The Virtue Center

Shown is The Virtue Center, 215 W. Linn St.

As a kid, most drug and alcohol education came from a one-week unit in my health class each year.

While well-intentioned, it wasn’t enough for me to understand addiction within my own family. Knowing millions of kids are growing up like I did, here are the messages I wish I’d heard:

1. It’s not a moral issue

Growing up, the only time I saw portrayals of addicts was as criminals on the news, or in tabloids at the grocery store publicly shaming celebrities following overdoses, arrests and rehab stints.

As an adult, we understand that those with the brain disease of addiction aren’t bad people, but no one was telling me that as a kid. What I heard is, “Your loved one is a bad person because they use/drink. If you reach out for help, no one will take compassion on you or them. Protect them by staying silent”.

2. Your pain is real, even if it ‘could be worse’

It is hard for a child to tell whether their loved one has the disease of addiction when their only examples are the criminals or daily users.

My loved one didn’t drink at all most of the time and was highly functional, so I didn’t feel like we “counted” as an addicted family. Sometimes I felt like I was crazy for thinking there was a problem.

My sister and I weren’t being abused or living in poverty, and most of the time, everything with my family was really great. I didn’t feel like I’d suffered enough to blow the whistle.

3. You’re not alone

I watched a family sitcom as a kid that tackled a lot of hard issues like eating disorders, child abuse and even a teen drinking episode. But addiction was never portrayed, even though 1 in 4 families struggle with it.

Sitting in class worrying about home, I was just certain that I was the only one in the whole school who felt the way I did. Maybe seeing just one family like mine represented anywhere would have helped.

4. It’s not your job

I didn’t know treatment existed until I was in my late teens, so when it came to trying to help my loved one, I was guessing at what would help.

But I didn’t really know what I was doing, and feared making it worse. I was 12. It wasn’t my job to know what to do. But I didn’t realize anyone knew how to help. I didn’t realize there was help available.

5. Recovery can happen and should be celebrated

My dad has been sober now for 28 years. He went to at least two meetings a week throughout my entire childhood, but I didn’t know exactly what they were until I became a teenager.

My dad is very proud of his recovery, but I imagine he just didn’t want to embarrass us by making a big deal out of it.

There are millions of people in active recovery in the country who have saved their own lives, and they shouldn’t be invisible.

Knowing these five things could have dramatically and positively changed the way I felt about myself and my family growing up.

Breaking the silence and providing accurate information about the disease of addiction is a way to smash the stigma.

When this happens, more people and their families will find the help they need.

Sarah West is a therapist at The Virtue Center, a United Way of Norman Partner agency that's funded in part by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services. Its mission is to be a place of help and hope for people facing addiction and mental health challenges. For more information, contact 405-321-0022 or visit thevirtuecenter.org.

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