Q&A: Learning from addicts, and helping families

Lori Erion, founder and executive director of Families of Addicts, a grassroots advocacy and support group that works closely with families dealing with addiction issues in five Ohio counties. This news organization sat down with Erion to ask her about Families of Addicts.

Describe your organization.

Lori Erion: Families of Addicts is a support and advocacy group for anyone touched by addiction. We have weekly support meetings in five counties, with guest speakers and a lot of information and interaction. We help people deal with the rollercoaster of addiction – make it shorter and smoother for you by having your peers share their experiences and offer guidance. And the cool thing is that we have people in recovery there and people who want to be in recovery – they're our heroes, because they teach us about how best to support them.

How well does that work?

Erion: Well, when you take a circle of families and friends and a circle of people in recovery and people who want to be in recovery and get them together, the intersection of that is respect. It's a miracle to see families learn to respect the illness of addiction for what it is, and the people behind it. What comes out of that respect is a lot of compassion and understanding and education and friendships.

What’s a typical FOA meeting like?

Erion: It feels good. Loving, embracing, lots of education and sharing from people who've been there and done it, people in recovery talking about it. Some in recovery who don't have family members can get a kind of surrogate family – they come in, they get hugged, "How you doing?" They are respected. People in recovery have experiences they've gone through, and FOA is the place where their education matters – they feel valued. And feeling valued early on in the recovery process is a huge motivator to keep going.

Because by the time they enter recovery, they’ve probably burned up a lot of respect and trust from the people around them.

Erion: Sure – nobody believes a word they say and are wary around them. But the more they get to do service-oriented work with our families, they find they matter and can contribute.

So, your model is a bit unusual the way it mixes addicts and non-addicts, right? How did you come up with it?

Erion: I came up with it when my daughter was in active addiction. We spent a lot of time talking about her addiction and recovery. She was the one who told me — when she cut the lock off her brother's door to get at his games for the third time — that when she did that, she was in fight-or-flight mode. It's not about hurting anyone, they're not thinking anything like that. She said, "It's like the air we breathe – we feel like we need opiates just to survive." She helped me understand what she was going through, and for me it was really interesting to find out what their lives are like — what they are thinking, and what they are doing, and why they do what they do. Some families are dealing with this for the first time and have no idea about any of this – why addicts are using, why they behave the way they do, any of it.

What do people usually come to find out?

Erion: Our niche is families who never saw it coming. They have run out of options; we are a last resort. They're trying to find some peace, some answers. "Educate, empower, embrace" is what our mission statement says, and I think that's what we deliver. My phone rings a lot.

Talk about stigma and how that has changed.

Erion: We want to eliminate the shame and the guilt. A lot of people think, "I did all the 'right' parent things and we were a model family – so how did we wind up with a child addicted? Or married to someone addicted?" People who never saw it coming are shocked and very stigmatized. But through conversation and talking about the problem, all those things help eliminate that stigma. It's important for people to realize that two-thirds of American families are touched by addiction in one way or another.

What can people do to help friends or loved ones with addiction?

Erion: One thing is education; we may think we're helping, but sometimes when we aren't educated we really aren't. But mostly, I would say try to understand, try to keep a connection with your loved one. And that doesn't mean give them money, or all the enabling stuff …

Which is hard not to do …

Erion: It's very hard. Depending on where you are with things, it's very very hard. But keep a connection so that when they feel they are ready to access recovery, they can come to you and say they want help. Tell them you love them. Let them know you love them, regardless. If, say, my daughter had leukemia and it cost X amount for her treatment, I wouldn't debate with myself whether to pay it. It's the same thing with addiction.

It’s easy to recall the time when addiction was thought of not as a disease, but as a bad choice. When and how do you think that changed?

Erion: First, I like to call it an illness. The "Anonymous People" movie, a documentary about recovery, says addiction is an illness that has no cure, but it has a solution. And I love that. I say that a lot. But there are a lot of diseases or illnesses people bring on themselves, by smoking or overeating or whatever, and to me we can compare those to addiction. I think the change came about when we learned that pain medication was very addictive and it was being overprescribed, and a lot of people became addicted without meaning to or doing anything morally wrong. At FOA, we don't just offer support – we are also huge on speaking out and letting people know we are here, letting families and people in recovery know they are not alone. So many families think they are the only ones going through this, and they're not. Just being with people going through the same thing can give you peace. So movements like ours, and these other organizations – people all talking about it has helped make the change.

But it’s a fine line sometimes — you have a choice whether or not you are going to use illicit drugs, whether you as a teen, say, are going to get into your grandma’s medicine cabinet and take that Vicodin that first time. But once you become physically and mentally dependent, you lose that choice. People in recovery are on a path, and it’s a hard one with hard work to be done. And it becomes a choice they make to want to live a better life. Anyone who thinks recovery is easy, it’s not. There is no magic shot, pill, strip, class or whatever to take your addiction magically away and make you feel better. That’s what makes it so hard to stay on track.

So, you’ve spent five years working with FOA. How have you seen the community and this crisis change over that time?

Erion: Things have changed. Compared to five years ago, things are way opened up. I feel like FOA is the pioneers in this. Now we have great groups like Dayton Recovers, and Recovery Café Dayton and RAMCO, the initiative of the Montgomery County ADAMHS board. And I'm happy that the media are now focusing on the hope piece, rather than all the drama.

The counties have really stepped up. For instance, Montgomery County has the Front Door program, where officers help people get help, they’ve got the GROW program where teams will check in to follow up with people who’ve been known to OD, to see how they’re doing. There’s all the Narcan, and that saves lives. There’s the needle exchange programs – there are a lot of initiatives put in place from a harm-reduction standpoint, a saving-lives standpoint, and a lot of effort at getting people into treatment. All of that’s really helping things get better. Overdoses were terrifyingly high at one point, and the numbers are going down.

What’s next?

Erion: I'm worried about the increased use of meth. It makes people crazy — they don't eat, they don't sleep, they see things, have general paranoia, really erratic behavior, really scary stuff. Meth is more difficult to OD on, but I wonder if they'll put fentanyl in it. Who knows what the next usage trend will be, but meth will create some problems.

So are we more ready to handle whatever it is, as a community, because of the infrastructure we’ve put in place to handle the current crisis?

Erion: We are more ready, definitely. We have a lot more personnel on it, and we have the right mindsets in place from hospitals, all the way down, to deal with addiction in a compassionate way as an illness. We're way better equipped to deal with anything that comes our way.

Talk about your big upcoming rally.

Erion: I can't believe this is our fifth annual Rally for Recovery. It's Sunday, Aug. 26, from 3-6 p.m. at Courthouse Square downtown. It's for anyone touched by addiction. Highlights are our big balloon launch, with eco-friendly balloons, the Big Picture, where we take an overhead shot of the whole crowd – it's a visual symbol of all of us who are the faces and voices for those who can't be. We'll have music, food trucks, info booths – we'll have 50 resources on the square. We'll have Ryan Hampton, a national speaker for recovery and policy change.

How many attend?

Erion: I'm expecting we could easily get 3,000. We started out with 500, five years ago. It's three hours of pure hope, it's positive — showing that people can do recovery and families can, too.

Dayton has gotten a national image as an opioid ground zero in the national media. How do you think the community can change that image?

Erion: It's not just national coverage, it happened globally. We've had reporters from Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden. I think we're already shaking the image. One thing I did was to start vetting the reporters; I'd say, "You know, if all you're going to do is simply portray us as all being zombies, and not portray anything positive, then I'm not going to talk to you." If there isn't a hopeful twist to your story, I have nothing to offer. If you're not going to provide any solutions, if that's not part of your story, I'm not interested. I've been pretty forceful about that.

Some reporters might not take that too well.

Erion: Well, if the message isn't the right message, I'll push back and get quite mean about it. My message, my mission are really important to me – and providing hope to the community is at the top of it. This epidemic has brought horrible amounts of tragedy, and I don't want to minimize that in any way. But what we are doing at FOA is providing the hope piece, and helping families who are dealing with that tragedy keep alive the hope that they can make it throught this, and that our families will be OK. On the flipside, there are organizations that have memorials and vigils for those who have been lost, and it's good to have those, too – but the area we play in is that recovery happens, and it can happen to you. Our T-shirts, which I designed, say it best – they don't say "addicts" or "addiction" anywhere, because I wanted our families to want to wear them. They say: "FOA: A Path to Peacefulness." Our FOA members are happy to share who we are and what we've done for them – they're a little army of advocates who say, "We can beat this, we can get better, I'm one of you and we're OK."

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