Addiction doesn’t just ruin the addict’s life

Despite what the textbooks say or how much research is devoted to substance use disorder, I still meet people who feel that addiction is a “choice,” and that these patients don’t need “treatment” (you made your bed, and now you can just lay in it).

To a certain degree, this is true. Like Little Debbie cakes and type 2 diabetes, cigarettes and lung cancer, lack of exercise and essential hypertension, addiction does start with a choice.

And instead of arguing about how this turns into a disease or trying to convince you to have a bit of compassion, I only wish to show others that: Addiction does not happen in a bubble!

To start, I could use numbers to assure you that treating the disease would be far less pricey than paying for the resulting health care and law enforcement costs. We could also talk about the crime addiction brings to communities. There are many relatively clear-cut ways that addiction affects society at large. However, the reason nearest to my heart for treating substance use disorder is the effect this terrible disease has on those directly left to deal with the aftermath. If you cannot get behind treating substance use disorders for the sake of the addict: do it for me. Literally. Much like others around you, I know all too well what it is to be in an addict’s bubble.

From drinking A1 steak sauce for dinner because no one was around to cook or shop, begging daddy not to drag your mom out of the house by her hair again, hiding in the attic because the dealer threatened to use your life as payment should your parents not come up with their money, to begging mommy to wake up before she wrecks the car into an oncoming truck again — being a child of an addicted parent (or parents, more than one, or even more than two), is hard. There is no sugar coating it.

Support addiction treatment for the sake of babies left to withdraw. Support it for these older kids who deserve to see the world for what it should be at that age: pure magic and not total chaos.

Yes, in a perfect world, we’d find a sweet adopted family for each and every one of these little ones. But this isn’t a perfect world; there aren’t enough sweet families. Treat the mom. Even if for whatever reason you don’t think she deserves it, I promise her babies do.

Being not only a child but also the oldest child of parents with substance use disorders is not a walk in the park either. You see, when your momma is gone, and there is another little girl in the house, you have to protect her. You learn to babysit. You learn to make “pizza sandwiches” for dinner. You don’t spend your time playing hide-and-seek with the neighbor kids. You worry about when the adults might come back if they’ll even make it back. And you convince the other, slightly tinier, human that: everything will be OK, even when you don’t believe that much yourself. You make up alternative stories to avoid telling them a mean man beat your puppy to death. You have to teach them to drive once you figure it out, how to do math problems, and even how to cook an egg. You have to help them graduate one way or another.

Support addiction treatment for the sake of the oldest child, so that maybe one day, her parents might take back the burden of raising their own families. Support addiction treatment because no child should have to raise another child.

It doesn’t end there. If your addicted parent is an only child, as a very young adult, you have to make sure the older generation of humans survives. I don’t know the entire ins-and-outs of how my grandparents were affected by the addiction when I was a child — I know my grandma had to help pay for my school clothes. And I know she was also the only source of a good meal quite often.

However, I am very familiar with what happened when my grandma died during my undergraduate schooling. I was left with the burden of helping manage her estate, her final medical bills, and now her husband, my grandpa, whose medical conditions prevent him from caring for himself. He needs me — to help him get care and to protect him from the theft, fraud, and medication abuse that come along with being the parent of an addicted child. Because no matter how old I am, I’m still the child of addicted parents.

And so the cycle continues for me, and everyone like me, until we as a society choose to intervene and fight back. Support treatment because grandparents should get to spoil grandkids, not help raise them. Support addiction treatment because elderly parents of addicts need their children as they age. Support addiction treatment because no twenty something grandchild should be left to care for elderly grandparents before even finishing college. If there aren’t enough families to adopt the children, rest assured, there certainly aren’t families to adopt these elderly parents of addicts. That argument doesn’t work here.

I want nothing more than for there to be easy access to addiction treatment for all who are willing to participate — not just for the sake of the user, but also for the sake of those in their bubble. I hope you can understand why.

Leah Stalnaker is a medical student.

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