The Opioid Crisis: Together, families find answers and learn to cope

For the Gazette
Published: 2/19/2018 1:52:59 PM

A group of people gather in a room at Providence Hospital in Holyoke on a Thursday night, chatting as if they are old friends. Someone new enters, a woman clutching a coffee cup, looking around the room as if she is wondering whether she wants to be here. I know that look.

A facilitator greets her, shows her to a seat and she listens to others talk. After a while, she tentatively raises her hand to say it took her son’s recent heroin overdose to get her to the meeting. She says she’s been meaning to come to one for a long time, but was afraid to admit what was going on. Tearfully, she says Narcan saved him.

A woman sitting beside her reaches over, squeezes her hand, and says, “What matters is that you are here now and we are glad that your son is OK. Welcome.”

After the woman tells her story, others share similar experiences, offer kind words and reassurance that she’s done nothing wrong, her feelings are understandable and she’s not alone. She leaves with more Narcan and a renewed sense of hope that, in this group, Learn to Cope, she has finally found people who understand.

Although I’m not describing a specific person in this vignette, ever since I first attended a Learn to Cope meeting seven years ago, I’ve seen this scene and many others like it play out countless times. Addiction is a disease that affects every family member in different ways. Feelings of fear, shame, guilt, anger and hopelessness are common. The sting of stigma is real. And there is pain felt by everybody. Thanks to Learn to Cope, those families do not have to go it alone.

When Learn to Cope was founded in 2004, there was a single group of families helping other families in the southeastern part of the state. Today, Learn to Cope is a peer-led organization for the families of people struggling with addiction and recovery with 25 support groups offering weekly or twice-monthly meetings around the state.

I joined the staff at Learn to Cope in 2014, after volunteering for several years. In 2013, I launched the first weekly Learn to Cope meeting in western Massachusetts at Providence Hospital. We got the bi-monthly meeting off the ground in Greenfield three years ago.

At our meetings, family members are supported and have a private and confidential place to share their experiences without fear of judgment. Loving someone with substance use disorder means life can be filled with crisis, chaos, unpredictability. People live with fear and anguish. At meetings, people share their stories: the dreaded 3 a.m. phone call with news of an overdose or an arrest; the awful discovery that money and valuables are gone, and a son is using heroin; a daughter has finally agreed to go to treatment, she is too sick to advocate for herself but it’s difficult for you to help her; the sheer exhaustion from keeping a constant vigil trying to avert a tragedy. Families affected by addiction are bonded by their common experiences. That is why we are best suited to helping one another.

Families also have first-hand knowledge and wisdom to share. Questions about how to support our loved ones without becoming a part of the problem are not easily answered. Families are often divided by arguments over the best course of action. Do we let her stay at home or insist she get into treatment? Is it enabling to give money for gas? Should we push for a drug test?

Coming to terms with the new crisis in the family is difficult enough. But there’s also the need to figure out next steps and make sense of the care available: What’s the difference between a sober house and a recovery home? What about medication? These are issues we have all faced. Learn to Cope families are a network of encyclopedic information and ideas. For us, education is key because knowledge is empowering; it provides necessary insight and understanding. Why can’t he just stop using drugs? Will he get treatment in jail? Could I have prevented his addiction? Is there any hope for recovery? How can I help myself?

These are all questions I’ve seen families find answers to at Learn to Cope. We also turn to experts for help, inviting guest speakers to discuss addiction, available resources, treatment options, recovery support, self-care, and more. We also invite people in long-term recovery. They give us hope, which is essential.

Learn to Cope meetings are free and open to anyone affected by a loved one’s addiction to opioids and other substances. The two local Learn to Cope meetings are:

The first and third Tuesdays of each month, 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Greenfield Community College, Room C-208 in the Main Building

Each Thursday, 7 to 8:30 p.m., in the first-floor auditorium at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke. At each meeting, free Narcan and overdose education is available. Learn to Cope also provides a free and private online family discussion board 24 hours a day, seven days a week where we support each other and share information. Registration is required.

Other resources, like help for those raising grandchildren, spouses and grieving families, also are available on the Learn to Cope website,

For more information, contact Marcy Julian at: or 508-404-3539.

There is no need to keep addiction in the family a secret. It’s a burden nobody should shoulder alone.

Marcy Julian is senior western regional manager for Learn to Cope and part of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department. Members of the coalition contribute to a monthly column in this space about local efforts underway to address the opioid epidemic.

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