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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Father’s group helps NH families cope with addiction

SOMERSWORTH – John Burns knows how this goes.

He knows what addiction is doing to his daughter’s body and mind. He recognizes the behaviors that signal another relapse. He knows how hard this is going to be to beat. ...

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SOMERSWORTH – John Burns knows how this goes.

He knows what addiction is doing to his daughter’s body and mind. He recognizes the behaviors that signal another relapse. He knows how hard this is going to be to beat.

But he’s optimistic, and he’s reaching out to other families facing similar struggles.

Burns’ daughter is 17, and she tried heroin for the first time last summer after a few years spent abusing alcohol, marijuana and then prescription pills. Burns’ description of his daughter’s descent into drug addiction reads like a case study.

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Through middle school, Burns’ daughter was a model student. Her goal was perfect attendance, and she reached that goal several years running. He remembered her wanting to donate spare change she and her mother had collected for years as a vacation fund to a teacher whose home burned down.

But the wheels started coming off around age 13 when she started smoking marijuana and drinking. It was at that age that a friend offered her a Vicodin pill – a potent combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen. Her friend had swiped the pills from her parents’ medicine cabinet.

“At 13, she didn’t know what the word ‘opiate’ meant,” said Burns, who has been in recovery himself for more than two decades. “She had no clue. She had no idea what she was getting herself into.”

She was 14 when another friend provided a steady supply of Klonopin and Percocet that she stole from her grandmother, Burns said.

Burns and his ex-wife, who divorced when their daughter was 7, noticed the changes in their daughter’s behavior right away, although perhaps not the root cause. There were problems with bullying. Her grades dropped. Burns and his ex-wife placed her in the state’s Children In Need of Services program after a suicide attempt that year.

“She was pretty defiant,” Burns said. “It kind of spiraled pretty quickly. She was basically running away constantly.”

It was a year ago that a family friend in whom his daughter had confided told Burns his daughter had started using heroin. He knew more drastic steps had to be taken.

“I was like, ‘OK. This is the big one,’ ” Burns said.

When his daughter missed a court date, a prosecutor and Burns convinced a judge his daughter needed to be held in a youth detention center because – as her numerous runaway attempts showed – she was a flight risk. That was the first time she agreed to enter treatment, Burns said.

It wasn’t easy, but Burns was persistent and committed.

At first, he couldn’t find a facility that would take insurance. Others didn’t fit his daughter’s needs. The rest were phenomenally expensive.

“It was a very slow road,” Burns said.

Eventually, he drained his retirement account. The end of his 401(k) meant a chance for his daughter in the form of a highly respected treatment program with facilities in Connecticut and California.

“There were no treatment resources, so the only option was you can retire poor or you can retire with a dead child. That’s kind of how I looked at it,” Burns said. “I’d rather use a fair chunk of that to take care of this than pay for a funeral.”

As is typical, Burns’ daughter’s first stint in treatment didn’t take. Since then, she has had four or five setbacks. But she’s in a treatment center in Florida now.

While she continues to work on her addiction and with hopes of eventually coming home healthy, Burns is trying to help other families find the resources he considers himself lucky to have tracked down.

Earlier this month, Burns’ organization, Families Hoping and Coping, held its first meeting. Burns hopes to share some of what he learned through his own addiction, as well as his family’s struggles after his daughter’s drug use.

“It’s a family illness. That’s the reality of it. It affects everyone,” Burns said. “The child is addicted to the substances. The family becomes addicted to the child.”

For him, coping meant, of all things, letting go to some degree, accepting he couldn’t control everything his daughter did or the world she lived in.

“Trying to chase all the drug dealers out of New Hampshire didn’t work. You can’t do that,” Burns said. “You get addicted to trying to control her behaviors, trying to protect her, which is not possible. Your life kind of revolves around it until you kind of step back and say, ‘OK, we can’t let this control everything we do.’ ”

It also meant working on co-parenting skills with his ex-wife and making sure they were communicating clearly about their daughter. And it meant understanding what his daughter was going through, understanding the power of the lure that drugs had become – something his own recovery made somewhat easier.

“I know from experience … there’s no conscious decision to hurt your loved ones. It’s because of her addiction,” he said. “There’s nobody in addiction who wants to be in addiction. They may have made some bad choices to be there, but it’s a health condition.

“It’s not looked at, it’s not treated as a health problem as it should be.”

Families Hoping and Coping is a support, education and advocacy group that Burns hopes will smooth the way for families in similar circumstances, helping them find a path through their loved ones’ addiction to, hopefully, recovery. The group meets at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover two nights a month.

The start of meetings is reserved for anyone “in crisis” and needs help or advice. Each meeting also features a guest speaker and then time at the end for general discussion, sharing of ideas, tips and other resources, Burns said.

Burns said he wants to expand, as well, and become involved in advocacy and education efforts to remedy what he sees as critical shortages of resources in New Hampshire, particularly affordable treatment options and prevention efforts.

“I think we need a lot more treatment, but ideally, if you prevent it, it makes a lot more sense than treatment, and that’s where the money should be going,” he said. “The prevention and treatment is just critical at this point.”

For more information about Families Hoping and Coping, visit the group’s Facebook page, Facebook.com/FamiliesHoping

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Cote
on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).