A Sister’s View on Substance Use Disorder: Care, Love, and Recovery

Substance use disorders (SUD) often impact an entire family, not just the person with the condition. Recently, we spoke with Jessica, a member of the Opiant team who has experienced the impacts of SUD on a family member firsthand. Jessica shares how her efforts to support her brother through his battle with addiction impacted both her career path and how she approaches those in need.

Opiant: Today we are joined by Jessica, a member of our Opiant team. Jessica, thank you for being with us. If you can share your background and what led you to Opiant.

Jessica: Happy to be here. I am a nurse by trade and graduated from LVN [Licensed Vocational Nurses] school a couple of years ago. I was drawn to nursing because I wanted to do something for people and nursing opened that door for me. It was however my brothers experience with addiction that drew me to Opiant. My brother had struggled with addiction in the past. The more I listened to him and learned from him, the more I wanted to understand what was going on with him. Over time, he was able to explain to me that he felt like he needed more help and care. He knew his addiction wasn’t going to easily go away, because he felt like mentally something was off. He knew he had that trait because as a young kid, he would go into the kitchen and steal sugar to eat. As he grew up, the addictive tendencies got worse. He knew that the AA groups weren’t going to help him. He felt like he needed medication. He felt like it was just something deeper. So, when the opportunity with Opiant became available, I was so drawn to the mission and work.

Opiant: If you can share more about the experience you had with your brother.

Jessica: Of course. I’ve always been so close to him; I’ve always felt like he was a huge protector for me, and we were very bonded. When I was 12 or 13, I knew he was using because he became a different person. I started to feel scared to be around him, because I didn’t know what was going to happen. He had a lot of mood swings. I still wanted to be around because I was always curious why this was happening? Why was he acting that way?

He did stints in and out of rehab. I would see him at his worst, someone who is so addicted that you could see the hunger of the addiction. He no longer was my brother, but I wanted to help him.

Unfortunately, nothing I was doing at that time, at that age was going to help him. He was going to do whatever he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it. A lot of what scared me was the violence that came with the addiction, violence towards the family and towards his partner at the time. He would go into rehab and when he came out there would be a week of normalcy and then he would fall back again.

I’d try to be there as support, but once he overdosed, I was so scared. I feel like I was more scared for him than he was for himself, because after the overdose, nothing changed. In fact, his addiction got worse. There were many points where I couldn’t find him. I would look for him, search for him, call friends. I just didn’t even know where he was.

He was always so angry with our family and I was the only one reaching out to him. I would go to meetings with him, just to be there as support. I don’t know if it helped at that time, but I feel like I was there at his lowest point. I was also able to see him get out of his addiction, which I’m so happy and thankful for. Even though some people may think, “I would have given up a long time ago,” that wasn’t in me.

Opiant: We’ve heard from families before about the fatigue of supporting someone with addiction and how they often reach a breaking point. How did you navigate that? And how was he eventually able to overcome his substance use disorder?

Jessica: Ultimately, he knew that I wasn’t there to judge him. Whether he was a good person or a bad person, it wasn’t my job to judge. He pushed a lot of people away, but not me. I think that I was a good foundation for him because he knew he could come to me with anything. I helped in the ways I could. I got him a job where I worked at, at the time. If you’re getting someone a job, you’re basically putting your neck out to someone, and I was willing to do that.

Never once did I ever think of giving up on him. People always ask me, “Why did I keep trying to help him?” But I felt like if he could feel my nonjudgment and acceptance, one day it would click in his head. One day it would work.

I never treated him less than, because I knew how my parents would treat him, relatives would look at him, and the shame people felt about his situation. I didn’t want him to feel that. I felt like he needed someone to be strong for him and that’s what I wanted to be.

I never once thought of giving up on him, I didn’t want to. I think he knew that. I think he knew he had a solid rock with me.

Opiant: What ultimately clicked for him?

Jessica: I thought after the overdose, it would completely turn around, but it just didn’t.

I think ultimately, he was fed up. I think he was tired of who he was and who he had become. I think he got tired of that lifestyle. I think he wanted more. And I think the one thing that he learned was to love himself because he didn’t before.

Even today, when we talk, he always tells me, “The one thing that I wish people would’ve told me, or I would have listened to, was to love myself.” Because he said, and he continues to say, “When I was in that point of life, I didn’t love myself. There was nothing that was going for me that made me love life.” I always told him, I said, “Don’t let life knock you down and then stay there.” Because I feel like people tend to let life get to them, and it’s okay to be down, but you must be able to get back up. I think that he finally was able to pick himself up.

Opiant: What were the first steps he took to find that love for himself and then want to care for himself?

Jessica: He got a job. He got insurance. He sought mental health care. He got an antidepressant to help with his anxiety and depression. We started having more communication. We would see each other and have “coffee day” on Saturday, just us. We would talk about how he wished it wasn’t at this age that he was turning his life around. He wished he would have done it earlier.

He was also able to remove all the people that were toxic in his life. Eventually he moved away. He cut everyone off at that point in his life and I think it was helpful.

Opiant: What would your advice be to someone who is out there searching for help because they’re also struggling with a family member that has a substance use disorder. What would you say to them?

Jessica: As much as they push you away, as much as they make you feel like you’re useless in their life, don’t walk away because they don’t know what they really want. They are on a substance that takes control of them and makes them like a monster. Don’t be judgmental, be there with love at all times, even when they don’t make it easy. You’re not there to judge.

Opiant: How has this experience changed how you show up in the world and your own path?

Jessica: I try my best to be a good person. I know that I won’t be able to help everyone. If others are able to see what I went through, how I was able to turn his addiction into something good — I went into nursing and was able to educate myself because of the experience — you can always take something positive from an experience. Don’t look at the negative. There’s no negative in it. The only negative is you looking at it negatively.

Addiction is something no one ever wants to talk about. Even nurses and doctors I’ve known don’t want to deal with addiction, but people with substance use disorders need help too. They’re humans and we need to care for them the same way we care for our cancer patients, the same way we care for someone with a broken leg.

Opiant: How did your personal philosophy influence your decision to join Opiant?

Jessica: As a nurse, I was able to help one-on-one, but at Opiant, we can help more people. I love being part of something that can potentially change a lot of lives and a lot of families. I know how much addiction affected me and my family, so I think that that’s what ultimately brought me here.

Opiant: Well, we are so glad you joined our team. Is there anything you would like to share in closing?

Jessica: Yes, we all could do a little bit of something — a phone call, a text. It definitely goes a long way, especially when someone feels so lonely. You can never take that loneliness away, necessarily, but try to be there where you can.

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Getting to grips with substance use disorders takes scientific breakthroughs, advocacy, education, and brave policy. Saving Lives: Perspectives on Addiction and Overdose, are Q&A’s between Opiant and the people shaping our understanding and response to addiction and overdose.

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Opiant Pharmaceuticals, Inc., the company that developed NARCAN® Nasal Spray, develops medicines to combat addictions and drug overdose.

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