Young woman suffering from a severe depression (very harsh lighting is used on this shot to underline/convey the gloomy mood of the scene)

Have you ever been on the phone, and your heart sinks from the news you hear? I recently spoke with a mother on the phone whose 25-year-old son had relapsed; he just tested “hot” for opioids. The more I listened, the more my heart grew heavy for her and her situation. She is beside herself. He is being admitted into a drug treatment center for his substance use disorder.  

Her son started getting involved with nicotine and smoking pot as a teen. No big deal, right? But this is a big deal because this is the most critical time in a teen’s life, where the teen brain is expanding and undergoing extensive remodeling and wiring upgrades. In short, a teen brain is hardwiring itself for adulthood. Drug and alcohol use as a teen alters that hardwiring, and then BAM ... you hardwired your brain for addiction. This results in a pattern of poor decision making and struggle as an adult. Her son’s drug use continued to accelerate, seeking a better high, trying new combinations of drugs and alcohol (poly use—using multiple substances). As his substance use progressed, he was in situations where opioids and heroin were part of the mix. 

Mom is beginning to lose hope because he has been admitted into drug treatment centers for his substance use disorder multiple times. She is now wondering if her son will be another statistic that will land her into an exclusive club that grows larger every day. The members have lost a son, daughter or another loved one to opioid and heroin addiction resulting in death, usually by overdose. 

Here are some startling scary statistics: 

• Over 90% of people we see in drug and alcohol treatment centers report they started using as teens.  

• About 80% of those who become addicted to heroin started with opioid-based pain medication prescribed by a doctor. 

Examples of opioids are painkillers such as morphine, methadone, buprenorphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone. Heroin is also an opioid and is illegal. Opioid drugs sold under brand names include OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Percodan, Tylox and Demerol, among others. Know that these pain medications are highly addictive, which is one reason we find ourselves in an opioid crisis.  

I checked in with the mother recently to see how things were going. She told me her son was admitted into a drug treatment center for his substance use disorder and released to a sober living facility. He found suitable employment within walking distance of his residence, received a steady paycheck, and saved money for a car and insurance. Fast forward seven months later, and just like that, he relapsed. He tested positive for opioids again. Now, kicked out of sober living, his situation continues to deteriorate. He currently lives in a high-risk neighborhood and continues to show signs of continued use—all the gains made over the past seven months gone in an instant. Unfortunately, with our current opiate crisis, “finding your bottom” all too commonly can mean death from overdose, especially with our streets being flooded with fentanyl, a deadly opiate that people often mistakenly buy, looking for heroin. 

As a person who has lived a recovery program for more than 35 years, I see addiction as a living, breathing entity that does not want to die. It will do anything to survive and keep someone you love trapped in the cycle of addiction. Understanding this is key to preventing relapse and breaking the cycle of addiction. Working a program of recovery is how someone with a substance use disorder can kill the addiction. 

Here are a few takeaways I have discovered over the years:

I have yet to meet anyone who planned on becoming addicted.

No one has immunity. Addiction knows no boundaries. Doesn’t care about skin color, how much money you have or don’t have, or what part of town you live.

Once a person is detoxed (no physical withdrawal symptoms or physical cravings to use alcohol or drugs), they are no longer physically addicted. From this point on, they suffer from what is known as mental obsession (much of which is unconscious).

People relapse due to mental obsession; this is why it is vital to work what we call a recovery program. It has nothing to do with one’s will power.

Substance use disorder impacts a whole family. Educate yourself about substance use disorder.

In the early stages, recovery will take priority over everything else.

The first step is admitting that I have a problem. It is a decision, a decision where the mind’s knowledge becomes the knowledge of the heart. That inner knowing begins your journey of inner freedom.

Relapse is sneaky; relapse happens more often than not. One may get up in the morning with no intention of using and throughout the activities day find oneself in a situation where the next thing you know, you have relapsed. Many will rationalize their situation, thinking, “Well, just one time won’t hurt.” That one time sets off the mental obsession, and that one-use kicks in the craving once again. Most will make up for lost time, making them susceptible to unintentional overdosing. With the proper tools and support, the mental obsession substantially decreases and becomes a fleeting thought. 

Helping your loved one accept they have a substance use disorder and admit they need help is not easy. But it is possible. If you or someone you or someone you know is ready to take that first step to rid themselves of the nightmare of SUD (substance use disorder), there is a lifeline listed below. Reach out. Make the call. Years ago, when I reached out, I discovered they were expecting me. I just had to get out of my own way. 

To find other useful information, visit wowcoalition.org/resources. 

To seek help, visit  findtreatment.gov.