Shouldering the burden of a loved one’s addiction

The road to recovery is difficult – for those with substance abuse disorders, as well as their family and friends.

Wil Schulz poses for a portrait in front of the University Recreation and Wellness Center on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. Schulz took on a parental role for his siblings and as a result found the transition to University life difficult. 

Nur B. Adam

Wil Schulz poses for a portrait in front of the University Recreation and Wellness Center on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. Schulz took on a parental role for his siblings and as a result found the transition to University life difficult. 

Dylan Miettinen

The fridge was empty when Mia Rose decided to dig between the couch cushions looking for any change that may have fallen there. She was young — only about 9 years old at the time. Walking hand-in-hand with her younger brother, they made their way to the dollar store to buy lemonade mix, in hopes of setting up a lemonade stand to purchase food for her and her family. 

But for Rose, lack of food was not her family’s most pressing issue: her father had been addicted to methamphetamine on and off again for more than a decade. It started with a car accident, for which he was prescribed morphine. He then moved onto Percocet and methamphetamine.

“I kind of had to grow up fast. It gave me a lot of responsibility and drove me to be successful for my brother and sisters,” Rose said.

Now sober, Rose’s father was one of the nearly 21 million people in the U.S. battling substance abuse disorders. It is a growing issue — admissions into substance abuse treatment facilities in Minnesota increased nearly 4 percent from 2013 to 2016. 

The impact has been felt on the University of Minnesota campus, though specific resources are limited. There is Recovery on Campus, a student organization for students recovering from addiction. Group and individual counseling services are offered to students, though none are specifically aimed at helping those impacted by addiction. The University’s Care Program, a team of two care managers, aims to help students on an individual case-by-case basis and point them toward specific on- and off-campus resources. 

Because Rose’s father battled with substance abuse, she is genetically predisposed to as well.

“Just as blue eyes can be passed down, so can the propensity for addiction,” said Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer for the American Addiction Centers. “But … one’s environment is just as important.”

For Rose, both genetics and environment were against her while she attended Minnesota State Mankato before transferring to the University. She was in an environment where sobriety was not the norm, and she became addicted to Adderall, something she swore she would never do when she was younger.

A combination of religion and support from her mother helped her overcome her addiction, aided by her fear of ending up like her father. Looking back at photos and thinking back on memories with her father, Rose said she could not see her father’s addiction then, but does now. 

She wants to ask for an apology from him, but she yet to find the words. “I’m so close but I’m not there yet,” she said.

History with addiction

Wil Schulze struggled to acclimate to University life. The oldest of five siblings, he took on a parental role for most of his life, one he said was compounded by his father’s struggles with substance abuse.

“I was really afraid that I when I moved out to college, there’d be no one to protect [my sisters],” he said, adding that he went to the University to stay close to home.

For Schulze, addiction was also familial. His father had problems with alcohol and chewing tobacco; his grandfather, alcohol and cigarettes. 

While the American Medical Association classified alcoholism as a disease in 1956, addiction itself was only formally recognized as a disease in 2011. There is a lot of headway yet to be made in reducing the stigma surrounding addiction, said director of the University’s addiction studies program Debra Wamsley.

“I think it’s fairly invisible,” said Wamsley of resources for students whose loved ones are battling or recovering from substance abuse. “I think the perception of addiction, and our willingness to talk about it, changes with societal norms, like marijuana use or mental health issues.”

Words matter, such as using terms like “individual with addiction” as opposed to “addict,” Wamsley said. She is trying to adjust the program’s Foundation in Addictions Studies course to utilize the correct language.

Wamsley also said there is a double standard: most people would not admonish a cancer patient for their cancer spreading and the need to go back in for treatment, yet when a person with addiction relapses, that same empathy and support is not often shown. 

An onlooker would not know that Schulze’s life was impacted by his father’s addiction, but it has been nonetheless. He wants to ensure his sisters are taken care of and that he does not follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

“I know that neither of them ever had bad intentions,” Schulze said. “I just want them to be able to see [addiction] through my eyes.” 

Support among students

When Sara Cummings came to the University two years ago, she felt something was missing. Her mother was in recovery after battling alcoholism, but there were no support groups like Al-Anon, a program that offers support and connection for the families and friends of those impacted by alcoholism. Sara had participated in Alateen, the same program for teenagers, before enrolling in school.

At home, Sara often cared for her brother while her mother was unable to. 

“Coming to college, I felt like my hands were empty because I finally had to focus on me,” she said. “But there weren’t really [many] resources available on campus [for children of parents with addiction].”

She reached out through student Facebook groups, trying to see if other students felt something was lacking or if anyone wanted to form a student group with her. Fourteen people reached out, more than she expected.

Sara’s mother, Jennifer Cummings, began abusing substances in the ’90s. She would party with friends; she drank and even experienced meth-induced psychosis. She has been in and out of recovery since 1997.

“It’s been hurting my kids. There’s been a lot of those moments in that dive that I deeply regret,” she said. 

For the family members of many addicts, the hardest part of recovery is separating their loved ones from their addiction, said Dianne Sullivan, a family program professional at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. However, programs that offer support seem to help expedite the process, she said.

“We will have family members who will come here on day one and say, ‘I hate my husband. I hate what he has done to our family.’ And by day three, they are saying, ‘I love my husband. I hate what this disease has done to my family,’” Sullivan said.

Now, Sara Cummings is several hours away from home, trying to grapple with the special brand of anger, distrust and hurt that only those who have seen loved ones battle addiction know. Connecting with others who know what she has been through has helped.

“Now, I have 14 contacts in my phone of people who I know are in the same shoes as me, who I know that I could turn to when I’m struggling,” she said. 

She is thankful that, despite the strain that addiction has placed on their family, her mother – and her relationship with her mother – has survived.

“It’s been hard, but somebody who deals with [addiction] is not any less of a human being,” she said. “I’m thankful she’s alive and that she’s still a part of my life.”