News & Stories

Halting a Crisis: A Family-Comes-First Approach

This article is the 15th in a series about the epidemic of opioid addiction and how NEOMED is training future physicians and pharmacists to help. Renee Brumbaugh, a third-year student in the Rural Pathway in the College of Medicine, contributed this article.

Does anyone really understand the meaning of addiction? As a future doctor, I can only hope that all health care providers have at least some glimpse of the suffering that coexists with the disease. From my experiences so far, some doctors have already lost — or possibly have never found — any empathy for the addicted.

We may have a book definition for addiction, but the true definition includes emotions, reactions, losses of function, family dysfunction, and other life-altering changes that are interpreted uniquely by each patient. Unless you have walked that ragged path, chances are that you are only imagining that you get it. What I’m trying to say is that, as outsiders to this disease, we must strive to understand it holistically and empathetically from each patient’s perspective.

NEOMED has worked diligently to teach students about the biopsychosocial model of health care, and if any disease requires this model for recovery, it is addiction. Over the past two years, I have had the honor of working with Pedro Ballester, M.D., a family doctor in Warren, Ohio, through the Ohio Academy of Family Physician’s Leroy Rodgers family medicine preceptorship, as well as being chosen for the Hazelden-Betty Ford Summer Institute for Medical Students program. Through these encounters, I’ve gotten to learn from the patients (who were actively suffering from addiction) as well as from their families, who suffered in less obvious ways.

Something important I picked up along the way is that the disease not only affects the individual, it breaks the family sometimes just as much. I’ll never forget the discussion I had with a mother of an addict. I simply said, “I know you are worried about your daughter, but how has that worry been affecting your life?” She looked me in disbelief and told me nobody had ever asked her that. By the expressions on her face, I knew she really had to think to put the information together in her head. Our discussion ended in tears, but she thanked me sincerely and said that I helped her understand things in a new way. The funny thing is, all I did was listen to her make sense of her own situation.

Having a strong family for support may be even more important than medical intervention for addiction, but those family members need support themselves. Too often they  stick with the family comes first motto, forgetting about their own health and happiness. I hadn’t put much thought into this until I learned about Hazelden’s family program. It is important for family members to recognize when they are giving too much of themselves and becoming burned out — or maybe even enabling their loved ones.

The family may act out against their addicted loved one when their injured relationship guides their thoughts and actions. It all comes down to caring for yourself. In fact, according to the residents I spoke with at Hazelden, rehabilitation never meant anything to them until they began caring for themselves enough to seek treatment and engage in it. Many of them had been in recovery before, but not by choice. Whatever their reasons may have been for coming to Hazelden, this time they – not someone else – had decided to commit to recovery. Even with the love and support from family, their recovery felt more successful because the decision was theirs.

The key point is that addiction is a biopsychosocial disease and needs to be treated as such. Health care providers may understand the biochemistry behind addiction, but remembering to address the mental, spiritual and social needs of each individual patient is critical to recovery.

Wellness on the part of caring family members goes a long way – and remembering to take care of yourself is always better than trying to help loved ones who aren’t ready to be healed. This is something at which health care providers should become experts throughout their careers. I helped someone strive for self-wellness simply by listening, imagine what that could do for a person on the cusp of seeking treatment. Once people realize they are worth it, no one can stop them.