D’Anne Burwell was living an idyllic Los Altos life.
Her husband’s successful career enabled her to leave teaching to become a stay-at-home mom. Her son and daughter took high school AP classes, played sports and were accepted into good colleges.
Then disaster struck
“I am the mother of a drug addict,” said Burwell in a March 2 talk before members of the Rotary Club of Los Altos.
Burwell’s book “Saving Jake” (FocusUp Books, 2015) chronicles her son’s downward spiral and recovery, along with the struggles and hard lessons her family learned through the years-long ordeal.
“When people hear the words ‘drug abuse’ and ‘addiction,’ fear, denial and silence can take over,” Burwell said.
Subtitling her book, “When Addiction Hits Home,” Burwell acknowledged that she had assumed drug addiction was “someone else’s problem.”
It took her son’s opioid addiction, revealed after his first year in college, to teach her that such addictions had become a “full-blown epidemic” across the nation. Burwell discussed how opioids, regularly prescribed painkillers in the form of codeine, Vicodin and OxyContin, are gateway drugs to heroin. Jake, who became addicted to OxyContin, ended up on heroin – a notoriously deadly drug readily available and cheaper than the prescription opioids.
Quoting from data she researched, Burwell said 144 Americans die every day from an overdose.
A lonely battle
Burwell described the personal horror she experienced seven years ago when she realized that her son was in the throes of his addiction.
“I stood gripping my kitchen countertop, taking short panting breaths, feeling as if I had been squeezed inside the darkest tunnel,” she said. “My 19-year-old son Jake had become so thin I wanted to cry. His skin so pale, it seemed translucent. His cough would raise the hair on any mother’s head.”
The obstacles to recovery are many, Burwell noted. Rehabilitation programs are too short and too costly, she said, while health insurance doesn’t cover enough, if any, of the expense. Doctors are not well prepared to properly treat addicts, she added. Burwell said the addicts themselves are resistant to treatment and become master manipulators to keep feeding their addictions.
Through it all, family members feel unable to talk with others in the face of “shame and stigma,” she said.
Burwell herself heard the judgmental remarks: “Addicts use because they want to. Why don’t they just quit? Addicts get what they deserve.”
“Families fight this disease all alone,” she said. “Nobody brings a casserole to your door when addiction hits home.”
Despite it all, Jake emerged from a long recovery period to overcome his addiction. He graduated from college in December with a 4.0 GPA and has since landed a new job in San Francisco.
No easy fix
According to Burwell, treatment works.
“There is hope, and there’s plenty more work for all of us to do,” she said, calling on society to do its part. “An addict can’t navigate the health system because decision-making is severely affected. Society needs to find a way to offer low-cost, long-term sustained treatment if we are going to make progress in saving lives. (The addict) needs to walk in and be plugged in to this type of treatment.”
There is no quick or easy fix for drug addiction, Burwell emphasized. She immersed herself in research, reading all she could and talking to every treatment counselor she could get her hands on.
A lifelong disease
As a mother, Burwell was consumed by guilt, asking herself where she went wrong.
“When we sent Jake to his first rehab, I remember thinking, ‘Great, he’ll be fixed in 30 days and we can get back to our nice lives,’” she said. “(But) addiction is a lifelong disease. We learned it would take a long time for recovery.”
In Jake’s case, it took five tries at rehab before he found his sober bearings.
In the end, it was her son – facing therapy or homelessness – who chose to stick with his fifth and final rehab attempt. He spent 10 months in a treatment facility, followed by another year in a sober house outpatient program. He learned to become responsible and independent, getting a job and paying bills.
Burwell and her family educated themselves on the science of the brain. It helped in their interactions with Jake.
“It does no good to get angry at someone who is sick,” she said.
It also does no good to rescue an addict, Burwell said, instead of allowing natural consequences to occur. She recalled the time her son was kicked out of a program in Colorado in the dead of winter after he broke the rules. He called home to ask for money for three nights’ stay at a motel.
“It broke my heart to say no,” Burwell said. “How would my son learn how to stay alive if I rescued him? … This is the crux of the struggle for us families. We want to save them from harm – but if we do things for them, we’re robbing them of the chance to learn for themselves.”
With “Saving Jake,” Burwell said she wants to raise awareness so that everyone will “gain compassion for the challenge – and empathy for families having to deal with the shame.”
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