A safe, secret place to talk, to cry
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A safe, secret place to talk, to cry

JCC offers parents of drug-addicted children anonymity, help

For more than two years, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly has kept a secret.

It has offered a program that helps parents find other people like them, parents who share the pain, the stigma, and the enveloping darkness they have experienced. Other parents who understand them.

These parents need the safety of anonymity.

They are the parents of drug addicts.

Some of them have been able to rebuild their families. Some are not out of the woods yet. Some perhaps never will be. But in that group they might find familiar faces, and surely they do find community.

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Dr. Jeffrey Berman, a psychiatrist, leads Strength to Strength. jccotp

The group, called Strength to Strength, meets for an hour and a half every other week. It began in January 2012. Then, it was small; now, as many as 30 parents of young adult children join to talk, vent, break down, be validated, learn, and face difficult options. No JCC membership is necessary to join this group. All you need is an addicted child.

These parents share a truth that has become an unexpected and unwelcome part of their lives. Family life was supposed to be about a nice house, a healthy bank account, a great marriage, and having the smartest, cutest, most overachieving children in the neighborhood. It was supposed to be about applications to prestigious universities and postgraduate overseas experiences.

For these parents, all that went bad.

While their proud friends were talking about a son going to medical school, a daughter studying law, these parents have to figure out how to put the best face on their children’s situations. They could say they were exploring alternative education – in other words, they were in rehab. Or they could say their children were taking a year off to find themselves – again, rehab.

At rehabilitation clinics in the west and south, or so they hope, their children would learn how to stay clean, weaned away from the prescription drugs they had taken from their parents’ medicine cabinets. Mom and Dad would learn words like “pharming,” which is the act of ingesting an assortment of opiate pills, anti-anxiety meds, and even prescriptions for symptoms of ADD and ADHD. They’d learn that heroin isn’t something to be found only in the inner city. Heroin follows money, and so it makes its way to wealthy suburbs. The smoke from crystal meth and crack cocaine pipes has found its way into our neighborhoods, our schools, and even our homes.

Parents learn that affluent Tenafly has a reputation as a great place to pharm.

You probably didn’t know that.

In fact, until this week, with the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, very few people who were not directly affected by this scourge knew about it. Now, although we still do not grasp the scope of the problem, the fact that it exists, and that it looms large, is hard to miss.

Certainly the people who meet at the JCC know about it now.

Jeffrey A. Berman, MD., MS, FASAM, facilitates and teaches the group. Dr. Berman, who lives in Paramus, is a psychiatrist, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, and the executive director of the Discovery Institute for Addictive Disorders in Marlboro. For decades he has specialized in fighting drug addictions; for more than two years he has helped every person in this JCC program bench-press the weight of their feelings of failure, hopelessness, and helplessness by building up the sinews of the strength they’ll need to cope.

He’ll tell you that for each person in Strength to Strength there are at least 10 Bergen County residents who should be there, who desperately need what the group offers but have no idea that it exists.

In fact, the problem is huge. Across the country, across all demographics, estimates show that about 12 to 13 percent of people, from teenagers on up, have problems with alcohol or other substances, Dr. Berman said. And the incidence of other mental disorders is significant as well; estimates show that approximately 4 to 8 percent of Americans suffer from depression.

Strength to Strength was created when Carol Leslie, the JCC’s program director, was approached by a woman -a “pillar of the community,” she said – who did not know what to do or where to go to get help.

“This person had a child dealing with addiction issues,” Ms. Leslie said. “The child was in his early 20s, and the parent told me she knew there were other Jewish parents out there in the same situation, not knowing where to turn.”

And did we mention the stigma? There is a widely believed misconception that young adult Jews don’t shoot heroin into their arms, and they don’t steal parents’ credit cards to buy pills. The stigma attached to that behavior sends some Jews to 12-step programs out of town or in churches, so it is less likely that they will see someone they know. Some say it’s the stigma that gets in the way of any chance of healing.

The mother approached the JCC because she felt at home there. (Her name is being withheld to protect her anonymity.)

“This parent wanted to know what the possibility was of having a program in her own backyard,” Ms. Leslie said. “We started doing some research, looking for programs. We felt a need for a support group for parents who had a child struggling with addiction and mental health issues.”

“I knew so many families linked to the JCC struggling with the same issues,” the mother said. “Some were going to groups such as AA or NA. Strength to Strength is open to every race, creed and color. We chose the JCC because so many of the parents raised their children while coming there. It’s a very comfortable venue to meet. It’s the place we sent our kids to nursery school. It’s a home away from home.”

She and her husband are parents of a young man in his mid-20s who has battled drug abuse since he was a teenager.

“We became more open with other parents who were also dealing with this,” she continued. “The group provides us a relaxed atmosphere. We talk about the issues we face, and we’re open and honest about it. It is a real epidemic.

“We provide emotional support for each other. We are taking care of the parents with an eye towards taking care of their children.”

She said that her son walked away from his fourth attempt at rehab and no longer is in touch with his family.

“We weren’t at a good place,” she said. “But because we’d been dealing with this for so long, we decided it was time for us to choose our own happiness. You’ve heard the saying that a parent is as unhappy as her least happy child. That goes against the grain of how I live now. But this has taken years upon years of therapy to get this far. It’s not that easy.”

She brought her concerns to Ms. Leslie at the JCC. Together, they came up with Strength to Strength. She knew, though, that for the group to have any chance of success, it would need the guidance of a medical professional experienced in the areas of mental health and addiction. That comes from Dr. Berman, who provides the group’s the medical neshama – its spirit.

Ms. Leslie found Dr. Berman – she said that when the group was forming, she spoke to 10 to 15 professionals, who eventually led her to him.

Strength to Strength focuses on the parents of young adults, 18 to 22 years old.

“Almost all of these kids had been involved with drug abuse since they were 14 years old,” she said. “They stopped growing at age 14, not making good decisions. We learned from Dr. Berman that if a child is in recovery, the entire family is in recovery.”

The formula, Dr. Berman believes, is education and compassion. A former president of the New Jersey Society of Addiction Medicine, Dr. Berman has more than 20 years of experience in this field. Before the group was formed, he met with 12 parents who became the first Strength to Strength parent participants.

“We did an assessment,” Dr. Berman said. “We discussed what the problems were. There were all these parents with kids with serious issues, serious mental problems or drug problems or both.

“They had nobody to talk to,” he continued. “It was like taking the top off of a kettle, so that the steam could come out. We set ground rules. Everything said in that room is sacred and confidential.”

The group is not modeled after a 12-step program, he added. For one thing, Dr. Berman runs it; a typical 12-step group is not facilitated by a physician. And it is not faith-based. A 12-step group asks that its participants give in to a “higher power.” God is not discussed in Strength to Strength unless a parent brings up religion.

Dr. Berman brought the idea that their children could be suffering from co-occurring disorders to the group. Sometimes people with drug addictions also suffer from depression or other mental illnesses, he said, and there can be overlap between these two populations. In an attempt to self-medicate, people with mental illness sometimes try drugs that have not been prescribed to them and do not treat their conditions. Dr. Berman noted that the drugs, combined with other drugs or with alcohol, might make the young adult feel high, but they would have little or no impact on their underlying illness.

“Mental health disorders, including substance use disorders, are biological disorders,” Dr. Berman said. “In the group, we talk about that all the time. It is important to destigmatize it.” People who suffer from mental illness or addictions, and their families, often feel as if they have done something wrong; they would not have similar feelings of guilt should they suffer from a heart condition, say, or high blood pressure.

Addictions can be treated with a careful mix of medication and counseling, but “there is no treatment center in Bergen County or the surrounding area that can provide state-of-the-art medication in addition to psychosocial treatment,” Dr. Berman said.

The parents’ concerns for their children are basic, Dr. Berman said. They care about their children’s safety and their health, and they hoped ultimately that their children could achieve meaningful lives.

Parents face the recurring tension of always waiting for the other shoe to drop, he continued. Even as they reported that their child was doing well at the meeting, they anticipated that eventually something would go wrong. Dr. Berman teaches parents how to deal with their child’s chronic illness and how to manage missteps in the child’s recovery.

Parents also discuss how to take care of themselves, and how to keep their families together. “This disease takes hostages,” Dr. Berman said. “Siblings are often neglected, the marriage is often neglected, and families get brought down by this. We discuss taking care of one’s marriage. How do spouses get on the same page? How do they deal with feeling guilty?”

Dr. Berman said that the group members drive the agenda. “Sometimes someone is having a major bump in the road,” he said. “What will happen is that the other members of the group will chime in. We run the spectrum of people who are just starting this experience with a child to parents whose kid has been in treatment for years.”

There has also been one death of a child whose parents are in the group.

“There’s no expectation that you can understand it,” Dr. Berman said. “The only expectation is that you are in some kind of pain. For the rest of the group, it’s how can they help?” In this case, the group passed a photo of the dead child around the table.

“The child battled addiction,” the founding parent said. “The child’s death was earthshattering. So many of us who like to interject what we’ve done in the past had nothing to say. We were afraid to say the wrong thing.”

Parents are frank with one another, Dr. Berman said, often urging each other not to let their children get away with harmful behavior. Some parents don’t come back to a next session if a meeting has been particularly difficult for them. Some may just skip a meeting or two, but others never return.

“It’s tough to tell a parent, ‘don’t rescue your kid, let him sit in jail,'” Dr. Berman said.

Other parents are told by their peers to stop supporting their child financially or emotionally, even if it means not permitting them to come home.

One of the group’s married couples was told that their son, a college sophomore, was arrested on campus for drug use. They learned that if he didn’t go back to school, the university wouldn’t press charges. His parents enrolled him in a 90-day treatment center.

“He got well, but then the parents got complacent,” Dr. Berman said. “He was doing drugs again.

“The group members told these parents that they should be more vigilant.” As a result of that advice, the parents “told their son he couldn’t come back to their house until he got treatment again. Their son was sent back to a treatment center. This time, he responded to treatment. He has held on to a job and is supporting himself.” And he was able to return to his parents’ home.

It takes great strength for a parent to tell a child that he may not come home, the founding mother said. Some parents will give in, because they worry more about the child’s becoming homeless than his addiction. The group can see when parents don’t take the tougher actions by how much they continue to suffer. To move ahead, sometimes brutal decisions are necessary; anything else can lead to continued drug abuse.

It often takes time to develop the strength to do the right thing, she continued. Many parents want a quick fix. They want addiction to be like an ear infection – take antibiotics and the infection goes away. What frustrates many parents, she said, is that substance abuse most probably isn’t going to go away with a prescription and bed rest.

Dr. Berman also teaches group members about medications for the mentally ill, hoping that the parents of substance abusers will become more knowledgeable consumers of treatment.

“I find myself mentioning it at least once a month,” he said. “Addiction and mental health problems are biological illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. You can’t be cured, but you can stay in a wonderful state of remission.”

Sometimes a child succeeds – and then it all falls apart. The child stops treatment and begins using drugs again.

The mother who started the group said, “We talk more about the shame of all of this than anything else.

“What did we do wrong with this child? It’s a terrible feeling, the worst feeling ever. I’ve personally had to feel the pain of being strong. My child decided to leave the recovery system for a homeless shelter in Arizona. We told him to either go back to the recovery facility or he wasn’t welcome at home.”

When the 90-minute meeting ends, that doesn’t mean that there is no more support available for parents for the next two weeks. Dr. Berman stays in the conference room for as long as the group members need him.

He’ll take their phone calls in between meetings, and sometimes he will meet them at the emergency room.

“Dr. Berman has taught us about brain chemistry and the components of the brain,” the mother said. “If a parent is having a particularly tough time, he will go right to that parent.”

The JCC charges enough only to cover costs. The group is open to couples and both divorced and single parents; to Jews and non-Jews alike. After the first meeting, the founding mother said, the participants had bonded so much they went out for coffee afterward.

“I staff the meetings for the JCC, and I bring the boxes of tissues,” Ms. Leslie said. “Dr. Berman is brilliant. He has taught the group about the science of the brain. He has met parents at the ER if their child has been admitted. The JCC feels that the need is huge. We’ve had as little as two parents attend because of a snowstorm, and we’ve had people who have hardly missed a session. We have some parents who don’t take care of themselves because they are so hurt. They often need a place to just cry. But many of the parents have gotten stronger. It’s a beautiful thing, because the parents know this is the place where they can come and say anything they want.”

Ms. Leslie added that for many parents and their addicted children life is a matter of two steps forward, one step back.

Dr. Berman gives an example. When they fly, passengers are told that if the cabin depressurizes and it becomes necessary to put on oxygen masks, adults must put on their own masks first before they can help their children.

At the JCC, parents are given the oxygen that they hope to transmit to their children. It can come in the form of Dr. Berman talking about the physiology of the brain, or it can be parents comforting their comrades or suggesting tougher measures.

“Short spaces between emergencies is how they describe their lives,” the JCC’s public relations director, Rochelle Lazarus, said. “This group is support focused, with critical information shared.”

Or, as the group’s founding mother said, “Going through this personally and knowing you are not alone, that other people care for you. Well, there’s something here that’s beautiful.

“I don’t think anyone stands on ceremony in the group,” she continued. “Because it is a safe environment, we can talk. Dr. Berman made it so.”

To maintain the confidentiality of the group, anyone who is interested in the program should call Carol Leslie directly at 201-408-1403 or email her at cleslie@jccotp.org.

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