Wide Awake: The Agony of Addiction
Could the right questions get the right answers?

I was recently asked to host a panel of young people in recovery for a special forum in Camden County. It was easy to say yes, but once I did, I felt this tremendous responsibility – actually, I felt burdened. I worried I would be letting a lot of people down.

I knew the audience would be filled with hundreds of parents, siblings and other loved ones of people struggling with addiction. Camden County had hosted forums like this before, and many, many people showed up. They came because they desperately needed help. Some of them just didn’t know what to do anymore. Some had recently entered this crazy, foreign world, and they didn’t know where to start. So they came looking for answers. I knew this forum would be no different.

My job was to ask questions so the audience might get some answers. I was asking questions on behalf of this crowd of people who were living a nightmare and needed someone to tell them what to do. I didn’t know if I could get the information they needed. I tried. But when the panel ended, I didn’t think I had helped. This addiction epidemic is such a difficult and complicated subject. I really don’t know who has the answers. Nonetheless, I tried with every question I asked.

One young man on the panel was James Hatzell. I actually knew James when he was 4; he and my daughters were in the same play group. Now he’s 23, and it was a surprise for me to learn that his life story until now was interrupted with some difficult times. But that is why he was on this panel: To tell his story, so others might be helped.

James says his drug and alcohol addiction started in high school, but worsened when he got to college. During his freshman year, he was arrested for selling marijuana. That’s when it hit him that he had reached rock bottom. “I thought to myself, ‘Look where you are right now. If you don’t do something, who knows where you’ll end up.’”

James went into a 30-day recovery program thinking his college career was over, but it wasn’t. He went back and made the dean’s list that first semester.

So there I sat with James, who has this inspirational story about overcoming addiction and moving on to live a great life. (James graduated and has a job managing IT systems for a national company that operates recovery treatment centers on college campuses.) But what could he tell the audience as they tried to get the same outcome for the person they loved? Did he have the answers they needed?

No, he didn’t. The other panelists didn’t have the answers either. And that was disappointing for me, but it’s part of the agony that goes with addiction. That person who is struggling is the only person who has the answers; they just don’t know it. Their family has to stand on the sidelines hoping one day they’ll figure it out. James had some thoughts for those families.

“I can give families two solid pieces of advice: First, find a support group to help yourself. And second, be prepared in case your loved one finally asks for help. Have a plan. Know who the first phone call will be to. It’s hard for someone to succeed through this if they don’t have help from their family. Be prepared for that.”

James says it took a while after he finished his treatment to realize that plenty of college students don’t drink and take drugs. He is quick to say his recovery wasn’t easy, but eventually he was able to find the answers. “I finally realized that this wasn’t the end of my life, because I thought it was. But actually, it was just the beginning.”

July 2016
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