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Families cope with addiction

Kelle Lynn • Jul 22, 2015 at 11:02 AM

When individuals are addicted to heroin, they disappear into the underground world of fellow addicts and dealers. Families are left in the dark and have no idea what their loved one does on a daily basis. 

When their own child is addicted to heroin, there is no longer even a slight resemblance to the son or daughter they raised. Heroin takes over their personality, their humor and their cognitive reasoning.     

Although Barbara Winchester’s oldest son, Ben Fris, has been drug-free since going to CMI Abasto in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 2013, the Holland woman said she had no idea his behavior was linked to heroin. 

"I couldn't figure out why my son was so sick all the time,” she said. “I never knew he was a heroin addict." 

Winchester said her parents never drank alcohol, she never experimented with drugs, and she doesn't have any friends with drug issues either. 

"I was completely naive and didn't know what to look for," she said.

Ben confessed his heroin addiction in an email to her the day after he arrived at CMI. Knowing heroin is a hardcore drug, she broke down and cried. 

Even though Fris had been to rehab twice over the years, he was never able to kick the addiction that started years earlier with prescription pain pills for spinal stenosis. After he left those rehab stints, Winchester held a glimmer of hope for her son. 

"My son is back,” she recalled. “I could tell his mind was clearer and he had a sense of humor again. You think he's good, so I trusted him. Then you get a phone call in the middle of the night that cops are at his house." 

The addict is back in full swing and becomes someone you don't know anymore. 

"They are such good actors," Winchester said. "You can't believe anything they say since they are so good at disguising things and always lying." 

Winchester says she makes a conscious effort to stay on top of her own stress when it gets to be too much. 

"I can tell when I'm depressed, so I have to kick myself out in the air and sunshine," she said. She regains a sense of calm and peace through exercise, walking the beach and talking to a group of supportive friends.  

Winchester found out about Ottagan Addictions Recovery (OAR) meetings in Holland through a friend whose husband had serious issues with alcohol. It wasn't until she started going to the meetings that she gained a greater understanding of what was happening to her son. 

"At OAR, I learned about drugs and the effect it has on the brain,” Winchester said. “I learned a lot from the meetings. That's why I never gave up on him."

Ben Fris and his father, J. Fris, went through an estrangement for about five years, starting in 2009. 

"During that whole time, Ben only contacted me if he needed money, or if he had an issue with his home that needed to be fixed," the elder Fris said. "I knew Ben was an alcoholic and addicted to prescription pain pills, which ultimately led to heroin. I became aware that he had stolen money from his grandma and aunts in the form of writing checks — $500 to $1,000 here and there." 

J. Fris said he visited his son during a 60-day rehab stay at Johns Hopkins Hospital and felt hopeful again. 

"The old Ben was back. He was great,” the elder Fris said. “But within one week after leaving, he was using again. In my opinion, the 12-Step program wasn't working in Ben's life. I gave up hope that he would ever recover." 

J. Fris found out about his son’s heroin addiction via the same email that was sent to Winchester. 

"I wasn't shocked,” the father said. “I had hardened myself to whatever he did at that point."

Jackie Rathjen, also of Holland, couldn't help but blame herself when she and her husband, Todd, saw the decline in their daughter's life that started when she was a teenager. At 17, Brittany Rathjen had a baby, partied through her senior year of high school, and then went off to school at Everest Institute to become a medical assistant — but she ended up a heroin addict.   

"At first, I wondered what I did wrong,” Jackie said. “I just want normal. Why did this happen to me? It's brutal." 

Brittany's lying and manipulating became the new norm. 

"As parents, you initially believe the lies," Jackie said. "And there were many sleepless nights. At times, I wanted her to call so I would know what's going on. But once she called, I wished she hadn't since there was always some kind of drama. I was always torn."

Jackie said their focus shifted from Brittany to giving proper care to Brittany’s daughter, Allison, by taking full custody of the girl when she was 5. 

"We told Brittany she had to be a mom or leave home,” Jackie said. “She didn't fight us on this issue. It was very hard to watch her walk out the door. But we were already Allison's ‘norm’ since Brittany was gone a lot." 

The close-knit family was torn apart many times because of Brittany's addiction, and the path she was on wasn't anything they had envisioned for their daughter. 

"The choices she made became something we had to deal with," Jackie said. "But our family wasn't always on the same page on how to deal with matters. Drugs can break a family apart in a second."

Jackie did her own intervention with Brittany's doctors. 

"I would call Brittany's doctors and tell them that she is an addict, and if he's prescribing, then he is helping her addiction,” she said. “They know how to act and fake it to get the drugs they want." 

People from OAR came to the Rathjen home and met with the family, including Brittany's grandparents.

“They told us she's an addict and will do whatever she can to get her ‘air’ (heroin),” Jackie said. “It's what she does to breathe. But we don't have to help her breathe. … We loved her so much we had to say ‘no’ — which is very hard."   

The Rathjen family now fosters other children of drug addicts in their home.

"Their parents are victims to dealers and doctors, too," Jackie said. 

Jackie said her faith is what keeps her strong. 

"If I didn't have God, I would be insane,” she said. “I know God is in control. I know He has a plan. He is going to make something good out of it." 

Tim and Joyce Lont, also Holland residents, said their son, Jimmy, was the easiest kid to raise and fun to have around. 

"The heart and soul of him is a good kid," Joyce said. "But when he was on drugs, I saw a dark soul. The kid in him was gone." 

Tim was Jimmy's football and track coach at Holland Christian High School. He was aware of his son and his buddies experimenting with marijuana and alcohol, but said he didn't see any red flags during Jimmy's high school years. 

"I felt like Jimmy was misbehaving like I did in high school and college,” Tim said. “But I didn't cross the line and didn't think he would, either." 

The Lonts said it was after Jimmy went to off to Ferris State University that he moved up the drug chain. 

"He wasn't ready for school,” Tim said. “He didn't know who he was in college or how to fit in. He was led away to a different crowd and started doing heroin within six months." 

The Lonts observed money was being depleted quickly — $4,000 was gone in less than two months, Tim said.

"You know something is wrong, but you don't know what," Joyce said. "We were naive. We had no clue about heroin." 

The Lonts watched their son's life spiral out of control into someone and something they didn't recognize. 

"A heroin addict is a master deceiver," Joyce said. "It's a deep, dark hole on the family side." 

Joseph Rannazzisi, the deputy assistant administrator for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s Office of Diversion Control, says parents cannot adopt the attitude that their child will never become an addict.

"A parent needs to know what is out there and what could potentially be hurting their kids,” he said. "Adults, teachers and guidance counselors are woefully unprepared to discuss these different drug threads with kids. We need to start as early as fourth grade to sit down and discuss this with our kids. If we don't start training our kids that young, we are in for future problems. It's too late by the time they are in high school.”

Rannazzisi says there are many sources of information families can turn to.

“The reason we work with drug coalitions is because coalitions are creating that avenue of education for parents and communities” he said. “These community coalitions are what the government should be doing, both state and federal government. The coalitions are educating the community for us. They tell us what they are doing for the schools." 

Information and warning signs for parents

Emotional changes:

*Isolation from family events on a regular basis

*Extreme changes in appearance and attitude

*Angry or depressed behavior

*Breaking rules at home and at school

*Belligerence toward authority - including you

*Lack of interest in academic opportunities

Interpersonal changes:

*Changes in friends

*Conflicts at school or at work

*Inability to maintain commitments

*Trouble following the rules

*Trouble participating in group activities

*Poor academic performance

*Dropping out of activities including sports, hobbies and school-related organizations

Physical changes:

*Flushed skin

*Dry mouth

*Nodding out or acting extremely drowsy

*Nausea and/or vomiting

*Itchy skin

*Slowed or shallow breathing

*Difficulty communicating or following a conversation

— Information from the Heroin Summit and Michigan State Police

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