Solving the Addiction Crisis Begins With Breaking the Stigma

The stigma around addiction has enormous consequences, not just for our health care system, but how our entire culture views addictive behavior.

This article is the second in a 12-part series about the U.S. addiction crisis. In the interest of compassionate conversation and eliminating stigma, we’ve chosen language that’s cultivated by the Research Recovery Institute and hope it inspires you to as well.
The U.S. drug crisis is impacting everyone, from young children to first responders to librarians. In grappling with this overwhelming life-or-death problem, we may have overlooked one group – drug users – and the way our language generates stigma that only fuels the epidemic.
In his report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy argues for a “cultural shift” in how we approach addiction. “For far too long,” Murthy writes, “too many in our country have viewed addiction as a moral failing.” The consequence of this definition is an “added burden of shame that has made people with substance use disorders less likely to come forward and seek help.”
The way in which addiction is framed has enormous consequences, not just for how our health care system treats addiction, but how our entire culture views addictive behavior.

“Choice” has consequences

When addiction is framed as a choice, drug treatment is not a medical necessity, but an elective procedure. Historically, that has meant that drug treatment and recovery programs were prohibitively expensive for many people.
Prior to 2014, only one in 10 addicts sought treatment. That low treatment rate was certainly related to limited access to care. It was also related to the stigma that those in the healthcare profession held toward addicts. One study found that healthcare workers have lower regard for their addicted patients than patients with other conditions.
The choice model doesn’t only impact treatment options for addiction. The phrase “war on drugs” suggests that drug abusers are bad guys who have taken the wrong side. Sentencing laws group drug users alongside others deemed to have moral failings sufficiently poisonous to require removal from society.
“Choice” makes it simple to deny treatment to or promote the incarceration of people who elect to become addicted. The choice metaphor has also allowed anyone who hasn’t made the same choice to ignore the problem. Choice implies blame, and this blame has helped us avoid taking any societal responsibility for the drug crisis.
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fists raised in solidarity with substance abuse disorder

Parent Co. partnered with Aspenti because they know that carrying the weight of the addiction crisis is everyone’s responsibility.

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How the disease model reduces stigma

The disease model of addiction shifts our national focus from blame to recovery. Under a disease model, addicts are not immoral. They are ill.
Under the Affordable Care Act, addiction treatment became an “essential benefit,” meaning that 2.8 million people suffering from addiction now have coverage. That coverage – especially in states that accepted Medicare expansions – is almost certainly saving lives, as it now covers not only inpatient detox, but also counseling and medication.
Under a disease model, addicts are not criminals. They’re citizens in need of assistance. Portugal, faced with similar drug problems as the U.S., redefined addiction as a disease both medically and legally, expanding medical treatment and decriminalizing drug use. Rather than jailing drug users, Portugal brings them to hearings with social workers.
When drug users are not afraid of arrest, they are also more likely to seek treatment. Now, the rate of drug-related death in Portugal is six per million. In the United States, it’s 312 per million.
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The language of addiction

Efforts to replace the language of choice with the language of disease are already improving access to treatment. But this is not the only language that needs to change.
We don’t talk about heart transplant patients as being “dirty,” but we do talk about drug addicts that way. We don’t talk about cancer patients “relapsing” when their cancers return, but addicts relapse all the time. We don’t demand that people suffering from cancer apologize for their cancers or that people who have had a heart transplant apologize for their diseased organs, even if these people exhibited many dangerous behaviors that contributed to their health problems.
The very word “addict” is a problem. We don’t describe people with cancer as “cancers,” or people who have had heart transplants as “heart transplants.” When we use the word “addict,” we reduce a person to an illness. That term creates stigma despite efforts to view addiction as a medical problem.
Look back to the preceding paragraphs and notice the use of “addict,” and “drug abuser.” Although those paragraphs argue for a compassionate response to addiction, they unintentionally heap blame and shame on people suffering from it.
The Recovery Research Institute‘s Addiction-ary promotes more specific and compassionate addiction vocabulary. Taking its cue from mental health advocates who have shifted the national conversation from “the disabled” to “people with disabilities,” the RRI advocates “person-first” language.
Terms like “abuser” and “addict” define a person in terms of addiction. This definition generates stigma that leads to lower quality care and even discourages people from seeking treatment. Changing our vocabulary to person-first language can help reduce stigma by textually reminding ourselves that people suffering from substance use disorders are just that: people. Not “junkies” or “abusers” or “addicts.” People.
The RRI also advocates avoiding language that implies blame. Instead of “lapse” or “slip,” the RRI recommends more medically-appropriate terms like “resumed” or “recurred.”
Using person-first, blame-neutral language is a good start. Yet one of the greatest challenges comes from a word we probably don’t even think about: “drug.”
The word “drug” is stunningly unspecific. Culturally, it carries many negative connotations, whether the subject is “illicit drugs” or “drug companies.” The word is so stigmatized that many will often reject drugs even when they would be medically beneficial.
Part of better addiction treatment and recovery is greater specificity. Instead of “drug,” the Addiction-ary suggests “medication” when referring to a properly used drug, and “non-medically used psychoactive substance” when referring to illicit or improperly used drugs.

Treating substance use disorder as a moral issue

Addiction is a moral issue, but not for people with substance use disorders. When our society views substance use disorder as a sign of a flawed moral code, we absolve ourselves of any societal obligation to help.
Murthy describes addiction as a “moral test,” not for people with substance use disorders, but for all Americans: “Are we as a nation willing to take on an epidemic that is causing great human suffering and economic loss? Are we able to live up to that most fundamental obligation we have as human beings: to care for one another?”
Person-first. Blame-neutral. Drug-free. Choosing our words more carefully and demanding that media, healthcare, and research organizations do the same will help decrease the stigma of substance use disorders and pave the way to recovery.
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Parent Co. partnered with Aspenti because they know that carrying the weight of the addiction crisis is everyone’s responsibility.


The Case for Boredom to Ignite Our Minds

We may assume that curing boredom is a good thing for all of us. But researchers fear that not being bored is the problem.

The demands of careers and parenting mean we’ve lost time to let our minds wander. There are always tasks that need to be handled.
Then there’s the other obvious way we cure boredom should it have a chance to strike: technology. Smartphones give us the opportunity to constantly engage with social media, games, news, or countless text threads. All of these serve as distractions that keep our minds from dealing with boredom for even a minute.
We may assume that curing boredom is a good thing for all of us. We’re not bored, the kids aren’t bored, we don’t have to listen to the kids complain about being bored, and everyone can grab their smartphones or tablets should boredom arise.
But researchers fear that not being bored is the problem.

Why we need boredom

Research shows that people will go to extremes to avoid sitting alone with their thoughts. Studies found that boredom can cause excessive drinking, gambling, and eating when we’re not hungry.
Fortunately, most of us don’t have to engage in these harmful activities to stave off boredom. Unfortunately, we turn to smartphones as a safe option when they are not.
According to studies used in author Manoush Zomorodi’s TED Talk, we now shift our attention every 45 seconds while working because technology makes it easy to do so. We also spend time checking our phones when we don’t even know what we’re looking for. Notifications constantly pop up, and we become Pavlovian in our responses to them, searching for them when they’re not even there just because we can see the phone.
A recent study showed that even having our smartphones in the room with us lowers our cognitive function.
Smartphones and the way we use them keep us from allowing ourselves to get bored, and that means we’re missing out. When bored, the brain goes into default mode. It’s in this mindset that we can reflect on our past and problem solve for our future.
When bored, we daydream, we create ideas, and we stick with a train of thought that can lead us to create. A study even found that participants asked to perform a boring task before solving a problem using creativity did a better job than those whose brains weren’t first prepared by boredom.

How to be bored in the technology age

Journalist Manoush Zomorodi launched a podcast in 2015 that challenged listeners to engage with technology responsibly and put some boredom back in their lives. It wasn’t a cold-turkey technology detox. Most of us have to use some form of technology for jobs or communication with others. Zomorodi launched her challenge to help people learn to do it responsibly.  She wanted participants to give themselves time during the day to free their minds from simply staring at a screen for no reason.
Her challenge led to a book that came out this year titled “Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self”.  It details how to engage responsibly with our phones while giving our brains the sacred time they need to be utterly bored.
Challenges include deleting our favorite apps from our phones or walking without a phone in our hands for an entire day. None of these challenges seem that hard until participants are forced to perform them.
That’s when many who signed up for the challenge on Manoush’s podcast realized they were addicted, though some had inklings of that before. It’s why they signed up in the first place. Most of us know we are missing time we used to have, time where our minds roamed and we used wonder and curiosity to cure our boredom. Our brains had room and time to develop ideas.
Children born into the smartphone age need to be trained to use technology responsibly because they will not remember having all that tech-free time. That longing we have to unplug will be foreign to kids who live electronically plugged in at all times.
Parents can set the example by using self-control and making technology work for their lives, but not take them over. In the process, they teach their kids the sacred practice of boredom.
These simple guidelines are a good start:

Keep the phone out of the bedroom

Let those boring moments before sleep get the creative juices flowing and preserve rest. Phones in the bedroom can cause sleep problems.

Go hands-free

When walking or driving, don’t hold a phone like it’s an extension of the body. Instead of focusing brain power on looking at the phone or wondering when it’s going to offer a notification, go hands-free and let the brain go into default mode.

Set times for engagement

Those in the technology development industry have no problem admitting they are creating a product, and they want it to be as addictive as possible. Manoush believes that it’s so hard to be bored because our technology is designed to draw us in.
To combat this, set up rules and times for engagement. Don’t let tech designers decide how and when you use technology.

The long-term payoff

Creativity was identified as a leadership competency that CEOs look for in employees. Creative people may be hard to find if we now live in a society that doesn’t value boredom. We are also living in a society full of people who feel guilty about the unhealthy relationships they have with their phones.
We can change the course, though, and raise a generation that benefits from technology while still using their minds to create and problem solve without distractions. We can have the conveniences that smartphones offer without the addiction or the brain drain they cause.
It’s as simple, and as difficult, as embracing boredom.

One Moment at a Time

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
Giving up isn’t an option today. One mistake, one wrong decision, one moment of indulgence in self-pity will rip away everything and everyone who brings meaning and love to my life. To an outsider, my life may seem bleak: I live paycheck to (one week before) paycheck in a condo that is too small for my three children and me. It is not out of the norm for me to not know how I will put gas in my car or food on the table. My credit score is a whopping 450. I am divorced. I borrow money from my 70-year-old mother, who also helps me with laundry and other household chores. At 39, I am only at the beginning stages of my first career. I have no husband and I don’t go on vacation. I am scraping by one day at a time, but I am overwhelmed with gratitude.
No one wants to visit the depths of emotional and physical pain that I have. My story is as sad as they get. Every alcoholic mother cliché is true. I am a low-bottom drunk. My final years of drinking were spent chugging vodka straight out of the bottle just to calm the shakes and nausea. My final drink ended with me driving in a blackout at 10 a.m. after disappearing from my place of employment unannounced. My visits with my children were supervised by court order. They still loved me and I can’t comprehend how or why. They still had hope for me. They saw through the sour breath and the phony smile, and they knew the person I am today was hiding in there. They waited for me.
I was full of broken promises and empty apologies. I missed birthday parties, and I passed out in front of my children. Hangover after hangover, alcoholism told me I could drink today and not get drunk. Just a few to keep the shakes at bay, then I will stop. This is a disease that lies. This is a disease that takes over mind, body and spirit and grabs hold of families and innocent children. This disease held me so tightly, and I danced with it for so long, believing the lies and forgiving its betrayal.
I was unemployable, undependable, and (I thought) unlovable. Alcohol was my everything. My best friend and lover. My courage and fear. My entertainment and bedtime story. My motivation to live and desire to die. Alcohol came before my kids, relationships, health, and sanity. I wanted so badly to want to stop drinking, but I still longed for alcohol to run steadily through my veins every waking moment.
During my final months of drinking, I began to sense the end was near. I didn’t make sense of it at the time, but I grew so scared of myself. I would enter a package store, and as I left I would think, something terrible is going to happen tonight, and then wake the next day thanking God nothing terrible happened. This became the beginning of the end. The disease was dying. I no longer felt invincible. I no longer believed the lies of alcoholism.
I bought a gallon of vodka knowing I would drink the whole thing that night. It scared me. I was preparing for my final surrender. Surrender came on February 3, 2014. I did not want to die. I knew I would lose my oldest daughter forever. I saw it in her eyes, in the way she was beginning to pull away from me. She would not be fooled by this disease much longer. I prayed for help in my own desperate way, and God answered my prayers.
Detox. A six-month inpatient rehab an hour and half away from my kids. AA meetings. I learned to like some things about myself. I learned to do things sober. I relearned how to do everything sober. I danced sober, I laughed sober, I cried sober, and I felt things I had been numbing my entire adult life. I embraced a new way of life, and I made a commitment to God and to myself to stay sober at all costs, just for today.
I have caused pain to those I love that I cannot take away. I don’t do that today. My children waited for me, and I am going to make sure their wait was worth it. Today I don’t care how much money is in my bank account or what my credit score is. Today I am sober and God is my provider. I now live in acceptance, self-awareness, and gratitude, including gratitude for my darkest days because they made me who I am today.
Through dedication to God, to the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and to self-love, I have accumulated 1,347 days sober, one moment at a time.

Addicted to the Rush of Rushing? Your Chronic Lateness Might Be More Than a Bad Habit

Depending on how chronic your pattern, you might actually be addicted to being late.

Picture this: You’re getting ready to go somewhere, like work, or a baby shower, or maybe parent-teacher conferences. You’ve given yourself plenty of time, but somehow, when you check the clock, you see you’re cutting it close. Instead of streamlining the rest of your routine, like a person who prioritizes punctuality would do, you answer a day-old text from your mom then decide today is the day to switch purses. You waste precious minutes doing other non-essential tasks, diverted by things you typically ignore, until you finally break free, grab your stuff, and race out the door. You drive way too fast, cursing traffic and applying mascara at the stoplights. You arrive 10 minutes late, full of breathless apologies and excuses, but really, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Is this scenario familiar? You begin with the best of intentions and end up in a manic rush? Does it happen regularly, without interceding circumstances? Has being late resulted in negative consequences, after which you vow to get your act together? Do you feel unable to control your compulsion to dawdle? Have family and friends spoken to you about it, in an effort to get you to change? Do they use the word “inconsiderate”?
If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, you have a tardiness tendency, and while it may stem from poor time management, it has become a habit. Habits lie on the outskirts of ordinary behavior, serving an ulterior purpose that is often unhealthy, and in many cases a bad habit will develop into a full blown addiction. Depending on how chronic your pattern, you might actually be addicted to being late. Or, more precisely, you might be addicted to the chemicals your body releases when its hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is activated by the external pressures of time constraints.

The role of HPA

The HPA axis is the human body’s central response system. It intertwines the central nervous system, which is responsible for processing information, and the endocrine system, which responds to this information by releasing a variety of hormones. In times of stress, the hypothalamus will coordinate with the pituitary and other glands, flooding the body with a hormone cocktail that heightens awareness, improves cognition, induces euphoria, and triggers a burst of stored energy. Akin to the fight-or-flight mechanism, which discharges the sympathetic nervous system and facilitates immediate physical action, the HPA axis reacts indiscriminately to threatening stimulus. Any stressor that registers on our sensory radar qualifies as perceived danger and will activate the launch code.
Plainly put, our chemical brains can’t tell the difference between walking into a pit of venomous snakes and walking into a room full of glaring coworkers.
When we’re running late, this sophisticated physiological process kicks in, and the result is an intense visceral surge. Some find it overwhelming and unpleasant, what with the rapid heartbeat and sweating, and will take measures to avoid it in the future. Others describe it as a thrilling rush, similar to what people experience when skydiving, bungee jumping, or pursuing other extreme sports. It is even possible to build a tolerance for hormonally induced excitement, requiring riskier adventures to produce the same effect. The activation of the HPA axis is the one thing all addictions have in common.
In a recent study published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” researchers suggest a connection between a person’s tolerance to acute stress and their propensity for addiction. They document a wide variety of addictions, from gambling to drugs to exercise, and conclude there is a correlation between these behaviors and an elevated stress response. It seems the more sensitive a person is to stress, the more likely they are to use the HPA axis reaction as a coping mechanism. There is also evidence this inclination is epigenetic (influenced by both biological and environmental factors). Just as alcoholism, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol runs in families but can be avoided, stress addictions can too.

Addiction awareness

To be clear, labeling your chronic lateness an addiction is not helpful in and of itself. Whether you are powerless in the throes of rushing out the door or just terrible at planning ahead is a distinction without a difference – the problem remains that your habit inconveniences others. What is helpful, though, is understanding the underlying motivation and recognizing the pattern of the HPA axis reaction. Once you identify the feeling of impending lateness as nothing more than a hormonal gust, you will likely stop self-sabotaging with time-wasting tactics – or at least be aware of what you are doing.
Admitting you have a problem and enlisting family members to steer you back on track when you get distracted are essential first steps to promptness, but as with any addiction, behavior modification only works if the addict wants to quit.

Forgiving My Father While He Was in Prison

When I was 18 years old, I began studying the impact of fatherlessness on children.

I would sit for hours, reading about theories and conclusions based on quantitative and qualitative research. I analyzed the behavior of fatherless children, who were studied for the purpose of academia. As a student, I was fascinated, but as a child who grew up without the tender love of her father, I was crushed. I’d be making invisible check marks with the pad of my finger, noting the phrases and statistics that perfectly described me. A part of me felt euphoric when I could bypass a particular trend in fatherless children, proud that I had beat the odds.

My parents separated when my mother was seven months pregnant with me, and their divorce was finalized before my first birthday. My father had been married before, for much longer than he was to my mother. He’d raised two sons already, and had fallen into a pattern of addiction and abandonment of those he loved.

Although it was no surprise that my alcohol- and drug-addicted father left my mother and her unborn child, it left a permanent scar in the heart of my mother. She never remarried. Her trust in men and her faith in marriage were permanently shaken.

I grew up knowing my dad from a distance. Recently memories from my dad’s home have resurfaced in my mind. They are cartoonish caricatures of alcoholism. His beer belly was often poking out from beneath his stained white t-shirt. He’d bend down to look for his glasses under the couch, his butt crack poking out from the top of his pants, and I’d avert my eyes in embarrassment. Budweiser cans were piled like a mountain in the trash bin. The walls were stained with cigarette smoke, and murder mysteries would play on the small TV set while vagabonds came in and out through the side door.

I remember longing for my dad from a distance. During one visit, while my stepmom was out, I sat on the couch for hours while my dad snored beside me. I was afraid to wake him, but my throat was parched and I needed a drink. I sat for hours, reading my Beverly Cleary book, while waiting for his eternal nap to end. When he finally woke up, I shyly asked, “May I please have a drink, Dad?”

He brought me a Coke and made me the most delicious pasta I’d ever tasted. I was so proud of him, marveling at his wonderful culinary skills. I told my mom on the drive home that my father had made me pasta, forgetting to mention the hours spent reading while my stomach churned in hunger.

By the time I was in my teens my father was separated from his third wife and his drinking was spiraling out of control. I became the child who heard from her dad on Christmas and birthdays, and looked forward to awkward annual visits. During our rare visits our conversation was strained and stalled. I never knew what to say, afraid of letting slip my hurt and the desire that he’d really be there for me.

I spent time getting to know my half-brothers, who were now grown and dealing with their own hurts. Despite not having much of a history with them, they understood the longing I had for our father. We were the only three people in the world that understood how difficult it was to love our dad in one breath, and hate him in another. The three of us were walking, bleeding, heart-pumping statistics of fatherlessness.

By the time I was 22, I’d found love and started my own family. As complete as I was, I still missed my dad and wished he’d overcome his addictions. I’d finally come to understand that his world was too small to contain his three kids. I realized how little control he had over himself and his life. I felt pity and sorrow for a man chained to destructive addictions, and hoped that one day he’d be free.

By the time my father turned 60, he was homeless, mentally ill, and in and out of prison for reasons unknown to me. By now his hair was nearly all grey, his skin was leathery and gaunt, and his eyes sunken.

Then my dad fell out of a third story window. He survived, and we all marveled at a man who seemed indestructible.

“Seriously, how is Dad still alive?” I quietly laughed on the phone while talking to my oldest brother, Jason.

Two months later, Jason died suddenly of a heart attack after returning from a morning run. The world is cruel. The morning I found out my brother was dead I knew nothing would ever make sense.

It took us nearly two days to locate my father and inform him that his oldest son had died of a heart attack. My father was in jail on the day of Jason’s funeral.

For months after my brother’s death, I was overcome with despair. My dad was unavailable and too ill to support me through my grief. He was in prison so often that I had the phone number for “Jail” programmed into my phone.

One night, I lay awake thinking about my father as soft snowflakes fell outside my window. It was almost Christmas, and I knew he was in prison again. He would be spending the holiday behind bars. The next morning I called my sister-in-law, a former jail guard.

“Sherry? Do you think they have turkey in prison?”

She gently reassured me, “Yes, Salvation Army will provide a few simple gifts, and they’ll have a turkey dinner for their meal.”

I imagined my dad unwrapping a gift provided by the Salvation Army and eating dry turkey in drab prison clothes. I asked my brother Aaron how I might get in touch with our dad.

“Write him a letter,” he suggested.

A few days later I was in Amish country, browsing in a quaint shop full of handmade gifts. I picked up a card with two happy children playing together. It made me smile and I thought of my father, who was raised in an Amish sect.

I brought the card home and began to write a letter to my father. I talked about the blooming personalities of my two daughters, two more children he would never know. I wrote about my career, feeling a twinge of anger that my dad didn’t even know I was pursuing a career in journalism.

I told my dad the things I always wished I could tell him. I told him that I loved him. I wrote down the hardest words, letting him know he was important to me, and nothing that he’d done had ever changed that.

I remembered sitting on his couch when I was eight, listening to him talk, hearing the vibrations of his voice. I was my father’s only daughter and I’d always loved him. I’d always been hoping for him, wishing I could curl up on his lap, not caring about the booze or the cigarettes, just wanting his love.

By the time I’d finished my letter, my writing was uneven and sloppy. I wondered how my nearly blind father would read my words, and imagined him asking another inmate to read my intimate thoughts. I pictured my dad pitching the letter in the garbage, never knowing the words that held 26 years of my longing for him.

Then I pictured him clutching the letter to his heart, feeling my love and smiling behind the cold thick bars that held him captive. I imagined my words giving him freedom, and I saw him tenderly placing my letter under his thin mattress.

I wanted to call my sister-in-law again, and ask her to describe to me how letters were delivered to inmates. I wished I could watch the entire scene, my subconscious mixing in details from “The Shawshank Redemption,” one of the only impressions I have of prison.

“At what time of day do they receive the letters?” I wanted to ask Sherry.

I licked the envelope, sealing it closed, and walked with my oldest daughter to the mailbox. I placed my trust in her three-year-old hands as she carried my heart carefully down the road. I lifted her in my arms and helped her to place the letter in the mail chute, bidding it a safe journey.

“Mommy, I love sending letters with you,” Penny said. “Carry me home, please? I’m too tired to walk.” She wrapped her legs around my waist and I trudged with her in the deep snow.

“Let’s have some hot chocolate by the toasty fire,” I said between breaths.

“Of course, Mommy. That’s what we always do.” A smile was forming on her lips, which were dry and chapped from the cold.

When we got home I snuggled Penny by the fire, telling her stories of cold winters and Christmases from my childhood.

“Mommy, who was that letter for that we mailed today?”

“It was for your grandpa. Not your daddy’s Dad. Your mommy’s Dad. You don’t know him. I don’t really know him either. But I love him very much, and I just needed him to know that.”

My daughter nuzzled her face into my neck. My child, who has everything she deserves, except of course, a relationship with her maternal grandfather.

“We should always tell people when we love them,” said Penny.

“Always.” I replied.

7 Surprising Impacts of the U.S. Substance Use Disorder Crisis

An estimated 21.5 million Americans over age 12 suffer from a substance use disorder. But the impact of this crisis reaches far beyond.

This article is the first in a 12-part series about the U.S. addiction crisis. In the interest of compassionate conversation and eliminating stigma, we’ve chosen language that’s cultivated by the Research Recovery Institute and hope it inspires you to as well.

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”5″]I[/su_dropcap]t’s possible to read about the long-reaching effects of substance use disorder and feel rage. You can be angry at the harsh penalties kids have to suffer for their families’ substance use disorders. You can be angry about how the dying experience unbearable pain when taken advantage of by the people who are supposed to help them. You can be angry at how substance use disorders harm our economy.
In short, you can be mad at people suffering from substance use disorder and blame them for what you see as their “choice.” But that won’t solve the problem. In fact, that angry response unfairly characterizes the problem.
According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 21.5 million Americans over age 12 suffered from a substance use disorder.
Although CDC figures for 2016 are not yet complete, deaths from overdose are projected to range between 59,000 and 65,000. That estimate makes overdose the leading cause of accidental death, ahead of both car accidents and shootings.
What follows are seven impacts of the crisis that should inspire all of us to get involved. If there’s one thing that becomes apparent as we struggle to grasp the impact of the national substance use disorder crisis it’s that help is needed everywhere.


Young children are affected by substance use disorder in many ways. Some babies become addicted to the substances their mothers use and develop neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) after their births cause withdrawal. NAS do occur as a result of illicit substance use, but can occur even when babies’ mothers were using physician-prescribed opiates only as directed.
Like adults experiencing withdrawal, babies with NAS experience a host of medical complications, including tremors, convulsions, breathing problems, and fevers. Babies with NAS often have low birth weight and have trouble gaining weight after birth. Some have withdrawal symptoms so severe that they need to be treated with morphine, which doctors taper off as babies’ health improves.
Young children feel the effects of substance use disorder in other ways, whether it be direct poisoning after ingesting dangerous substances, or indirectly, when their parents’ substance use disorders make it difficult for them to provide adequate care.
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Children in foster care with parents suffering a substance use disorder

map of united states where addiction impacts children foster care system
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In 2015, 269,509 children entered the foster care system, an increase of nearly 5,000 from the previous year. State-level data suggest that substance use disorders are linked with the growing rate of foster care. In Massachusetts, 30 percent of the children placed in foster care have a parent with a substance use disorder. In Georgia, that figure is 40 percent. In Ohio, it’s 70 percent.
Even kids in comparatively stable homes can have their lives upended by a sibling facing substance use disorder. Parents reasonably give more attention to their affected children, while expecting their children without substance use disorder to assume more independence and responsibility.
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little boy laying back with his eyes closed
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Parent Co. parented with Aspenti Health because they know that the first step toward change is understanding the problem.

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First responders

This year, police officers in Virginia, FloridaNew Jersey, and Maryland have required treatment after accidentally ingesting fentanyl found at crime scenes. Police dogs have also overdosed on fentanyl during raids.
These exposures have led police departments to change their policies for handling potentially dangerous substances. In order to treat overdose victims, first responders wear protective gloves and masks because the substances they encounter are so potent. Some departments have stopped using field kits to identify substances, instead sending samples to state labs. Police officers now carry naloxone, not just for the public, but also for fellow officers and police animals.
Even responders who follow these new protocols can suffer accidental overdose. Ohio police officer Chris Green wiped his shirt with a bare hand after returning to his station from an arrest and, afterward, required naloxone to treat a fentanyl overdose.

Coroner’s offices

Illicit substances are often distributed literally as a mixed bag. First responders and police officers may not know fentanyl is present because the victim of the overdose didn’t know either.
In 2016, Summit County in Ohio saw 312 overdose deaths – nearly a 50 percent rise from the year before. This increase can be partially linked to batches of potent substances mixed with lesser, more common substances. Fentanyl’s cousin, carfentanil, is labeled for use only as an elephant tranquilizer. When veterinarians administer it to zoo animals, they keep a paramedic on hand in case of accidental exposure because it is so dangerous to humans.
When substances like fentanyl and carfentanil are mixed with more commonly-used substances like heroin, everyone – the teenager who just tried heroin on a dare, the first responder called to treat her, that first responder’s two-year-old son – becomes a potential victim.
According to Gary Guenther, chief investigator for the Summit County medical examiner, the county coroner had to rent refrigerated trucks three times that year in order to handle extra bodies when the morgue overfilled.
In addition to the “mobile morgues” required as a result of these overdoses, coroner’s offices have to spend more money on toxicology tests. They also have to spend more time on investigations, creating a backlog of cases, not just for substance use deaths, but all deaths in their communities.
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Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.

A lethal dose of heroin vs. fentanyl:

heroin vs fentanyl lethal dose
Photo from New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab

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Hospice patients

Hospice care is an increasingly-used option for terminally-ill patients who want to die in their homes “pain-free and with dignity.” But as an August 2017 Kaiser Health News report describes, substance use disorder is robbing some patients of that dignity.
These patients, who are prescribed potent painkillers like morphine, hydrocodone, and fentanyl, are vulnerable to theft. The Kaiser report includes elderly patients whose medication was stolen by their children, pediatric patients whose medication was stolen by their parents, and patients of all ages whose medication was stolen by the health aides assigned to treat them. In some instances, medication was stolen by neighbors or by people posing as health aides.
It’s easy to judge these people harshly. But it’s worth pausing to consider that these are nurses who have pledged to care for the sick and dying. These are children who have taken on the burden of caring for their dying parents. These are parents who have taken on the burden of caring for their dying children. Many of these people are as gravely ill as their charges, behaving as no healthy person would.
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Old man lying in pain and looking with eyes half open
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Workplace productivity

Contrary to popular belief, many people with substance use disorders are employed. According to a 2015 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 9.5 percent of all full-time workers aged 18 to 64 had a substance use disorder.
The rates of substance use disorders were highest among those in the accommodations and food services industry (16.9 percent) and lowest among those in the educational services industry (5.5 percent). When these workers miss work, whether from substance use or hospitalization, their workplaces suffer from their absence.
Even though the U.S. economy is growing, workers of “prime age” – between 25 and 54 – are not seeking employment. Men of prime age have been even less likely to seek employment. According to an August Brookings Institute report, opioid use is part of the reason for the stagnancy in the labor force.
Princeton economist Alan Krueger notes that almost half of men outside of the labor force take daily pain medication. Two-thirds of that group take prescription pain medication. These figures make the profile of substance use disorder look much different than we often imagine.
The economy isn’t suffering because people addicted to illegal substances don’t want to work. It’s suffering because people who want to work are in too much pain to work, like the dad who fell off a ladder while painting the house and whose pain is poorly managed by opiates.

Service professionals

A WBUR report on substance use in Cambridge includes a public restroom tour from guide “Eddie,” who explains which restrooms are unlocked and which offer privacy. That privacy, however, comes at a cost: “Once you get in, you won’t be interrupted – or rescued.”
Some business and community leaders have responded to the problem by closing their bathrooms. In 2012, after a string of overdoses on its property that its staff did not feel medically equipped to handle, Christ Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, made the difficult decision to close its public bathroom.
But as some doors have closed, others have opened. Business owners in Cambridge have used a number of creative techniques to prevent overdoses in their bathrooms. One coffee shop owner is training his baristas to treat overdoses by administering naloxone.
Joshua Gerber says that just 10 minutes after he’d sent an invitation to his staff, 25 of them signed up: “You know, just thrilled to figure out how they might be able to save a life.” Gerber’s baristas aren’t the only unlikely population impacted by substance use disorder.


As library overdoses began increasing for Librarians at McPherson Square Branch in Philadelphia, they took action and now practice overdose drills. The library staff was the first in the city to learn how to administer the lifesaving overdose antidote Narcan. Instead of waiting for permission, they asked Prevention Point Philadelphia, a needle-exchange program, to demonstrate the use of Narcan.
The demonstration was held before Library operating hours, but more than two dozen librarians showed from six North Philadelphia libraries. Sandy Horrocks, a spokeswoman for the Free Library, said officials would expand the model to other libraries as needed.
American Libraries, the magazine of the American Library Association, ran an article in June 2017 about “Saving Lives in the Stacks“, which was accompanied by a sidebar piece about needle safety. The coverage suggests that the McPherson Square Branch is not alone. Libraries all over the country are concerned about overdoses.
It’s insufficient to say that people with substance use disorder could be our family members, neighbors, friends, teachers, and soccer coaches. They are our family members, neighbors, friends, teachers, and soccer coaches. The profile of a person with substance use disorder is not an intravenous user without regard for his or other people’s lives. It’s a pregnant mother, an elder care provider, a teenager, or an injured middle-manager.
Despite our awareness that people with substance use disorder could be people intrinsically involved in our lives, most of us continue to ignore the crisis. You can be angry with these people. Or you can be like a barista in Cambridge or a librarian in Philadelphia, two of the unlikely heroes who have emerged to combat this crisis.
You can, as these people have, find novel ways to help.
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Parent Co. partnered with Aspenti Health because they know that the first step toward change is understanding the problem.

I Survived Four Days Without the Internet and so Can You

No WIFI for four days? No checking in on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter? No posting! And I lived to tell about it.

“Hey! Check out this cottage we’re going to in August! Do you guys think you can come meet us for a few days?”
That was the Facebook message we received from our friends. One family was coming from BC and the other, while living not too far away, we don’t get to see much. So we decided the idea was perfect. We told them we were in.
They had found a wonderful cottage, quietly tucked away on the lake. It was fully equipped with a badminton net, boats, a fishing dock, and a small beach big enough for our little people to play. The place seemed idyllic.
As we got closer to the cottage, we noticed that we no longer had cell phone or internet service. No big deal, right? I was sure WIFI would be waiting for me with open arms once we arrived. I lived a life before cell phones were a thing, so I wasn’t too worried about not having service.
I was soon, however, faced with the reality of the situation. Instead of open arms from said advanced technology, I got a middle finger and a “deal with it.” The cottage had a nearly-extinct landline and contained shelves packed with VHS tapes. Once upon a time – before smart phones – I would have considered this a jackpot. But this felt prehistoric.
I’ll admit I panicked. No WIFI for four days? No checking in on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter? No posting!
“Hey, guys! Look at me being all chilled out and relaxed,” I said, as I tried to keep my twitches from view.
They could clearly see my anxiety rising as I tapped my phone on the table. My friends didn’t seem troubled at all though. Even my husband, who constantly reads the news on his phone, wasn’t as anxious as I was.
“Oh no, Karen, what are you going to do!?” my husband joked. “How about you accept it for what it is and try to relax.”
Clearly, my state of panic points in one direction: I am addicted to the internet and, by relation, my cell phone, which allows me mobile access no matter where I go. I never thought I’d feel so down on my luck about something so trivial. But here I was, in a beautiful cottage surrounded by nature, and I was complaining that I had no WIFI.
I’ve never had to face this kind of situation head on, but now that I faced it, I realized my addiction. I’m so used to having my phone strapped to me like a bra, so it was understandable that I felt a bit naked without it.
The first morning I woke up and grabbed myself a cup of coffee and my phone off the mantel. As I held it up to unlock it, I frowned.
I could only look at the people sitting around the table and laugh nervously. “I was checking my phone.” With that, I placed my phone down and joined in the conversation with great friends I don’t get to see very often.
Imagine that: face-to-face conversations with people in your vicinity. The horror!
Slowly, I started realizing that being without the option to disappear into my phone felt relaxing. I was free from the beeps and buzzes that would pull me back into the real world of obligations. It was as though the cage had been lifted, and I was able to enjoy my freedom.
My head was up and my back straight. I looked up, not down. I engaged in conversations that I could hear instead of read. I didn’t feel the need to run and check my phone just in case someone commented on a post I put up or sent me a message. What a welcome change.
I went four days and three nights with no access to the World Wide Web and survived it. The only reason I had to pick up my phone was to take a picture.
Technology can be frightening. This was a huge wake-up call for me. I need to put my phone down. I need to stop recording every aspect of my life and start living my life. Sure, the memories are great to look back on, but what about being there, in the moment? Is it not enough to just be in the company of your people?
Since then, I’ve gotten better at disconnecting. I want to take in what’s around me and, yes, take a picture of it. I’m working on finding a good balance that allows me to look up for a change.
I’ll be honest, though: I was pretty happy to see those bars come back to life on my phone as we drove home.

Spiraling Out of Control and Toward Infidelity

I want to tell him about how my marriage is broken and how numb and disconnected I feel. I wonder how I let it get so far.

5:05 a.m. My eyes open. A faint pearly blade of light squeezing past the blind. The distant metallic scrape of a moving tram.
I lie here in the dawn’s dimness, my dreams still lingering.
“I am a happily married man, and I am not looking for any other arrangement. I would ask that you please do not contact me again.”
I reach for my phone.
The last words of his last message haunt me. It seems impossible that it is “over,” even if our relationship was only ever a virtual one.
“What time is it?” my husband murmurs beside me.
“Early,” I say.
He reaches for my phone.
“I’m in the middle of an email!”
He reaches for me instead.
With a grunt of frustration, I fling his arm off me and get out of bed.
6:14 a.m. I am preparing lunch for my three-year-old daughter – marmalade sandwich, sliced banana – when I hear the soft ping of an incoming email. I pick up my phone. Feel the familiar sting when I see that it’s not from him.
I stand, staring out the kitchen window at the long shadow of the neighboring apartment stretching across the river’s waters. I wonder how I let it get so far. How it became all consuming. I think of the hours spent scrolling through his messages, especially the ones where he said he understood me.
“I get you,” he would say. “We’re on the same page.”
He was a marketing executive for an agency I write copy for, or at least I used to, and our contact, at first, was purely professional. But I quickly became drawn to him – and I thought we shared a connection.
My daughter is standing at the kitchen entrance. Tousled blonde hair, unicorn PJs, her stuffed monkey doll dangling from her hand. Swamped in my thoughts, I hadn’t heard her coming down the hallway.
7:04 a.m. My husband is running late. And he has to drop off our daughter at kindergarten on his way to work. I sit down to try and help put on her sandals.
“I’ll do it!” she says defiantly.
She fumbles with the sandal strap. I reach over and raise the prongless buckle. She realizes I am trying to help and squeals with rage, yanking her sandal off with both hands.
“For God’s sake!” my husband says impatiently. “Why didn’t you just let her do it?”
I flip him the bird behind her back.
7:10 a.m. My daughter’s pouting face is the last thing I see as the lift doors seal.
7:11 a.m. I turn on my laptop. Elsa from “Frozen” is my user icon – something I set up to make my daughter happy. What would it be like to have Elsa’s power? How long would it take before I turned my husband into ice?
I scan The New York Times, The Australian, The Guardian. My pulse begins to slow. I am breathing calmly again.
8:03 a.m. I get in the shower and stand there, feeling the cold needles of water hitting my breasts, causing my nipples to harden. I vaguely consider directing the nozzle between my legs, but the indeterminable time of concentration required, face grimacing, desperately trying to break through the barrier just feels like too much to bear.
8:21 a.m. After I get dressed, I check my emails again. There’s nothing. Apart from two that require follow-up: chasing up photos, editorial change requests.
I’m researching something on my laptop when I get distracted by a piece of clickbait in the right-hand column: “Toxic Liver – 30-second quiz”.
It takes six minutes.
8:53 a.m. I am finally ready to start on my article. As I go to open Word, my cursor hovers over the YouTube icon.
I used to watch the marketing executive on YouTube. The same clip. Over and over again. He was part of a discussion panel on the future of advertising. I’d watch with the volume down, admiring his profile, his jawline, the way he made slightly unshaven seem so neat and tidy.
I would touch the screen and watch the rise and fall of his chest. I would imagine I could feel his heartbeat beneath my fingertips.
I check my emails once more. Feel ground down by his absence.
11:15 a.m. I have a phone interview with a psychiatrist. It’s not the one I used to see. I need quotes for the article I am writing. It’s about how our modern addiction to smartphones and social media can be a social barrier for many.
“There’s no doubt that devices have been a wonderful aid to society,” the psychiatrist says to me. He is a professor. He specializes in obsessive behavior. I love the drift of his voice, the deep thoughtfulness in each pause. “But for some people, they have become an overly important part of their lives.”
Listening to him triggers a need inside me to unburden myself. While he talks, I want to tell him about how my marriage is broken and how numb and disconnected I feel.
“What would you say to someone who can’t get to sleep because they keep compulsively checking their phone?” I ask.
“It’s likely to have a cost in terms of your normal circadian rhythm,” the psychiatrist replies. “And it’s likely to have a cost the next day, because you’re going to be less efficient. When you look at those costs, the benefit of knowing you’ve got a message at eleven o’clock at night doesn’t really look very beneficial, does it?”
2:12 p.m. I finish another page of my first draft. I reward myself by checking the marketing executive’s LinkedIn profile. I pay for a premium membership so he won’t know each time I look at it.
It hasn’t changed from yesterday.
3:42 p.m. “You need glasses.”
I nod. It’s true. But I really came here to take my mind off the marketing executive.
“You can’t focus,” the optometrist says.
He points to a large poster on the wall. It’s a drawing of a detached eyeball, sliced-in-half. “The human lens continues to grow throughout your lifetime,” he says. He traces the eyeball with his finger. “As the lens gets bigger, the ciliary muscle, which wraps itself around the lens, has more difficulty changing the lens’s shape.”
“Is that why I’m finding it hard to read at night?” I say.
“Yes,” he says.
He puts a heavy, black trial lens frame on my face. He pops two lenses in and stands back, looking at me.
“Better?” he says.
4:07 p.m. I take the long way home. I walk past two souvenir shops, a pub, a real estate agent. There’s a tall model in the window of a new high-rise being built. I continue on past the supermarket, the bottle shop, past Condom Kingdom, Cold Rock.
I think about how, even during the strongest grips of my infatuation, I knew, deep down, how stupid I was being. It was like my mind had flipped back to my adolescence, swept up in a high school-like crush, as if the marketing executive was a movie star or rock idol or something.
I feel ashamed now as I remember the way I would pore over his press releases, searching for any secret messages he might have embedded in them for me. How I’d seize on code words like “open communication” and “rapport” as evidence that he was interested.
At the time, I thought he was just being discreet. Which was very gentlemanly of him. He had the interests of the company to think about after all. And I knew he’d need to break it gently to his wife, to let her down easy.
But when he put out a special release for a startup company called Firmest Bond, I knew that he was ready.
I dashed off an email to him. Aware only of my words, my quickened breath, the click of chewed nails on plastic keys. I gushed out my feelings. “I haven’t felt this way toward another human being,” I wrote.
“Ever,” I wrote.
The following morning he broke it off with me.
I hear the squeal and clank of an approaching tram. The low west sun searing brightly off the sloping window. The thick metal fender.
I have a sudden impulse to step out in front of it.
4:43 p.m. I am standing on the balcony, looking at my phone. As a breeze blows in from the river, I check Facebook again, even though I know he’s defriended me.
6:23 p.m. A sludge of mushed peas. A soggy crust, black with Vegemite. Corn kernels floating in the dregs of the milk cup.
I plunge the dishes into the suds. Scrub them vigorously with the blue brush with the flattened white bristles.
As my gloveless hands chaff in the almost scalding water, I glance over the kitchen half-wall at the blue Lawson-style sofa. The back of my husband’s thinning black hair. My daughter’s little blonde pigtails.
Sitting side by side. His arm around her shoulders. Watching “Ben and Holly”.
8:58 p.m. After cleaning up, bathing my daughter, dressing my daughter, and reading her bedtime story after bedtime story until my voice is hoarse and she has fallen asleep, I am feverish with a desperate compulsion to claw back my self-esteem. I am not revolting. There are other men who would have me.
I go into the bedroom.
My husband is lying there in his chequered boxers and faded T-shirt, reading an old copy of The New Yorker.
I slip off my underpants.
“Hey – ”
I start kissing him. Roughly.
I feel him between my legs. I reach down. I arch back.
He lasts 30 seconds.
My hair is dangling into his eyes. I won’t let him get away with it.
I keep going. Furiously.
I’m almost there…almost…no…yes…no…
I imagine the marketing executive beneath me.
I’m there.
Merciful. Sweet. Oblivion.
When my breathing slows, I sense my husband waiting.
I can feel his heartbeat tremor against my breasts.

My Life as A Home Shopping Addict

This is not a tale of the dynamics of addiction. Although there wasn’t a doubt that I was a shopaholic, my story is one of disclosure.

For far too many years, I found myself shopping with QSN*, one of the several popular home shopping TV networks. I didn’t buy the occasional blouse or crock pot, I bought a myriad of items that I absolutely did not need. Sadly, I often bought products that I didn’t even want.

This is not a tale of the dynamics of addiction or a guide to a Twelve Step Program. Although there wasn’t a doubt that I was a shopaholic, my story is one of disclosure, my step one perhaps: “Admitted that I was a shopaholic and that I had lost all control.”

I knew the hosts intimately. Don* was also a farmer when not in front of the camera. Karen* is a size medium and a pet lover. All in all, I could give you background on a dozen hosts, which included those I liked and others that I wouldn’t care to have lunch with.

Speaking of food, us diehard “Q” fans came to know all the cooking wares (only this club of chronic shoppers used the term Q). “Hey Ronda, Today’s Great Value at the Q is a Keurig coffee maker, complete with an assortment of k cups. You can choose from a selection of 11 colors.” I was family, you see, as I consorted with other Q fans.

Kyle, my UPS guy, would deliver up to four packages daily. I delighted in his visits and gleefully opened each box. At my home, Christmas was five days weekly, year round. The act of tearing into said parcels was delightful, however the ultimate thrill came when ordering by phone.

“Good morning, Sarah. This is Kathy. I’d like to purchase item number S7492 in cranberry. Come to think of it, I’ll take another in sunflower yellow.” Now the proud owner of two new sets of dinner dishes, I could have my choice of salad plates from one of the many sets I owned. After all, I reasoned, one tires of the same crockery day after day.

I bought clothes that I rarely wore, electronic devices that I didn’t or couldn’t use, jewelry, shoes, food products, and more. I was in debt up to my eyeballs, but that wasn’t a sound reason to stop. I also spent gobs of money on friends and family. If a Q box was delivered to your door, chances were it was a gift from me.

Regardless of his chronic chastisements, my son owned a scuba diving watch even though he didn’t partake in that activity. My BFF had more winter frocks than she could shake a stick at and my brother was a monument to fashion as he skied.

Indeed, I had a problem, a problem that arose from boredom, loneliness, and a sense of entitlement. Raised in a wealthy geographic environment, I was used to having it all. “It” was horses and cars and renowned, well-off friends. If your father was somebody, then so were you. I was cool, as was fitting to my wonderfulness. That was until I reached the black years of 25 on.

By 48, I was newly divorced and friendless, and my loneliness cut to the core. My son had begun his life, freed from the umbilical cord at last. As well as shopping excessively, I drank too much, smoked too much, and cried too much. A kind therapist guided me as I saw the light and after a three-year stint in therapy, I could say that I was done.

During those three years, I banned myself from this shopping channel and withdrew painfully. Selling my home to pay off my debt, I spent days in bed, paralyzed by the Ghost of Times Past. Could I ever function? Would I learn that I was a valid person in my own right, regardless of being destitute?

Depressed, OCD-ish, anxious, and fearful of life, I was truly one large mess of symptoms. Change was paramount and, on a fall day, I figuratively began putting one foot in front of the other. Literally, I began to take walks and eventually became acquainted with my neighbors. Several friendships formed and life had new meaning. Joining a Twelve Step Program to address my alcoholism, I learned even more.

I learned that I wasn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread. I learned that my symptoms were a way in which my psyche said, “Whoa.” Finally, I learned that I had merit, regardless of my financial status.

I also journaled, a lot. As the author Dorothy Parker stated, “I hate writing, I loved having written.” I leapt from journaler to writer to author in a matter of time. I found my niche.

I have been sober for 19 years and I no longer shop obsessively. More importantly, I became a tolerant and patient person for the most part. I saw the merits in being a giver and I cut down my demanding persona. I would love to feel worthy of love, and I’m working toward that dream.

As I look back, my metamorphosis began with the Q.

Kyle still delivers the occasional package which contain necessary items such as a winter coat. Kyle has said, “You’ve come a long way, Kath. You wouldn’t believe how many people have homes full of these things. I’m proud of you.”

Now, as I conclude my confession, I will add, “Kathy, you are okay.”

[*The names are fictional so that I won’t get sued.]

Helping Your Empath Make Their Way in the World Without Putting Them In a Bubble

We don’t want to teach kids to be unempathetic, but how do we equip empaths to live in an imperfect world without staying exhausted, stressed, and sad?

My son seeks me out a few days after we’ve returned home from visiting his great-grandmother. She is in good health, but six-year-old Sam knows she is getting older and sees more doctors than she used to. He’s aware of the concept of death, and he is slightly fixated on it.
“I’ve decided that when Nanny dies, I don’t want to know,” he says. “I can believe she is always alive and that I just don’t see her because we don’t live in the same town. I won’t be okay if I know she’s gone for real.” His words come out determined, like he has put thought into this decision.
“Sam, we have to learn how to get through things like that, even when they are hard,” I say. “We can’t put our heads in the sand. I couldn’t lie to you anyway because I will be way too devastated to pretend nothing is wrong when we do lose Nanny.”
He puts his face in his hands and speaks in a muffled tone.
“You’re right. This was a bad plan. You will be hurting, and I will feel it just being near you even if you lie. It’s going to hurt so much.”
“It always hurts to lose someone.”
“Yes, that, but also feeling you lose her. Mom, it’s just going to be so bad. You love her so much.” He is suddenly consumed, not by his future grief but by mine.
I don’t have any reassuring words as I simply hold my son and reflect on the challenges and gifts that come with raising an empath.

Empaths defined

In her book, “Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World,” psychologist Dr. Michele Borba writes that we need our kids to be more empathetic. She points to research that says teenagers are almost 50 percent less empathetic than they were decades ago, and that’s a problem.
Being empathetic makes it easier for us to engage in relationships and allows us to feel connected to others. For most people, empathy is a gateway to a better life with improved communication. However, being an empath is on a bit of a different level than just knowing how to empathize. The road for empaths is more complicated.
Empaths are defined as people who take on the feelings of others – literally feeling their pain or emotions. Imagine Professor X from the X-Men comics. He’s a mutant with the super power of telepathy, but it could be argued that he is also an empath.
His ability to read other people’s minds and experience their emotions drives his character in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” to use drugs to dull the anxiety and depression that come along with all of the feelings he absorbs.
He starts the drugs for other reasons but stays on them to dull pain. This makes sense. Kids who are empaths – also known as orchid children or highly sensitive kids – are more likely to suffer from substance abuse issues and depression, possibly because they absorb the good and the bad from others and have problems coping and so reach for other methods to tune out.
To truly empathize, a person has to truly feel, and Sam can get high on the giddiness of a friend or end up in tears when someone he loves is in any form of discomfort. The problem is he doesn’t have an off switch and can end up a ball of anxiety simply because he feels too much.

Wired that way

It’s been known for some time that psychopaths don’t experience empathy. Studies of inmates who exhibited signs of psychopathic behavior revealed a disconnect when it came to feeling other people’s emotions. Those who were highly psychopathic felt no pain when imagining bad things happening to others, proven by the fact that the parts of their brains wired for empathy did not light up.
Obviously, being capable of empathy is good, but empaths are on the other end of this spectrum. They feel the pain of others, and they absorb emotions like a sponge. It’s exhausting, though it does make them good listeners and nurturers.

How do we introduce empaths to the world?

When bad things happen in the world, my husband and I hesitate to share details with Sam. We want to teach him that he can feel, help others, and still survive, but we fear him falling apart because of how hard it is for him to disconnect from someone else’s pain.
We don’t want to teach kids to be unempathetic, but how do we equip empaths to live in an imperfect environment without staying exhausted, stressed, and overwhelmingly sad? Empath and MD Judith Orloff has some tips:

1 | Teach kids meditation

Teaching empaths to meditate helps them slow down, become aware of their emotions, and work to regulate their behavior. Empaths should have meditation or stillness breaks sprinkled throughout their days. It may help them hit the reset button before they are too overwhelmed.

2 | Explain the power of no

It’s necessary for empaths to protect their down time and know their limits. They shouldn’t sign up to be in a large group of people for an entire day if they know the stress from feeling too much from others will drain them. Help empaths draw lines and shield themselves from too much stimulation when necessary.

3 | Teach them to choose friends wisely

Good and bad feelings are contagious for empaths, so that optimistic friend who builds others up and handles challenges constructively will be helpful for an empath.
Orloff warns that the opposite is true if an empath is around “emotional vampires.” Being surrounded by companions full of fear, anger, or other negative feelings on a regular basis is damaging for empaths. They absorb the strong emotions, and they can actually feel harmed by them.
Teach kids to choose their closest companions wisely, and make sure they don’t live in a house where unchecked anger is the norm.

Guide your empath

The world is one of beauty, but it is also full of evil and pain. It always will be, and empaths have to exist in this world without feeling the pressure Professor X did. We don’t want to change empaths or teach them to be hard. They aren’t weak, and their abilities allow them to feel beauty and appreciate goodness in a way that most of us can’t. With a steady hand we can guide them to use their empath powers and take care of themselves at the same time.
Author Donna Lynn Hope asks the very relevant question, “The empath helps others by absorbing some of their pain, but who helps the empath?”
Those who love them do, by teaching them to embrace the superheroes they are.