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How to cope: A parent’s perspective

There are dozens of rehabilitation centers for addiction throughout Fairfield County. But very few programs, if any, focus on the friends and family members of the people suffering from addiction. Midwestern Connecticut Council of Alcoholism (MCCA) is offering an empowering program called How to Cope that is geared to individuals who are impacted by the addiction of someone they love.

During the seven sessions of the program, participants learn about the disease of addiction, enabling behaviors and the effects that addiction have on the family. Because empowering family members is also major focus of the program, learning coping skills and developing a recovery plan for moving forward in a positive way is also part of the curriculum.

Addiction is a family disease. When one family member has a problem with drugs or alcohol, everyone is affected. For many people, this program gives them the opportunity to face the truth and start taking positive steps toward change. Often when family members start to change their behavior, the addicted person begins to seek help.

David and Kim, from Ridgefield, recently participated in How to Cope. They have a 25 year-old son, Sam who is addicted to heroin. Sam had been out of a rehab facility in California for less than six months when Kim, a nurse, discovered How to Cope. When they first started the sessions, Danielle Sileo, the counselor who runs the program, warned them that the rate of relapse was pretty high — not something they wanted to hear. Towards the end of the course it happened — Sam had slipped.

The timing turned out to be fortuitous and the program proved to be a lifeline for Kim and Dave. They were suddenly in crisis mode and their counselor helped them to see how they were enabling Sam and gave them the support and tools they needed to change their behavior. “I don’t think we could have survived without this program, I really don’t,” said Dave. “It really was a turning point for all of us.”

Setting boundaries and stopping the enabling behavior is a significant piece in starting the recovery process. Dave and Kim were faced with some tough choices and relied on the on-going support of their counselor as they allowed their son feel the pain of his addiction.

For Dave this was particularly difficult, “You don’t want your kids to struggle and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him…but this program showed me that I can’t do this for him. He has to do it for himself.” When Dave discovered that Sam was using again, he became very emotional and told Sam he would have to find other living arrangements.

Sam packed his car and lived in it for two weeks. “Danielle really gave me the strength to get through those two weeks.” Adding, “She said to me, ‘Look Dave, living in that car and not having a hot shower, it’s going to wear off after a while. You need to let him be, let him figure this out on his own.” At the end of the two weeks, Sam had had enough; he was ready to get help and went into residential treatment at McDonough House at MCCA.

The physical and emotional stress that the family members experience when a loved one is dealing with addiction can be severe. Through support and education, How to Cope helps family members understand how critical it is to take care of themselves and to let go of the feelings of guilt and shame. Understanding that the addict is responsible for their actions is a key piece for most family members.

“The family suffers more. The damage it does to you emotionally and physically, in a short time period. Physically, I do not feel the same way as I did six months ago,” said Dave. Adding, “And the first thing you do is blame yourself.”

Kim felt it was particularly helpful in alleviating some of the stress in their marriage, “I really think that having a child with a serious addiction can destroy a marriage. We have a strong marriage but this program really helped us.” She added, “We are so wrapped up in taking care of our kids, we don’t take care of ourselves. This program teaches you to take care of yourself. We did it for Sam, but we also did it for us.”

Kim recalled how their counselor drove home that the ultimate responsibility to overcome the addiction was in the hands of their son — not Kim and Dave’s. “We were scared and embarrassed and there is the element of blame. This program really drove home that our son is responsible for his decisions, but the decisions we make could help it go one way or another,” said Kim.

Kim also shared that this program provides a place where you can openly discuss these issues.  In fact, joining a program with others going through a similar situation allowed Dave and Kim to realize that addiction, like any disease, was something that can happen to any family. “Here we are sitting in the middle of Ridgefield with other parents from Ridgefield going through the same thing,” Kim said. “These were people just like us.” Dave added, “You don’t realize how wide spread the problem is until you get involved in this world.”

Within the How to Cope community, family members and friends are able to discuss both enabling and beneficial behaviors. According to Dave, the program taught essential skills while simultaneously providing a place “to talk, to question and feel all of the things a parent feels when they are managing someone with addiction.” Kim said, “It [How to Cope] really helped us set the line you can’t cross, what you can live with, what you can’t live with, what’s going to be okay. Enabling.”

For those who participate in Al-Anon, How to Cope can be a good companion piece. It differs in that How to Cope is run by an LMFT (licensed marriage and family therapist) and each session has a defined focus with an overall goal of helping family members create a personal recovery plan and restore balance in their lives.

How to Cope is also available for children (ages 6 to 12) and teens (ages 13 to 18). Children who live in a home that is impacted by addiction are especially vulnerable and often feel shame, anxiety and guilt. Unfortunately, children and teens that live with an addict are also more likely to have problems with addiction as they get older. A session for children and teens is currently being offered free-of-charge.

Counselor Danielle Sileo holds a monthly reunion group for everyone who participates in How to Cope. This ongoing group is source of support for family members and allows them to discuss the ongoing impact of addiction on their life.

Sessions for How to Cope are ongoing. Anyone who wants to break the cycle of enabling behavior, better understand what a loved one is going through, or help a substance abuser overcome their addiction is encouraged to enroll in this program.

For more information visit mccaonline.com or call Danielle Sileo, (LMFT) at 203-438-8680.

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