Graphic by Norine Longo

When Diana Dubbs got out of treatment for drug addiction on Thanksgiving morning of 2013, she felt like she had a giant red lightbulb over her head. Throughout Thanksgiving dinner, her family was careful about what they said, kept all wine off the dining table and seemed overly mindful of their behavior around her the entire evening.

They thought they were helping Dubbs, but it only made her feel out of place.

“I couldn’t wait to get to a meeting that night because I needed to be around other people that understood,” said Dubbs, a West Windsor native. “That was the first meeting I went to out of treatment. I needed that release because I was so stressed.”

In the same way Dubbs found solace at a meeting surrounded by people who understood her situation, family members of people battling addiction are turning to support groups and family-oriented drug programs for help. Local recovery organizations, including Recovery Advocates of America and City of Angels, are hosting programs—Nar-Anon, COA Family Program, Conversations with Carol, among others—to support the addicts as well as their loved ones.

Forty-four percent of Americans know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers, according to Facing Addiction in America, a report released last month by the United States Surgeon General. Last year in Mercer County, 55 people died from drug overdoses, and Narcan—an opioid antagonist used to revive an overdose victim—was deployed 74 times, according to the Opiate/Heroin Taskforce of Mercer County. As of Dec. 15, Narcan was deployed 85 times in 2016, according to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.

As the nationwide opioid crisis continues to grow, more local organizations are trying to help people better understand the disease of addiction.

“The addict gets high and the family suffers,” said RAA Outreach Manager John Mincarelli.

Mincarelli is in the Recovery Advocates of America office, located in Hamilton, with four of his co-workers. All of them are in recovery and understand firsthand why addiction is called the family disease.

“We pull down every person we love the most,” said Dubbs, RAA’s director of development. “We hurt the people we love the most—our moms, our dads, our significant others—because those are the people that we know love us. They’re going to keep taking us back.”

City of Angels recovery coach Glorilyn Huber thought she was helping her then-boyfriend, who became addicted to heroin, by creating a safe, comfortable environment at home, but she was actually enabling his drug use.

Despite her best efforts to help him, the person she loved continued to steal, lie and participate in all the negative behaviors that come with addiction. Once Huber began meeting with others who were also struggling to cope with their loved ones’ addiction, she better understood how to handle the situation.

“It was nice to know I wasn’t alone,” Huber said. “I don’t want to say it’s textbook—everyone has a different story—but it’s very much the same. You have this person that you love, and all of a sudden they’re completely different. That’s what drugs do.”

Huber eventually gave her boyfriend a choice: move out of her home or go to a recovery house. He refused to go for treatment, so she kicked him out. He was homeless for a time before finally opting to get treatment and get the help he needed.

‘The addict gets high and the family suffers.’

Huber said she had to learn to not take it personally when her boyfriend lied or stole from her. She may have been on the receiving end of the negative behavior, but she understood it was coming from the addiction and not the man she fell in love with. Even after she kicked him out, she kept in contact with him to remind him of the person he could be without drugs.

“I think the most important thing is to be a constant source of hope because at that point, people in addiction, they don’t have hope in themselves,” she said. “And that’s why they need us the most, to battle for them and remind them that they can do it. It’s a tough battle—it’s hard, it’s scary, but it’s worth it.”

Huber learned the hard way that loved ones are partners in addiction, even if they aren’t addicted themselves. Enabling, also known as co-dependency, is a common way for families and friends to try to help people overcome their addiction. Enabling can be anything from giving them money despite knowing they’re going to use it for drugs to ignoring the problem completely, afraid that bringing it up will only make things worse.

Robbinsville resident Aaron Gold lost his son to a drug overdose in 2015 and currently works with Nar-Anon to help other families avoid the pain of losing a loved one. He has seen many cases, including his, where addicts try to use their family’s enabling to feed their addiction.

“Addicts are very brilliant manipulators, so until families learn how to stop enabling—and as they say in Nar-Anon detach with love—it basically keeps the addicts in their addiction,” Gold said.

Whether from their own experience struggling with drug addiction, or their time spent helping others remain sober, every official at the RAA office shared stories of how addicts manipulate the people around them in order to get high.

‘We think that love can get them to stop. But by enabling them, the addiction just gets worse and worse.’

People suffering from addiction will go to open houses on weekends for homes that are on sale and raid medicine cabinets for prescription pills. Others will steal money from their friends, roommates or family members to buy more drugs. But Mincarelli said it’s the small things addicts do to reach their high that can shake a family to its core. Arguments erupt between parents when one of them slips their child $20 after their spouse told them not to give the child any more money. Other families are torn apart when some family members refuse to accept that someone has a drug problem.

“We think that love can get them to stop—or we’re in denial—and as you let it go longer and longer without having them suffer consequences by enabling them, [the addiction] just gets worse and worse,” said Michael Ziccardi, executive director of RAA.

Officials from both Recovery Advocates of America and City of Angels stressed that enabling is one of the biggest, and most common, mistakes families make.

“As long as you’re running them to their dealer, giving them money for whatever, they don’t ever look for help because you’re enabling their addiction, and that’s where these programs help the families,” City of Angels Recovery Coach Marion “Junior” McLaughlin said.

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One of the largest programs in the area is Nar-Anon, a support group for people who are close with someone battling addiction. The program aims to teach people how to separate themselves from the situation and break co-dependency.

The first Nar-Anon meeting was held in California back in the 1970s before spreading across the country. Hamilton residents Bill and Helen Giovannetti were the first to bring Nar-Anon to Mercer County more than a decade ago after identifying the need for a local group. Before they brought Nar-Anon to their home county, the closest meeting was in Eatontown. Now, between 200 to 300 people attend roughly a dozen weekly meetings held throughout the greater Mercer County region. Meetings are held six days a week in churches and recovery centers in Hamilton, as well as weekly in West Windsor and Bordentown.

While Narcotics Anonymous is for the addict, Nar-Anon is exclusively for those who know the feeling of desperation that occurs when they watch a loved one battle addiction. The programs mirror each other, with Nar-Anon offering its own 12-step program.

The first step involves admitting they are powerless over the addict and that their lives have become unmanageable due to the addiction. Each step builds upon the last, and the meetings involve discussing how the steps can be applied to the issues they’re facing at the time.

Ziccardi still remembers sitting in on a Nar-Anon meeting listening to a priest tell everyone how lucky they are. Lucky was just about the last word Ziccardi would use to describe his life. He was once married with children and had a nice paying job in the suburbs. Then, a doctor prescribed him an opioid painkiller and he became addicted, which eventually led to him losing his job and his marriage.

He didn’t think it was the story of a lucky man, but the priest explained that everyone in the 12-step program had a set of principles to live their life by—steps that encourage kindness, understanding and empathy, which are habits that lead to a fuller life, the priest said.

“There are standards I have to live by if I want to continue to have a good life, and it holds me accountable,” Mincarelli said. “You grow and you change and you do some work, but life shows up, and guess what? You’re trying to figure out how to apply this program to the chaos that’s still going on in your head. It’s hard.”

City of Angels also hosts a two-day Family Program to help people understand how to effectively help their loved one. The program covers how they can restore peace at home, the common traits of addiction sufferers and what works and doesn’t work for addiction treatment.

McLaughlin, a Hamilton resident, said that in order for someone to stick with their recovery, they have to want to get clean for themselves—not their families.

“Sometimes I feel the family members suffer more because they feel so helpless,” Ziccardi said. “They’re seeing their loved one slowly kill themselves, and there’s nothing they can do about it no matter how much they love them.”

Addiction specialists stress that no amount of love from family members and friends can stop someone with a drug problem from getting high, but family and friends often blame themselves for the continued drug use.

“As a parent, it goes against everything you believe,” Mincarelli said. “We protect our children, we would take a bullet for our child, we’d stop the world to make it a better place for our kid, and that’s not how this works.”

* * *

Mincarelli recently celebrated eight years of sobriety, but that hasn’t stopped his mother from checking up on him. When his mom donates money to the Recovery Advocates of America Recovery Walk, she demands he bring her back a receipt.

“It’s not that she doesn’t trust me—she doesn’t forget,” Mincarelli said, adding that he’s still capable of taking her $100 donation and spending it on something else without anyone knowing. “That’s the way I think. Would I do it? Probably. She covered me on it.”

He added that in recovery, addicts go through ebbs and flows. Sometimes, addiction shows up in other areas, such as falling back into negative behaviors or habits from before people began treatment. Thinking negative thoughts, comparing oneself to other recovery addicts, stealing money and all the other negative habits can lead to a relapse. Having a support group of family, friends and especially other recovering addicts helps remind people battling addiction why they should still fight.

Just as the recovery process for an addict doesn’t stop when they get out of rehab, the recovery process for families continues long after their loved one gets clean.

“We make them sicker almost than we are because we have an opportunity to recover and get better but they have a constant tape playing in their head of the stuff we did,” Dubbs said. “Even three years down the line, we might be a different person, but they’re still thinking of the things that happened—what we did to hurt them, whether it’s stealing from them or neglecting our relationships.”

Dubbs stressed that family members need to start the journey into their own recovery process when the addicts do to avoid constantly reliving the pain they caused. Recovery Advocates of America’s Conversations with Carol program is an open meeting held twice a week where addicts and families can talk with a licensed addiction specialist about what’s going on in their lives.

‘It’s a mental disease that talks to you in your own voice, and no matter how good you’re doing there’s always this side of you that says you’re not doing enough.’

Unlike Nar-Anon and the City of Angels Family Program, Conversations with Carol aims to open up a direct line of communication between addicts and their families. At the meetings, people work together to find the root of the pain within the relationships, or within oneself, and then work to identify healthy ways cope.

“Our program is different from Nar-Anon because it really is a conversation between the addict and the family member,” Dubbs said. “There isn’t always that open line of communication. Both can come and talk about how the addiction is affecting the other.”

When Ziccardi came home after his initial treatment, he worked hard, went to meetings and was feeling good. His wife, however, was still suffering, he said, and eventually the couple got a divorce.

“My kids couldn’t understand,” he said. “‘Dad’s clean now, why do you want to divorce him?’ A lot of damage that was done. She couldn’t get past it.”

For recovering addicts, reaching a year or other milestone of sobriety can be a bittersweet moment. Ziccardi said it’s bittersweet because the sobriety came at a price. For addicts, getting to the point where they want to recover often comes after they’ve hurt people they love. Dubbs describes it as living two lives, one before and another after recovery.

Ziccardi knew he needed treatment to stay sober when his daughter didn’t want a sweet 16 party because she was embarrassed by him. Though he’s been sober for years, he still thinks back to the pain he caused his children with deep regret, so much so that he became depressed after two years sober. While his children were celebrating his two years, he could only focus on the pain he had caused.

“Sometimes I forget that it’s a disease, and I still blame myself for what happened,” he said.

For Mincarelli, the third year sober was his toughest to get through. He went to a bar, ordered a shot and stared at it for an hour before passing it down to someone else and leaving. “It’s a mental disease that talks to you in your own voice, and no matter how good you’re doing there’s always this side of you that says you’re not doing enough,” Mincarelli said.

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Graphic by Norine Longo

In 2014, Recovery Advocates of America spent $54,600 on client care. Last year, they spent $80,330, and they anticipate the cost of care will keep rising. Ziccardi attributes the increase to more people seeking help for their addiction.

“More people are seeking help, which is why I think education is definitely working a bit, reducing the social stigma,” Ziccardi said. “More family members are reaching out and not hoping it goes away because it’s just a phase.”

Recovery Advocates of America has launched a multi-faceted approach to reducing the stigma surrounding drug addiction through education and partnerships with local police departments. They believe prevention won’t work without proper education, and the earlier you can teach people the better.

“I have a nine-year-old granddaughter, and we may not talk about heroin, but we talk about behaviors that aren’t healthy,” Mincarelli said. “It’s OK to have talks with those kids when they’re young.”

Recovery Advocates of America officials visit local schools to discuss the dangers and warning signs of drug addiction. The goal of their program is to help create a culture where if someone thinks they might have a problem, they will feel comfortable coming forward for help.

Dubbs said a big part of the program is helping students make a connection between unhealthy thoughts and behaviors—such as not fitting in or having “a lot of noise between your ears”—and why people turn to drugs.

“A lot of people who are younger and in school they think it’s a part of being a teenager, but in reality these are the signs they should be looking out for,” Dubbs said.

While educating students is a key step to reducing the social stigma surrounding drug addiction, local recovery organizations are also trying to educate police officers and town officials about the disease of addiction.

“[We’re] educating community members and police officers because instead of referring to them as, ‘Hey, this junkie we picked up,’ it’s ‘Hey, this kid has a problem and maybe this is why we we keep picking him up,’” Dubbs said. “Those projects have become essential to what we do.”

Robbinsville, West Windsor and Ewing have partnered with Recovery Advocates of America to launch the CARE—Community Addiction Recovery Effort—program in 2016 throughout their townships. The program is designed to aid those struggling with opioid addiction at the time of arrest by providing them with a recovery coach and private setting to discuss the treatment options and start the recovery process. The goal of the program is to reach addicts during a brief window of opportunity when they are most receptive, often right after an arrest.

Robbinsville was the first township in Mercer County to launch their CARE program, and West Windsor and Ewing adopted the program for their own communities in the fall. In Ewing alone, police responded to 25 drug overdose calls and deployed Narcan 23 times as of Nov. 17, according to a statement from the police department. Mincarelli hopes the education efforts and CARE programs will lead more people struggling with addiction, and their family members, to reach out and get the help they need.

“We don’t just put you in treatment and walk away,” Mincarelli said. “We’re part of your support system when you get out of treatment. We’re going to grab you, take you to meetings. We’re going to become part of a unit because you can’t do this by yourself.”