I recently attended the 21st annual Conversation on Chilliwack’s Children, held at City Life Church on April 4th. This year’s theme was Every Door is the Right Door, born out of last year’s event, which created awareness that navigating and accessing community resources and services can be difficult and intimidating.
One of the keynote presenters was Mae Burrows, president of From Grief to Action: when addiction hits home, a non-profit society in Vancouver that provides resources, support, and respect to friends and families affected by drug use. From Grief to Action was established in the early 1990s as a support group by a group of bewildered Kerrisdale parents who realized they each had children who were addicted to heroin. It began with the sole purpose of keeping people alive long enough to outlive their drug addiction, and has grown into an organization with national recognition devoted to building greater public awareness and empathy about drug addiction and concurrent disorders.
Mae’s speech was entitled Families searching for a door: what helped, what hindered, and when she first heard the Every door is the right door theme for the event, she said she exclaimed, ‘Door? There’s a door? Seriously?’ She went on to state that the group is very much aligned with the principles of every door is right door, as their goal is to break down silos and not let people with lesser illnesses fall through the cracks because you can’t only provide services to those who are really declining.
She believes the key issues in the fight against addictions are as follows:
• We must start seeing addictions as a health issue, not a moral or criminal justice issue
• Undiagnosed mental health issues must be addressed before people start coping in unhealthy ways
• Addictions are unfortunately a user-pay system, especially for employed people who must pay to go to rehab
• Addictions must be brought into the health care system.
As she spoke, Mae kept returning to the same sentiment: families need help too, not just the addicts. There should be no stigma: addictions should be talked about like any other chronic illness, as those families are trying their best, too. When outlining what helps families, she had several words of wisdom: establish boundaries, get your own counselling, practice detached empathy and compassion, self-care is a necessity, take stock of how far down the rabbit hole you are, be able to recognize what’s not normal, support groups are normalizing, take what you need and leave the rest when it comes to advice, educate yourself especially about drugs, symptoms, mental health issues and treatment options, become an advocate for your loved one, and remember them as who they were.
However, Mae also had much to say about what hinders families and their loved ones in accessing help: privacy clauses excluding parents and secrecy of agencies; having to be clean before receiving mental health services; don’t treat all families the same, as some want to be, need to be, and should be involved; no matter how helpful professionals think they are, families are usually the ones there at the end of the day keeping addicts alive; don’t just include families but actually treat families because they are the clients, too, and they also need to be able to access services.
As Mae shared her closing thoughts, her sentiments echoed what I have said many times in therapy: self-care can save you; you don’t always have to do something, sometimes just being still is something; and remember the four Cs: you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, you can’t cure it, but you can care about yourself and them.
Eryn Wicker (M.A., RCC) is a mental health clinician with the Child and Youth Mental Health team with the Ministry of Children and family Development in Chilliwack, BC.