Yesterday, I was a part of a roundtable discussion about the public health crisis of opiate addiction, along with U.S. Sen. Angus King and Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli. It was amazing to be part of this meeting and to see so many people in the room who were family members, people in long-term recovery, medical providers, treatment providers, law enforcement and community members — all talking about how we can address the issue of substance abuse disorders in our state.

Botticelli shared that for every person with an addiction there are two, three or four members of a family or loved one affected by this disease. He said he keeps in his pocket pictures of two young people whose addiction caused their death, as a reminder of why he fights daily to make a difference.

Heroin kills our youth

There were at least 60 professionals in this group, but the people with the true message were a beautiful mother and father who lost a child to a heroin overdose. I think they wanted to make sure we understood that this disease kills people in all walks of life and cultures. It is not just a disease of the poor. It is not a family value issue.

They showed a picture of their family and shared how they did everything possible to try to save their son, but despite everything they lost him.

Now I can hear the voices saying, “See, treatment doesn’t work.” But we don’t say this when we talk about someone dying of cancer or heart disease. When someone dies of cancer or heart disease, we reach in our pockets and spend more money on research, which is what we know is the right thing to do, so others will not have to die this painful death.

The message this courageous family wanted to share was that they loved their son, and they wanted us to understand that this epidemic of addiction is killing our youth.

Access to care

Botticelli shared another statistic: Only about 11 percent of people in need of treatment have access to care.

Think of how difficult this must be for families, to see someone they love asking for help and not being able to access it. I can share that the most frequent call I receive at Wellspring is a family member or a friend trying to find help for someone they love.

When people reach out, we should be able to simply say, “Let’s take them in, get an evaluation done, and figure out treatment for them.”

Instead, what I have to say to family members is, “We can screen them, but because we only have 28 beds with a waitlist of about 50 people, it may be awhile before we can help.”

I hate — let me repeat this — I hate saying this.

If I had a magic wand, this is how my phone call would go: I would listen to what the family was saying, and then I’d say, “Why don’t we bring them in for an assessment and determine what level of care would best match their need. Once we establish the level of care, we will admit them.”

Yes, admit them. Not put them on a waitlist. Not make a suggestion of a lower level of care because another place has no waitlist, while knowing it won’t work anyway. Not deny them because they have no health care coverage.

Care for yourself, too

For the millions of family members who are out there, please know there are individuals and groups who will not judge you, that we want to help and listen to what is happening with your family.

The system is not perfect, but there are people out there. But please remember the advice of the flight attendants when they explain the air compression of the plane. They share that if you are traveling with a child, place your oxygen mask on first.

This is the same message I have for family members. For those who have a loved one with a substance use disorder, do not forget to care for yourselves. Maybe in the process of caring for yourself, your son, daughter, grandchild or friend will reach out and say, “I am ready.”

Use respectful words

The last message Botticelli shared with us is to watch the language we use. If we are going to change attitudes and remove the stigma associated with this illness, we have to use respectful words.

Do we really think that people are going to reach out to us for help when we call them negative names like drug addict or junkie? Let’s reach out in a respectful manner and just maybe people will reach out to us.

My father

I have been an advocate for treatment and recovery since I was 16 years old, watching my father entering into a treatment program. I remember this day with sadness, fear and a sense of confusion. I had no idea if this would be the last or just one more attempt for him to dry out.

I had no idea that this day, my 16th birthday, would be the last rehab he would enter and that he would start his life of recovery.  

I am one of the lucky ones. I was able to be with my dad more years sober than when his alcoholism was raging. We as a family got the opportunity to heal and rebuild. This opportunity will not happen to the family of the individuals who died of overdoses. I believe that by making the changes in our community, state and nation about how we come together to fight this public health problem, we will give hope to those families.

For me I will continue to work for prevention, treatment and recovery. As long as I am able I will continue to fight the good fight and try to improve access to prevention, treatment and recovery anyway I possibly can. To the families, take care, remember you are not alone, reach out and be good to yourself.

Patricia Kimball is executive director of Wellspring, a substance abuse treatment center in Bangor, and president of the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Providers.