Latter-day Saints are known for clean living. We proudly declare that we don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or even use coffee or tea. The Word of Wisdom has become a defining characteristic of modern Mormonism.
But as careful as we are with what we ingest, we could use some care in how we use the word “addiction” for things that are generally harmless. Enjoying a cold Diet Coke or liking chocolate enthusiastically isn’t going to cost you your life or your family.
But prescription painkiller abuse might.
Two years ago, my former husband, a Latter-day Saint like me, died from abuse of prescription opiates. He was 49 years old. At the time of his death, our children were 13, 11 and 9. He was taken from us in the early waves of the opiate epidemic that has now become a tsunami in America.
David had everything to live for. He had a beautiful home, a loving wife, and three beautiful children who adored him. He had a good job, and had rapidly advanced in his company. I spent more than three years, and eight relapses, trying to love and pray him sober. He had a supportive ward, a connected family who did everything humanly possible, and a network of people pulling for him. If it was only that easy…
You can do everything in your power to help—you can show up, you can have them placed in in-treatment, out-treatment, or court-ordered treatment. You can have their civil rights temporarily suspended and have them committed against their will to a hospital. You can wipe their shivering brow in the bathtub as they withdraw yet again. You can threaten and cajole and plead and sob and break your heart open a hundred different ways.
But you can’t love an addict sober.
I wish there was a guaranteed plan, a recipe to follow to ensure a different outcome than mine. But the truth is, no matter how strong your love, no matter how much you might fast and pray, no matter how much is gathered for an in behalf of the temple prayer roll, sometimes the opiates win. Claiming that any formula or response can save an opiate addict is a recipe for heartbreak.
There are theories about why one person is more susceptible to opiate dependence and addiction than another, but the medical research is clear: It’s not about righteousness, will power, faithfulness, or “just quitting.” Opiates change the brain. They quite literally physically alter the minds of those who use them.
In the past, opiate addiction was viewed as the realm of needle-using junkies, and it was easy to draw a line around “them” and “everyone else” (especially “us”). That’s not the case anymore. Much of the tidal wave of addiction we see now starts with prescription painkillers—things you may have in your own medicine cabinet. People who would never consider using illicit drugs find taking a pill from a comforting and familiar pharmacy both benign and surprisingly easy.
It’s anything but.
That’s how it started with my husband He hurt his back, and he took prescription hydrocodone, a very common painkiller. It’s also an opiate. For us that was the beginning of the end. For whatever reason, his brain was vulnerable. The pills that nauseated me made him euphoric; the chemical changes in his brain began and they didn’t end until they cost him his life.
What can we do in the face of such devastation and uncertainty?
• First and foremost, follow your doctor’s advice in using prescription painkillers.
• Know your family history. I will never allow my children to take a narcotic. With their genetics, it’s too deadly a game of roulette.
• Give love. There is a lot of shame coupled with addiction, and withholding love or trying “tough love” won’t help the spouse or children who are struggling. If you err, err on the side of loving too much.
• Listen. Listen to the people affected, and validate their experiences if you can. Try not to offer platitudes, and make sure you don’t imply fault or failing of the family for the addiction. Being married to an addict is laden with fear and guilt and sorrow. Unfeigned love and support are a life raft.
• Do your best to draw healthy boundaries and take care of yourself. If you love an addict, it’s very easy to get swept away in the near-constant battle. Take time to care for yourself, and make space to feel your feelings—regardless of what those feelings are.
• Get help for yourself and for your children, if applicable. Seek out 12-step meetings for families, or find a therapist or counselor who specializes in addiction recovery. You may not be the addict, but you may also need help and support to make it through.
• Let your bishop and stake president know what you are experiencing, but understand that they may not have professional experience in dealing with the enormity of opiate addiction. A well-intentioned bishop recommended I pray harder, and that only increased my sense of isolation and terror. My knees were worn out. You cannot pray an addict sober.
• The Church’s Addiction Recovery Program is one resource for family support, and that’s where they function best—as supplementary support. However, they are not equipped to help an addict in the throes of active use. They can, however, help direct you toward professional resources.
• If you feel you are in danger, get out. It’s a terrible crossroads, particularly if you are trying to save your sealed family. But the truth is, you cannot often control what is happening. There may come a point where you must choose your own safety or that of your children over the addict, no matter how much you love them.
The chances are that you know someone whose life has been affected by this epidemic. I wish I could tell you everything will work out; I can’t. What I can tell you is that platitudes and simple answers are not helpful. Looking for somewhere to place blame is entirely human, but is also a false comfort and will only increase the divide between those who feel solidly “us” and those of us who already know we are all “them.”
Tracy McKay is a writer and blogger based in Northern Virginia. Her book, The Burning Point, which narrates her family's decade-long struggle with her husband's opiate addiction was published last month by By Common Consent Press.