Families helping a young son or daughter through addiction tend to suffer silently. The family turmoil which surrounds the young person with addiction creates a ripple effect, not only for parents but for siblings. Perhaps siblings suffer silently, most of all. My son, Robert Mason Lofink, died of a drug overdose when he was only 18. The grief, suffering and turmoil which followed were almost too much to bear. I decided, over time, I had to change the direction of my life.
One year after Robert’s death, I co-founded Rising Above Addiction, which raises funds for urgently-needed treatment for addiction. I also established two sober homes for women in the community. I still miss Robert tremendously, but I now feel that his legacy lives on through my vision to help other people.
Robert’s younger sister, Leah, still carries a heavy emotional load after losing her older brother to a drug overdose. Leah was only 14 when Robert died. Today, she is a beautiful senior in college and a nursing major. But the scars of Robert’s death are there, beneath the surface, while she continues to come to grips with what happened.
I often wonder if Leah noticed that something was going on with Robert. Did she see signs, but was she too young to understand them? Did she feel that she could not “tell” on Robert, creating an internal conflict in her young mind? Today, she tells me she wishes she had spoken up at the time by coming to me with her worries.
Robert was protective of Leah and always included her. In turn, Leah looked up to Robert and felt safe in his presence. On the flip side, she also remembers a great deal of family chaos during Robert’s teenage years and learned to accept that the constant drama was part of the family dynamic. Our family now knows that some of Robert’s behavior was triggered by drugs. I share this vulnerable picture of our family to tell others something more serious, like drugs, can be the underlying cause of erratic behaviors. Signs must not be ignored.
Robert has been gone for six years. Leah carries a suitcase full of sadness. While his friends and others who knew and loved him have moved on with their lives, she has days where she struggles with her “new normal.”
I tell Leah’s story in detail in my book, “Reclaiming My Life.” It tells our family story and gives hope and healing to families dealing with a loved one’s addiction. Net proceeds benefit Rising Above Addiction. Here’s an excerpt.
“Even now, she will hear a new rap song, and remember how much Rob loved music. When she hears a new song, she wishes he was there so that she could tell him about it. Leah’s greatest sadness is that Rob will never know who she became.”
I offer this advice to parents and siblings: trust your intuition when you notice something may be wrong. Not every erratic behavior, slip in school grades, or poor choice of friends signals a drug addiction. But parents know in their hearts when unusual signs need attention, and siblings, especially when they are close, know when something might be terribly wrong. Trust your gut.
Another important lesson I learned is to not worry about what others think. As a young mother, I worried about what people would think of my parenting. I made choices which I believe stifled my young son, even emotionally suffocated him. I would not let Robert be Robert for fear of being judged by others. How I wish I had instead nurtured the creative free spirit he was becoming, so that he could feel comfortable in his own skin as a middle-schooler and an adolescent.
Siblings of youth who are addicted, whether they are silent or emotionally transparent, need to be heard when they sense that something is not right. Siblings need to feel comfortable confiding in their parents without feeling like they are “rocking the boat.” Parents have their hands full when dealing with a young person battling addiction. But a sibling should be encouraged to speak up and to participate in the process of helping. The end result can make the difference between a family triumph through recovery or a family tragedy as a result of a fatal overdose.
Tammy Lofink is president of Rising Above Addiction, runs two sober homes for women and is the author “Reclaiming My Life.”
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