Posts tagged Addiction
A Sense of Purpose: Turning Grief into Action

Another Conversation with Robyn Houston-Bean, Founder and Director, The Sun Will Rise Foundation

By Val Walker

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In our first interview, Robyn shared how the support from her grief counselor, her friends, and her support group had all helped to hold her through her darkest months after her son’s overdose.

Nearly a year after his death, she discovered that community action was her path to healing, and started her own support group in Braintree, MA. Soon she launched The Sun Will Rise Foundation. Her insights about how support groups and community service can empower us after a tragedy sparked a whole new conversation.

Val: Can you describe what gave you a sense of purpose a few months after Nick’s death?

Robyn: After a few months of grieving, I attended an event with a group called Hand Delivered Hope that does street outreach for those living with active addiction and who call the streets home. Joining in with other families and feeling so welcomed and accepted, it suddenly struck me that I had a sense of purpose: My child was not here anymore, but I could help another child. Although my Nick wasn’t here, someone else’s child needed my love and support. This warm, friendly group and others, such as Let It Out and The Boston Grief Group, inspired me and gave me strength to start my own group in Braintree. I knew we needed a grief support group closer to where I lived because I finally realized the scope of all this grief out there in the world. It’s so important that support groups are convenient for local people to meet and come together easily. We need people to understand us and validate our feelings, so we don’t have to make excuses for our tears and our laughter.

Val: I would love to learn more about how helping others is healing for you.

Robyn:  To put it simply, helping others helps me. I know that if I didn’t go down the path of helping others, I would be at a different place with my grief. Helping others forces me to step out of my own pain and hear and feel the grief of others. The group members are so appreciative to have a place to put their grief. Nick was so compassionate and caring, and each time someone is helped with our group, I know he is smiling down on me.

Val: It amazes me that you went straight to the Braintree Town Hall to ask about starting a support group. How did this happen?

Robyn: I knew a person who worked for the mayor, so I floated the idea of having a group at the town hall. Right away that person thought it was a great thing for our town to do. What a perfect way to say “no” to the stigma about the opioid crisis by having this group right at the Braintree Town Hall! After the group was going for a while, we had our first fundraiser for the foundation right there at the town hall. We have been lucky because not all communities have embraced the idea that substance use disorder can happen to anyone, and that we all need to work together to help prevent it.

Val: What was it like learning to be a group facilitator?

Robyn: I doubted myself very much at the beginning, but I received such great support from some of the facilitators. My doubts were erased very quickly. Figuring out the logistics, learning about facilitating, getting the word out so people in grief could find a tribe—all this kept my mind busy and kept me going in the early days.

Val: How is having a purpose contagious with other families affected by the opioid epidemic?

Robyn: I'm amazed how powerful it can be when people who are usually on the margins are given a voice. Grieving is hard enough, but on top of that, it’s a stigmatizing death, and it can cause people to focus inward and avoid dealing with day to day life.  It can cause grievers to be left alone in their grief by friends and a community that doesn't know how to deal with loss. Being part of our community, a place where people are safe to explore their feelings no matter what, a place where we can share anger, confusion, sadness, hopelessness, guilt and not be judged is a powerful thing. Having someone there to say, "Me too, I've felt that way" can really make a huge difference in our lives. Once you know you aren't alone, that there are hundreds of people out there who have felt your pain and have survived-- not only survived but lived again after loss--can be an incredibly healing realization.

Here are some ways that support groups have helped to turn grief into action:

  • People build new friendships.

  • They advocate for change in their own towns.

  • They work to change laws.

  • They gather together in prevention activities.

  • They support the newest members of the group.

  • They find their voice again.

I'm so glad the people who led the path before me gave me my voice, and that I have played some small part to help others find theirs.

Val: Robyn, you have been so generous with your passion and wisdom. Thanks so very much for all you have done.

Robyn: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk with the Health Story Collaborative.

Recommended Resources

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Val Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress (Penguin/Random House, 2010). Formerly a rehabilitation counselor for 20 years, she speaks, teaches and writes on how to offer comfort in times of loss, illness, and major life transitions. Her next book, 400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community will be released in March 2020 by Central Recovery Press.

Keep up with Val at www.HearteningResources.com

Wildfire: A Story About Addiction

My mistakes are like wildfires: disfiguring the entire landscape, forests turned black and flat and charred beneath my feet. After something like that, people will always look at you like a walking natural disaster, always smell the air for smoke. I would do anything to take it back, to just pop the cap back on that bottle and move on with my life, but that didn’t happen. There’s that saying about something being a tough pill to swallow, but I guess I never had that problem. Pills were easy. Too easy.

The summer before I started high school, my dad and I moved to a small town in rural Oregon. It was deceptively picturesque, with a historic downtown and snow-capped mountains lining the horizon. My dad said it looked like a Christmas card, but to me, it felt like a snow globe. “Come on, it’s a fresh start in God’s country. It’ll be good for us,” he said. I knew the divorce hadn’t been easy on my dad, but this didn’t feel like a fresh start. It felt like a life sentence.

The town felt barren. Untouched. Lonely. Of course, there were other kids my age in the town, and I went to school with all of them. You’d think this would help with the overwhelming isolation, but it had the opposite effect. Throwing together a few hundred chronically bored, desperate-for-trouble teens is about as good of an idea as it sounds. It became us against the world, a case study in desperation and mob mentality. Without that anger and desire for more, what did we have? There was nothing for us to look forward to besides escape. Every day in that tiny school and that tiny town felt the same, like we were living in a time loop. It would almost be cool, like a science fiction movie, if it wasn't so abysmally boring. So we determined that if we couldn’t get to the outside world just yet, we would bring the outside world to us. Like the stupid kids we were, we thought the outside world was like one giant rager, so we threw some pretty killer parties. I never understood how the word “killer” could both mean something good and bad at the same time. Now I do.

Flash forward to a Friday night sometime during my senior year. We had survived yet another week of classes and teachers and homework; graduation was just around the corner. We were so close to being done. So close. Naturally, we decided to celebrate the only way we knew how: we threw a party. We kept the house dark, the music loud, and the blinds drawn. For those few brief hours in whoever’s house we were crashing that weekend, we weren’t trapped in rural Oregon. We were living in L.A. or New York or some other far away city. Our hearts slammed inside our chests, echoing the beat of the music and chanting for more, more, more. For those few brief hours, we were free.

Freedom has a price, though. That’s the part they skip in the movies. The characters have a crazy night, something goes wrong, chaos ensues as the characters try to fix whatever sticky situation they had gotten themselves into, the problem works itself out, and the characters laugh about it afterwards and have a sentimental moment. Cue happy music. Roll credits. The end. That’s not how it happens in real life. That night, we made a mistake. We started a wildfire. The moment my friend switched out a beer bottle for a pill bottle, I should have known to walk away. I should have said no, but that night, I felt invincible. I thought nothing would hurt me, not when I was so close to my life finally starting. I looked around at all my friends, drunk and high and so alive, and I took one. Oxycodone didn’t sound scary, not like heroin or cocaine or meth. They gave it to kids when they got their teeth pulled, so how bad could it be? One pill wouldn’t hurt. I had stopped saying no a long time ago.

If only I had known that one pill would turn into a habit, and a habit would turn into a full blown addiction. Soon, I had pills in my locker, in my car, in my bookbag, in my purse. Any space I inhabited on a regular basis became my drug cabinet, my hiding place. It became increasingly difficult, however, to keep my addiction going. I was in high school, and my dad would be furious if he found out. I didn’t have nearly enough money to keep buying the pills I wanted—no, needed. I found myself at a new low.

Hooked on the high and stupid enough to keep my problem a secret, I used up the last of my money from my summer job and bought heroin for the first time. It was from a kid at my school; the deal was cheap and quick. The needle was intimidating at first, but not as scary as the thought of withdrawal. The tremors, the sweating, the chills, the pain. Itching for a high in the tiny bathroom attached to my bedroom, I closed my eyes to not focus on the pinch of the needle. I didn’t think about what would happen once this high wore off. I just let the wave of euphoria wash over me and felt a sudden calm. Looking in the mirror, I could see my first bruise already beginning to show. I changed into a sweatshirt before my dad came home. I would wear long sleeves for years to come.

If taking oxycodone for the first time crossed a line, shooting up with heroin for the first time obliterated it. Every day, the drugs worked less and less, and I had to buy more and more. I was covered in bruises. Anywhere that could be hidden with jeans or long sleeves was a canvas of blue and brown bruises and puncture marks. If there was anything drugs taught me, it was that I was a good liar. It seemed I could hide anything from my dad. Until three years later, when I finally hit rock bottom.

I was in college. I mean, I was enrolled in college, but I rarely even showed up to class. My grades were slipping and my attendance was a disaster, but I could never seem to make it through the day. Not without getting high. I’d gone home early that day, exhausted and ready to add another bruise to the collection. If I had counted how many times I had felt the sting of a needle, it probably would have been enough to have given myself a full tattoo. One minute I was in the bathroom, pulling my sleeves down to hide the shameful thing I had just done, and the next, I had stumbled into my room. I laid down and closed my eyes, which is apparently how my dad found me. Prone. Unresponsive. Barely breathing. I woke up a day later in the hospital, my dad sitting next to the hospital bed with his head in his hands. He lifted his head and looked at me, my eyes red and bloodshot. He didn’t say anything. He just looked at me. I told him it wasn’t his fault, but I could tell he didn’t believe me. He felt the burden of my secret as much as I did. He sat there and looked at my arms, a stark picture of my addiction. He checked me into rehab the next week.

Rehab was not like the hospital. The hospital was cold and smelled like rubbing alcohol and formaldehyde. It was sterile and felt like death. Rehab, on the other hand, was filled with warm colors and art classes and friendly faces. Withdrawal felt like dying, but at least it wasn’t death. It was resuscitation. Revival. Resurrection. I left a month later detoxified and rejuvenated, ready to pick up the pieces of my life and live as if that night at that fated party never happened. Too bad good things almost never last.

I would overdose three more times. Each time, my dad sent me back to rehab with a little less hope in his eyes. I had given up a little, too. During my fourth stint in rehab, I met Rachel. She was nineteen, bone thin, and pregnant. It turns out that if you do heroin while you’re pregnant, the baby gets addicted, too. If the mom tries to go cold turkey and stop feeding her addiction, the baby also goes through withdrawal and can die. So there sat Rachel, medicated on methadone and just waiting until her nine-and-a-half month wait was up so that she could get her act together. When I asked her about her situation, she said, “If it was just me, I probably would have never gotten clean. But it’s not just me anymore, and Child Protective Services can get involved at any time. My family doesn’t think I’ll make a good mom. I need to prove them wrong. I just made a mistake. It was one time.” It was this heartbreaking admission that made me see that if I didn’t get clean, I could be in Rachel’s shoes in five, ten, maybe fifteen years. I could never drag my kids into this. Never. That was my last trip to rehab. I never touched a needle again.

Five Years Later

“And that’s how I got here. I’m almost five years clean, and I’m finishing community college in a couple of months. I already have a job lined up after I graduate.” Claps and congratulations filled the room as I announced this news, a success story that the other recovering addicts in the room could aspire to. Heroin Anonymous had taken up my Monday nights for the past four years, and in every meeting I attended I felt like I was earning my place back in society. Rachel sat across the room with her daughter, who was fast asleep in her lap. I wondered if Rachel would ever tell her what these meetings were, who she used to be. My father sat next to me, smiling and proud of my recovery.

It is true that some mistakes are like wildfires. They burn down everything that was once familiar, and you are left with only the ashes. But that’s the incredible thing about wildfires: after the flames have died down and the heat no longer persists, the scorched ground becomes green again. Life always finds a way. Things grow back. It may never be the same, but it sure is something worthwhile.

Shannon Lally is currently pursuing a double major in Psychology BS and English with a concentration in Creative Writing. After college, she hopes to pursue law in a creative field, such as book publication.

Breaking Through the Isolation of Grief

An Interview with Robyn Houston-Bean, Founder, The Sun Will Rise Foundation

By Val Walker

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INTRODUCTION

Robyn Houston-Bean lives in Braintree, MA, and manages an insurance agency for four days a week. She is married to John Bean, a sheet metal worker, and has a daughter, Olivia, age 25, and a son, Jake, age 21. Amazingly, around her demanding business and the needs of her family, Robyn runs a dynamic, fast-growing organization, The Sun Will Rise, dedicated to serving families affected by the Opioid epidemic.

Three years ago, Robyn’s oldest son, Nick, died of an opioid overdose. Just one year after his death, finding a way to channel her grief, Robyn began building her foundation in honor of her son, and soon engaged hundreds of families with support groups, inspirational talks, and fundraising events.

I wanted to understand how Robyn was able to express her grief through community activism, and more deeply, to explore how she found comfort, understanding and support for her grief.

One grey morning in February, I enjoyed a rich, two-hour interview with Robyn. Her candid insights about how grief isolated her, and what it took to break through isolation and turn to others was a powerful story in itself. She didn’t hold back from “going there” to describe her first devasting weeks after Nick’s death. Her story is so compelling and important that I have written her interview in two parts. Part One is about how she broke out of the isolation of her grief. Part Two is about her healing adventure of developing her foundation, The Sun Will Rise.

Right at the beginning of my conversation, Robyn made one thing quite clear: We don’t ever “get over” nor completely recover from our child’s death, but hopefully, we learn to live with loss—and if possible, find a sense of purpose to guide our grief. For Robyn and many who support her work, community activism for facing the opioid epidemic has given devasted people a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging.

INTERVIEW

Part One: Breaking Through the Isolation of Grief

Robyn didn’t hold back from “going there” to describe her first devasting weeks after Nick’s death.

Val:  Can you describe the early stages of your grief—starting at the point you think it’s best to start?

Robyn: First, I should tell you about the night before he died.  I’ll never forget the night before Nick overdosed. Strangely, out of the blue, before Nick came home from work, my daughter, Olivia, said, “I have a bad feeling about him.” As soon as he got home, he walked straight to the fridge. When Nick put his face into the fridge I made him look at me because of my daughter’s feeling that something didn't seem right. I put both my hands on the sides of his face to make him look at me.

I asked, "Are you okay?" He told me, "I'm just tired-- I'm going to bed, why?" I answered, "Because I love you, and don't want anything to happen to you.”

He replied, "I love you too. I'm tired and going to bed. I have to be up for an early shift." It still haunts me that I didn't know something horrible was going to happen that night.

The next morning as I was headed out to the gym for my usual workout, I was surprised to see Nick’s car in the driveway, as he usually drove to work on the early shift. I wondered, why was Nick’s car still there? I called upstairs towards his room, “Hey Nick, are you up there?” It seemed so weird he was not answering as he was such an early morning kind of guy. I went to his room and found him lying motionless in his bed, cold and blue. I tried to revive him with Narcan but I could tell it was too late. I screamed a horrible, guttural sound—a sound I have never made in my life. Still, my daughter called 911. The EMT and police came and took him to the hospital, but he was gone.

Val: What a horrible shock—to be the one to find him dead right at home. Before his death, had there been any signs that you sensed Nick was using again or hiding anything?

Robyn: Not really. It was such a shock, and there really are no words to describe this kind of shock. He was doing so well and so proud of his new job as an Emergency Services Technician. He had just finished his certification and was feeling a real sense of purpose and mission in his life. He told me almost every day how he loved his work, and loved being so helpful for others, saving lives. But…perhaps, he saw too many awful things during emergencies and rescues, and maybe some things had triggered him. I will never really know.

Val: What were those first weeks or months like for you?

Robyn: Everything just stopped. I just stopped. All I could do was sit on the couch. I had always been a super-energetic person who loved fitness competitions and worked hard to be the best at anything I wanted to do. I was once the unstoppable, super-achieving woman who never looked back.

But when Nick died, I didn’t know how to be me anymore.

Unfortunately, my husband and youngest son didn’t know how to relate to this person I had become—this woman who just stopped everything. And my friends tried to text me and chat to cheer me up. But I couldn’t do chit chat anymore. My daughter could understand somewhat, but she was my daughter and was grieving in her own way. For me to grieve, I needed to have some of Nick’s things around me on the counter by the kitchen—his little harmonica, his coin collection, little pins he wore, his pocket knives, but this bothered my husband to the degree that this caused arguments. He didn’t want to talk about the death of our son or look at Nick’s stuff because he just wanted to push the memories away to get through the day. I was the total opposite from him in how I grieved. There was an awful tension between us. I felt lonely with my grief because no one in my family could understand how I was grieving as a mother. And I was anxious that my friends were trying to fix me and get me to socialize or get back to the gym. No one seemed to accept that the person I was before Nick’s death—that once unstoppable Robyn-- no longer existed.

Val: It sounds so isolating for you. No one in your family is the right person to talk to, and your friends don’t seem to understand how to relate anymore, even though they are trying. What in the world did you do?

Robyn: I had a gut feeling that a grief counselor might help me. For a referral, I asked a pediatrician I liked for years (who had treated my kids when they were younger.) He gave me the name of an excellent therapist, and fortunately I felt comfortable with her.  I opened up and shared everything with her. I was especially concerned about how to cope with my husband and children who weren’t grieving in the ways I was.  A few weeks later, I asked my husband and kids to join for family therapy. They weren’t too thrilled about it, but they cared enough to go for a few sessions. I was relieved this therapy resulted in finding a solution about how I could have Nick’s things around me without this upsetting my husband. We decided to put Nick’s little things in a box on the counter, so when I wanted to connect with Nick I could just get his things out of the box and then put them away. Believe it or not, this simple solution made a huge difference for me and my husband!

 

Val: Wow. I love what you just said. And what a perfect solution to use the box for Nick’s things.

Robyn: Eventually my daughter, Olivia, started going into the box, getting out his harmonica and coin collection, and sharing memories about Nick with me. But still…I had a long way to go to get used to my new normal without Nick in my life.  Indeed, we all had new normals without Nick in our lives.

But one day a thoughtful friend connected me on Facebook with a friend of his named Carole who had recently lost her child to an overdose. Very soon we were talking on the phone. We could “go there” with the horrible things that no one else could talk about. For our first face-to-face meeting, Carole met me at the cemetery where both of our kids were buried. Can you believe it—both of our kids were in the same cemetery lying near each other! We sat on the grass and cried together. We made a pact with each other that we would “take care of our kids” every day by going to the cemetery every day. We agreed that no one could rob us of our grief and the time we needed to “take care of our kids.”

Soon another friend connected me to other grieving parents through Facebook.  In a few months we found out about an organization called Hand Delivered Hope, a group of concerned citizens affected by the opioid epidemic. This group provided street outreach to people who have been impacted, meeting their basic needs so that recovery was possible. Hand Delivered Hope had organized a benefit event where participants were bringing bags of comfort items. My sister and I attended this event, and to my surprise, I made friends easily with other parents and family members who had lost loved ones or had loved ones still struggling. I didn’t feel judged or that I had to censor myself from talking about messy and awful topics related to addiction. They busted through the stigma of addiction as I was accepted and welcomed. They asked about Nick, and how I was coping with my grief. They shared their own stories about broken relationships and how their kids were destitute, misguided, broken, or had died through an overdose. It was a safe place to talk honestly as a group, and I immediately realized how healing it was to have this open, warm environment where I could be a grieving mother—rather than trying to be that unstoppable, super-achiever person I used to be. This experience of feeling so welcome with my grief was a big turning point for me.

I had a huge revelation, and it all came down to this: My child was not here anymore, but I could help someone else’s child. And I could help someone else who was grieving to feel warmth and acceptance. Braintree needed more support groups, fundraising events, educational events, and resource development. Soon after my revelation, one thing led to another. I met another wonderful friend named Rhonda who was involved with a grief support group at GRASP in Brighton. She told me there was no grief support group on the south shore of Massachusetts. And things started moving from there—it was my calling. I believed I was the one to do this.

Val: Thankfully, you found a group where you didn’t have to hide your grief, and that inspired you to start your own support groups. What about your older friends? Did they fade away? Or were you able to maintain those friendships alongside the new friends you were making?

Robyn:  Yes, I have been able to keep most of my old friends. I finally managed to figure out how I can fit my old and new friends in my life. First of all, these two groups of friends are two separate groups. I call my old friends my “before” friends (before Nick’s death) and my new friends my “after” friends. The “after” friends definitely “get me” more easily and I can talk about the good, the bad and ugly stuff with them. However, I truly love my old friends and I tend to do more fun and lively stuff with them—which is just fine for short periods. I don’t want to be a “downer” with my “before” friends. My “before” friends still want to see me laugh and socialize, and I’m able to do that on some occasions. I must admit they can still make me laugh. I am glad to have both groups in my life. But I couldn’t live without my “after” friends.

Val:   Robyn, what a creative way to make room for all your friends in your life. That also sounds like a beautiful way to embrace your “before” self with your “after” self.

Robyn: Thank you for saying that. It’s all taken a long time.

This concludes Part One of my conversation with Robyn. In my next post on the Health Story Collaborative, Robyn will share her healing journey with developing The Sun Will Rise Foundation. 

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Val Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress (Penguin/Random House, 2010). Formerly a rehabilitation counselor for 20 years, she speaks, teaches and writes on how to offer comfort in times of loss, illness, and major life transitions. Her next book, 400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community will be released in March 2020 by Central Recovery Press.

Keep up with Val at www.HearteningResources.com