Victoria mother shares story of harm reduction, aims to help other parents with new book
A Victoria mother will never forget the time she took her oldest daughter to buy heroin, so the teen could smoke it in the car next to her on the way into an emergency department, desperate to get her child into treatment.
“It goes against everything we know as a parent to keep our children safe,” admits Erin Rae.
But at the time keeping her daughter alive was priority number one.
“When your child is facing death and you’re trapped and the only way to help them is to chew off your arm, you’re going to chew off your arm,” she says. “You just will. You will.”
It’s an example of harm reduction: The idea of keeping someone alive so they can get the help they need to find a path to recovery that works for them.
The topic is discussed in chapter three of a new 106-page guide called Parents Like Us: The unofficial survival guide to parent a young person with a substance use disorder, co-authored by Rae and 11 other Victoria parents.
“When my child first started to spiral I was completely out of my element,” says Rae. “Something like this (book) would’ve been integral in having a starting spot.”
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
It was the summer of 2013. Rae’s family was living in the affluent Victoria neighbourhood of Fairfield. She was a stay-at-home mom and her oldest daughter had just finished Grade 8. The teen got her first boyfriend. And she was introduced to alcohol, pot and ultimately heroin at age 13.
Her mother noticed some shifts in behaviour, but thought her daughter was acting out over a divorce. And, while that may be partly true, she says she now knows there was more happening behind the scenes.
A year and a half later, Rae says her daughter was hooked.
“I was so clueless for so long and I think that is a guilt I harbor,” says Rae. “I feel like if I (would’ve) known what was going on sooner that it wouldn’t have gotten to the level that it did.”
In hindsight, some of the parent’s early warning signs included her daughter’s increased want for privacy, having her bag near her all the time and finding a new group of friends.
The new handbook lists a number of other behavioral signs and changes parents can watch for, too – signs like mysterious sicknesses, stories that don’t add up, overly defensive reactions when asked where they’ve been, and signs of (not so obvious) drug paraphernalia. Think bits of tin foil left around the house, straws, kitchen spoons.
“If you feel something is wrong in your gut, you’re probably right,” adds Rae.
A drug test confirmed the mother’s fears, and her daughter confessed it was going to be positive.
Rae would eventually ask her daughter to move out.
“I wasn’t comfortable with my kid using at home, but I also know that for some people that is how they kept their child alive. They’ve had 40 overdoses.”
The teen would end up on a police watch list for youth at risk of exploitation, Rae says she later learned.
Recovery would come, but so would another storm: Introducing the family to a much different view of the medical system.
A DIFFERENT VIEW
At 19 years old, Rae’s daughter was almost two years clean and launched into another fight.
She was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma cancer.
She would go through 10 rounds of chemo, lose her hair and beat her odds.
The reactions to the health conditions – cancer vs. substance use disorder – weren’t alike.
“People are much more supportive and understanding when your child has cancer,” Rae says. “Nobody would feel like they needed to hide that.”
It’s the reason why Rae says she stays involved as an advocate for other parents with teens facing a substance use disorder, ultimately pouring a year and a half into the co-creation of the guidebook released through Foundry Victoria.
She wants to break down stigmas and raise awareness about ways people can set healthy boundaries and keep people in their lives despite a struggle with an addiction.
“You’re a bit of a leper when your kid is addicted to drugs,” she says after confessing to losing an entire social circle of friends.
She says people can still stay in touch, ask how a person’s doing, and send supportive messages like, “I hope you get healthy.”
“That is also harm reduction,” says Rae.
Parents Like Us attests to the isolation and stigma families can face in the wake of an addiction.
It encourages parents to be cautious around the information they share with people who don’t have experience with substance use disorder and to reach out to others for support.
“Find people who understand what you are going through,” it reads. “It may also be helpful to tell your extended family members and friends what type of support helps you most, whether it is a listening ear, brainstorming ideas or time for respite.”
Eight years since Rae’s daughter was first introduced to heroin, the mother says her daughter is going on four years clean.
She’s recently trained as a peer support with Foundry – a resource that became integral to the family’s journey.
“She’s just a great kid and has a really bright future ahead of her,” Rae says.
This story has been updated to correct the age of Rae's daughter when she was diagnosed with cancer. She was 19, not 17.