’t want to feel anymore.”

When I talk to veterans trying to overcome addiction, and I ask them how they got here, that’s the most common response.

I’m a veteran outreach coordinator with a casework focus on high-risk veterans. My niche, specifically, is veterans who are at risk of suicide or are struggling with addiction. 80% of the veterans I see are combat-injured or on rated disability. 100% of the veterans I see struggle to maintain their footing in this weird civilian world they’ve come back to. As such, they do whatever they can to cope, and turn to whatever substance they can find to numb the chaos inside of them, one of the most common of which is opioids.

Our VA system is underfunded and understaffed. This leaves veterans with long waits for care and few opportunities to be truly heard.

Every single one of my veterans suffering from opioid addiction obtained their prescriptions legally. And as their addiction started to take hold, they learned how to use the overworked system to obtain more and more pills. What was once used to numb the pain in their bodies had become a tool to numb the pain in their minds. And with few checks and balances on the way opioids were prescribed, my guys were developing increasingly serious addictions thanks to misleading marketing from drug companies, and healthcare workers who were just doing their best to provide, which sometimes meant signing off on another script because they felt like they were doing the right thing.

I saw first-hand how easy it was to work over the system, because I once suffered from addiction myself. It was an addiction that didn’t spawn from an illegal substance, but from the simple over-prescribing of my pain medications. This is why I’m so passionate about what I do, helping veterans overcome addiction. It’s because I’ve been there.

It’s been six years since I started down the path of recovery. The same path that I’m trying to help my brothers and sister choose—because you honestly can’t start this journey until you’ve made that choice. When a case is assigned to me, it’s because of 1 of 2 reasons: Either my veteran has gotten into trouble and is facing charges, or they understand they’ve reached a ledge and are choosing to turn back. In both cases, they reach out to us for help. Our most successful cases are when that choice is made of their own free will. Because with that comes the determination to get better, to be better, to survive.

There is such an amazing strength in those who fight to overcome their addiction. And so much of that strength comes from them realizing that they don’t have to take on their demons alone, and that the “suffer in silence” mentality that comes with service doesn’t have to carry over into the civilian world. That the stigma that surrounds PTSD, mental illness, and addiction is just background noise that our minds use to keep us in the darkness. And that the best way to pull yourself from that darkness is to shed light onto the things that scare you.

Addiction is real. But so is your ability to overcome it. And so many of us are here to hold your hand and help you through it because this is not something you have to do alone. If you’re unable to get the assistance you need, please reach out to your local Congressional office and ask to be put in touch with a Veteran Outreach Coordinator. Take the first step. We’ll help you along the way.

Cassie Hellyer is a Veteran Outreach Coordinator.

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