Lessons learned

By on March 8, 2017
Janice Ballenger, a former long-term care facility nurse, has found her calling at Retreat at Lancaster County, a 175-bed inpatient addiction center in Ephrata.

The series on the addiction crisis facing our society is written by Janice Ballenger, who works at Retreat at Lancaster County, a 175-bed inpatient addiction center in Ephrata. Working closely with addicts, she has a burning passion to raise awareness and offer hope to those in active addiction and recovery. This month she is sharing some personal insight in lessons she has learned.

Leaving the field of nursing in a long-term care facility was not an easy decision. I loved my residents and was humbled to assist with their care. But a power greater than me was calling to enter the addiction field.

I began working at Retreat at Lancaster County and never looked back. As friends learned of my new employment, I was bombarded by people reaching out to share their stories. Some were heartbreaking while others were joyful. So many had questions and many just needed to share and vent. To say that I was overwhelmed would be stating it mildly.

I will admit that before working at Retreat, I was pretty naïve as to the extent of our drug addiction crisis. In high school, I first heard of some peers doing bad things but that was all I knew. It didn’t affect me so it didn’t matter. My hope is to share some of the many lessons that I have learned. I also hope that if you are naïve to this crisis, as I was, that you will open your eyes. Even with our eyes open, I’m not certain anyone truly understands the magnitude of this crisis. If you have dodged dealing with the bullet of addiction, count your blessings. These are strictly my opinions and observations.

One of the most mind-boggling facts is that addiction does not discriminate! I’ve seen too many people, surrounded by loved ones, become addicts. A lot of them are not life-long, hard-core addicts, but they are at the point where their drinking and/or drug use is affecting their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Too many of these people’s actions are being rationalized by their families because of the negative stigma that is sadly still attached to this disease. We must purge this negative stigma.

There are many hard-core addicts who have been saved by Narcan, only to relapse again and again. Is it a band-aid? I do know people don’t get sober and live their lives in recovery if they’re dead. I’ve seen addicts who have been disowned by their families, but it seems that a lot of grandparents never lose hope.

I cried myself to sleep the night I got a message from a grandmother telling me that her granddaughter had just gotten out of jail and they couldn’t find a rehab for her due to lack of insurance. After many futile phone calls her grand-daughter jumped out of the car and ran down the street, never to be seen again. Knowing that she probably ran to find drugs, her grandmother is now living in fear of that dreaded phone call — the call that too many people live in fear of getting. What if today is the day that will become a not so rhetorical question?

Knowing that your loved one is an addict means living in the unknown. Not knowing that your child used drugs and finding them dead has to be one of the most devastating events a family can experience. You bury your child, but you can’t bury your memories or your unanswered questions that will haunt you forever. Don’t wait until that tragedy happens to you.

Not too long ago, “the birds and the bees” was a parent’s dreaded discussion. We must now start talking with our children at a young age about drug use. People need to lose the “not my child” attitude, and accept the fact that children will experiment. If something seems wrong, don’t ignore it. Provide strategies to use in tempting situations. Look for signs: enlarged or pin-point pupils; twitching; wild mood swings; erratic behavior; unknown new friends. Conduct random drug screenings. No level of precaution is too great. Change is often preceded by chaos. Don’t love them to death.

If you missed or have seen the signs, it’s not too late, but you need to act. Proactively get professional help. Encouragement may be one of the greatest gifts we can all give. Many addicts have no idea what to expect when living without using drugs. Recovery is not merely stopping the use of drugs. Many other aspects need addressed.

Important dimensions of recovery include: health; home; purpose and a community of new friendships and love.

One former addict told me that he turned down his first offer of parole. He was scared and wasn’t ready to face the outside and maintain sobriety. He had lost his son to addiction and his family had abandoned him. While out on a work release pass, he was offered drugs and realized how vulnerable, lost and alone he was. He longed to simply carry on a normal conversation, smile and laugh. Upon his release he found feelings of joy, peace and contentment through his church.

Addiction has many causes. It causes vague obituaries. “Died suddenly” often is the official verbiage for “another person found dead from an overdose.” It causes bedrooms and social media sites to become memorials. It causes too many grand-families. It causes yesterdays to outnumber tomorrows. It causes parents to outlive their children. It causes an absence before an exit.

Society has been pigeonholing those who suffer. They are not trash. They have families and aspirations. Hate the drug but never stop loving the addict! Learn to separate who the person once was, and can be again, from who they are now. Cling to faith that they figure out life as you struggle through it. Don’t let erroneous stigma prevent you from doing what’s right.

Drug addiction doesn’t care just because you care. Period. Trying to reason with an addict is like trying to blow out a light bulb. Often they hit rock bottom only to find there’s a basement below rock bottom. They die before they die. What they are doing to themselves is far worse than anything that you can do to them. Remember, the view in the windshield is larger than the view in the rear view mirror.

Many things shared with me forced me to bite my tongue and say a prayer. A teacher told me that many times they have called the police because parents were high when they arrived to pick up their children. Adults tell me they smoke pot and allow their children to do the same because it’s not like they’re doing heroin. People in recovery told me that when they were using they could fit in like a chameleon, changing with their surroundings and able to lie and steal from anyone.

They have been saved by Narcan, only to curse at and fight with the providers. They know how it feels to wish that they were dead. Drugs are sometimes being sold to people as they walk out of their recovery group meetings. Many have told me that the hardest thing they ever did was continuing to live when they wanted to die. To watch people transform their beliefs, behaviors, and lives in front of my eyes is nothing less than amazing. Through rehab, many found the courage of conviction and the strength to persevere.

In what seems like a world that is growing cold and bitter, there are many constant acts of kindness that come from the heart. To achieve what is possible, you must attempt what seems impossible. Reach out to the addict. Help bid a farewell to yesterday and a warm welcome to tomorrow. Through detox, rehab and recovery, dreams can be like stars, brilliant and permanent. Their dreams are the promises of all that they can be. But stars are not gifts given. You need to reach for them.

Addiction is a disease, not a moral problem. Our society needs to understand that addicts hate their behavior. We need to understand that people in recovery often live moment by moment, using their courage of conviction and strength to guide them. We need to look for the hope that survives disappointment.

My hope is that together we can make a difference. Take the risk for that which matters. If you saw someone standing on a ledge of a 14-story building about to jump off, wouldn’t you do something to try to help? If you would do that for a stranger, why not for an addict standing on the proverbial window ledge and their life is in great danger?

It is an agonizing battle. Climb out of the trenches and fight like a warrior. Educate yourself. Attend family education programs. In its truest form, tough love is unconditional love, sacrificing your emotional attachment for the sake of a loved one’s well being. Seek professional help. Even in the midst of the darkest of situations, never lose hope.

Janice welcomes your questions and comments at janiceballenger@yahoo.com.

One Comment

  1. Janice Ballenger

    March 9, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    I have received more comments on this article than any of my other articles. Thank you for those who have been touched by it.

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