With the stress, isolation, and economic disruption brought on by the pandemic, drug overdose deaths could reach 100,000 in a single year — the highest figure ever recorded in the United States, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Philadelphia alone recorded 309 fatal overdoses between April and June 2020, the highest number in a single quarter since 2017.
So it’s not surprising that subscribers to My Child & Addiction, a parent-to-parent podcast created by three New Jersey fathers of children with substance use disorders, have increased by nearly 50% since the outset of the pandemic. The podcast, now in its fifth season, has 75,000 downloads by families whose loved ones are struggling with substance use disorders and various stages of recovery.
The podcast has covered honesty, boundaries, crisis management, siblings, regret, and shame and blame among many other subjects. Each download has an extra question and answer session with a treatment specialist from Caron Treatment Centers, where the three fathers met in a support group.
“It’s hard enough as a young person to say, ‘I need help,’ and then you have a lot of programs that are either providing virtual care, which anybody in early recovery knows is a challenge in and of itself,” said Erin Goodhart, senior clinical director of women’s services at Caron. “And then even some of the treatment programs having kind of strict guidelines around COVID-19 protocols and around quarantine before coming into treatment or multiple tests. You ask for help and it seems like there are some barriers in place.”
In an episode about coping and surviving, Goodhart pointed out that until recently, clinicians placed trauma and substance use in silos. “What we’ve seen over the last five to seven years is a real blending of mental health and substance use,” said Goodhart, who works out of Caron’s Wernersville location in Berks County.
Many parents might not know that substance use disorders and mental health issues often coexist, and that these issues should be treated together instead of trying to deal with them separately.
Jay S., one of the fathers who helped start the podcast, has two children, both with substance use disorders.
When his son attended a wilderness program in his teens, “that sort of began a very long journey of substance abuse issues and mental health issues,” said Jay, who asked to use only his first name to protect the identity of his children.
For the next nine years, Jay and his wife tried “many different types of places and modalities” to help his son recover. “You’re just making stuff up as you went along because we didn’t know where to go.”
Plus, their younger daughter was dealing with learning issues — and mourning the loss of her brother who was homeless for four-and-a-half years.
“She went to community college for a couple of classes, got a job working with a day care at my duress,” Jay said. “Otherwise, she was in bed all day — so clearly a decent amount of depression and anxieties and those types of things.”
After starting at a school in Florida, Jay’s daughter “hit rock bottom” and began experiencing substance abuse issues.
Now, after ample treatment, both of Jay’s children are doing “exceedingly well” — but he says that he and his wife would not have gotten through these tremendous parenting challenges without the help of a parent support group at a Caron location in New York.
The same has been true for Steve A., another founder of the podcast, who has two sons, one of whom is in recovery for substance use disorders. He also asked to withhold his last name to protect their identities.
“Suddenly, I found myself so frustrated, so disturbed, so discombobulated as a parent,” Steve said. “I didn’t know what to do, and hearing other parents talk about how they had managed … to get through the day and deal with that crisis has been the most sustaining, powerful experience in my life.”
From other parents in a support group, Steve learned that “I couldn’t fix my kid” — that his “kid needed to be a willing person accepting treatment from professionals.”
When crisis hit his family, “we were bewildered and frightened to death beyond our wildest imaginations,” Steve said. “We were … clueless about what to do. We were in denial. … I never saw it on my schedule in life to be the parent of a child who had the disease of addiction. It took a long time for me to accept that.”
Wanting to share that knowledge — and the camaraderie they discovered in support groups — spurred the My Child & Addiction fathers to create the podcast.
Susan M., a parent of two children who have struggled with substance use disorders and mental health issues — and who participates on the podcast — said she learned from other parents “how to be quiet and tolerate discomfort,” and that “I don’t need to jump in and rescue my kid all the time.”
As the opioid epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic extend, many parents find themselves even further isolated from their support systems.
“Many parents aren’t having the opportunity even for contact, for discussion, for seeking guidance, and hopefully a few might download and listen to our podcast and feel, even during the pandemic, that there are those who care,” Jay said.
“So many of us feel we’re alone at 3 a.m. when the phone rings … And we’re just scared that’s going to be the call,” Jay added. “So that’s what the podcast is about. It’s about sharing … because everyone can’t physically get to a parent support group meeting.”
Susan said the experience of having children in active addiction and entering recovery is “so isolating and frightening, and the pandemic is so isolating and frightening. There’s something magical about podcasting,” she added. “It feels very connected as an experience. I can imagine that for people who are using it … at this time, it’s a very welcome resource.”