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Ask Tammy Lofink: Emotional turmoil of addiction for loved ones can be overwhelming

Tammy Lofink answers commonly-asked questions about addiction and recovery within the community. Lofink is president of Rising Above Addiction, in Westminster, and runs two sober homes for women, called Reclaiming My Life and Keeping My Serenity. She lost her son in 2014 to a drug overdose and has since worked with people who suffer from addiction, including drugs and alcohol. Lofink is not a medical professional or qualified health care provider. The purpose of this column is to offer support and non-professional guidance to families and individuals that may have had experience with issues relating to addiction and recovery. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical or psychological advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Question: Family and friends continue to be impacted by their loved one’s addiction in ways that many people don’t realize, causing feelings of anxiety, fear, and panic long after the impact of addiction happens. When a person with addiction dies unexpectedly, the impact on families and friends never goes away. Even if the person with addiction is in recovery, the scars of worry and despair do not cease to exist. What are the effects – including long-term – of the traumatic events which loved ones experience when the person they love struggles with addition and even worse, dies from addiction?

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Answer: As a mother who lost an 18-year-old son to overdose, I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. When Rob died, my life was split into two. There was Tammy before Rob died and now, I am the Tammy who exists after Rob died. I was living my life for my family, being a mom and a wife. I was existing for Rob to keep him alive so that my 18-year-old son would wake up every morning. But sadly, Rob did not wake up one morning. After Rob died, I was simply surviving to keep the rest of my family together.

Thankfully, because of all the love and support that has been gifted to me, I am surviving and learning to cope with my new normal. I have developed an inner strength which guides me every day. Now I feel able to support others who are just beginning the journey of grief.

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My daughter Leah, who is now 21 and is about to start a job as a nurse at University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, also has post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and panic attacks after the day that she saw her brother lying lifeless on his bed. Now, she worries that if someone doesn’t respond to her phone call or text right away that the person might be dead. The more time that passes without a response, the more she feels despair, getting worse and worse. Once the person calls her back and she hears that voice on the other end of the phone, the panic subsides.

Sometimes, she feels sad that she may be alone after her parents pass away and that when she marries and has children, they will not have cousins. So, Leah hangs out with her best friend and her family, which gives Leah a sense of having siblings and a sense of belonging. Leah’s friend’s and family’s support makes her feel a part of them, as if she is less alone. Leah feels like becoming a nurse will help her relate to people who are having their worse day in the hospital. She can be empathetic to them and help them emotionally, as well as give physical care.

Molly, one of Leah’s best friends, grew up living two doors down from our house. She considered Rob to be a brother. Molly, Leah and Rob hung out together, ate pizza, and played board games. Molly literally grew up with him.

Molly tells me: “I remember seeing Leah in the doorway of the garage in the cul de sac of our neighborhood. It was the morning that Rob died, but I didn’t know it yet. Leah and I locked eyes, and the whole world stopped. Leah dropped into my arms and repeated, ‘I think he is dead.’”

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Again, I quote Molly, who said: “I have never felt grief like that until I have actually held such grief in my own arms.”

Molly moved far away to go to school. She now talks with a therapist. Molly also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Every time she drives up into the cul de sac to come back to the neighborhood, she has anxiety that someone else will be dead because of what she experienced with Rob.

Like Leah, Molly is studying in school to enter the medical field. She wants to become a physician assistant. Molly hopes that she can use her experience to do what she wished medical professionals could have done to save Rob. She is keeping Rob’s memory alive and continuing on with her life. Molly remembers the good times, the fun times, and will never forget Rob.

After hearing only a few poignant stories, it is very evident that the needs of family members and loved ones who feel long-term and enduring suffering must be addressed. While the community rallies around the person with addiction, family and loved ones cannot be ignored. This is why it is said that addiction is a family disease. It needs to be treated as such.

If you or someone you know or love suffers from addiction, feel free to reach out to risingaboveaddiction@gmail.com.

There is support, love and understanding all around, which people, in the depths of their grief, may not even realize exists. Getting help can change the trajectory of their lives.

Tammy Lofink’s column appears regularly in Life & Times. To ask her a question, email her at risingaboveaddiction@gmail.com.

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