Sylvia is a recovering addict who has just released a book with her sister, Dr. Sherry Hoppe, called Hooked But Not Hopeless: Escaping the Lure of Addiction. Sylvia and Sherry discuss the destructive nature of addiction, tough love, how to stay with your recovery plan, self-forgiveness, and much more. We were able to contact Sylvia and get her thoughts on the recovery process, especially the importance of spirituality and forgiveness in recovery, as well as the role that will power plays.
TestCountry: Sylvia, thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. Can we start by talking about the reasons why someone turns to prescription drug abuse? Is there anything about prescription drugs that make them preferable to other substances?
Sylvia Yates: Although some people use prescription drugs to get high, most people begin by taking a pill for a physical pain or to relieve emotional distress. Sometimes the pill is obtained from a friend, but often a doctor prescribes the medication, so easy access is one reason prescription pills are preferable to other substances. Compared to street drugs like heroin or meth, the person doesn’t have to feel guilty about the initial pills or be concerned about illegalities. The problem for people who are predisposed to addiction is the inability to stop using once they have started.
TestCountry: What impact does prescription drug abuse have on the family?
Sylvia Yates: Addiction affects families, shaking their foundations and leaving heart-rending stains that are hard to erase, even after recovery. In my situation, my children saw their mother become someone they didn’t know—the person who had taught them right from wrong began doing the unthinkable: stealing. Even worse, they worried about me constantly. One of my teenage daughters often sat up at night, watching me to be sure I didn’t stop breathing. My other daughter checked on me as soon as she awakened each morning to see if I was still alive, fearing I might accidentally overdose. My son, who was older and didn’t live at home, tried to block my addiction out of his mind, refusing to think about my problems most of the time. All three of my children lost trust and respect for me. And, when I was repeatedly arrested, they suffered pain, embarrassment, and worry. The worst outcome of my long addiction is that I wasn’t there for my kids—it wasn’t that I didn’t try to love and provide for them, but I wasn’t the mother I had been or the mother they needed for far too many years.
Other family members also suffer from an addict’s inability to escape the hook. Addicts steal from their families, lie to them, and often harm or destroy relationships. Addicts inflict pain through words or actions, intentional and unintentional. Damage is caused by something that is said, done or left undone. Broken promises and neglect become routine when a person’s mind and behaviors are controlled by addiction.
TestCountry: What types of destructive behaviors do addicts participate in?
Sylvia Yates: Addicts typically place their use of drugs above all else—including their spouses, children, and other family members.
Driven by an overpowering need for drugs, addicts rationalize and justify actions they take to survive—they lie and steal and even sell themselves to have funds to buy the drugs they think they can’t live without. They manipulate others because they have to have drugs regardless of the cost. In my case, I stole not only money from family members and co-workers but also obtained prescription pads and wrote my own prescriptions, resulting in 11 felony charges. I felt uninhibited and invincible because of the chemical changes in my brain. With a conscience lulled by heavy doses of hydrocodone’s, I thought I could get away with what I did and that I deserved what I took. Silencing my shame with pills, I could do the unthinkable, violating my morals. Even the potential consequences became covered in my conscious mind, concealed by the effect of drugs. Like most addicts, I became defensive when family members confronted me, sometimes turning the anger I felt toward myself at the very people who were trying to help, accusing them of not trusting me. Turning the guilt back on the accuser helps ward off suspicions and helps soften self-reproach.
TestCountry: How difficult is it to become unhooked from drugs? Are there any misconceptions that the general public has about the recovery process that you would like to clear up?
Sylvia Yates: Because addiction is a disease that involves more than the use of drugs, it takes more than willpower to become unhooked. The addict often becomes isolated from others and becomes defensive, justifying the use, especially when they are able to obtain legal prescriptions. The pills numb physical or emotional pain and it is difficult to give up something that enables the addict to cope with daily living. Many refuse to think they have a problem with drugs until they can’t get them anymore. Then, when the craving becomes uncontrollable and addicts suspect they have no power to stop, it is too late. The addict is hooked and may give up hope he or she can ever stop using drugs. Most addicts have to reach bottom before they are willing to seek help. Even then, attempts to stay clean may fail.
The general public sometimes sees addiction as a character flaw and fails to recognize that it is a disease. They don’t understand why an addict can’t “just quit.” And, one of the strongest misconceptions is that once an addict gets clean it shouldn’t be hard to stay unhooked. They don’t understand that while addiction is treatable, there is no known cure.
TestCountry: What about the misconceptions about addiction in general?
Sylvia Yates: Well first, people think they can take one or two pills and then stop. While that is true for many people, predisposition to addiction makes that impossible for others. Also, family and friends who don’t have the addictive gene cannot conceive how the addict can turn into someone they don’t know—how a “good” person can do “bad” things. They don’t understand that the addict is not responsible for her disease, only for her recovery. Thirdly, on the outside looking in, others misperceive that addiction has something to do with where addicts come from. Addicts come from all walks of life—addiction doesn’t discriminate. Finally, the general public sees various kinds of addictions differently—taking heroin seems worse than taking a prescription pill — but all addictions make the addict powerless to stop and make life unmanageable.
TestCountry: What role do spirituality and forgiveness play in recovery?
Sylvia Yates: Without a belief in a power greater than themselves, addicts may find it impossible to escape the hook. Turning the addiction over to God—giving him control of our lives and will—is the first step toward recovery.
In my case, on the worst night of my life when I was arrested and taken out in handcuffs in front of my co-workers and one of my daughters, a dream opened my eyes to God’s desire and willingness to take me out of the pit I had dug for myself. When I awoke, I knew exactly what the dream meant. I had been going down a dark road for so long, headed toward disaster without any hope because God wasn’t in my life. I knew that the only way to get on the right road was to surrender my addiction to him and let him guide me by his light. Even though I faced daunting legal problems, after the dream, I was more peaceful than I had been in 17 years. It was amazing what having God back in my life did for me.
I’ve been pill-free for almost three years and although I don’t have a home or money or any of the worldly possessions I once treasured, I’m still joyful. I have no desire for pills and know as long as I say close to God, I never will. I not only turned my addiction over to God; I surrendered my life, my problems, my family, and my future to him. He was there waiting for me to give up my addiction and turn my messed-up up life over to him. All I had to do was be willing, and he did the rest.
That’s the kind of difference God can make in the life of an addict.
TestCountry: Can you talk to us about willpower and the multifaceted approach that is necessary in order to successfully recover?
Sylvia Yates: Willpower is important, but it comes only after a person has begun recovery. When addiction is in control, it has all of the power and the addict has little or none. In addition to the spiritual aspect of recovery, recovery includes several facets some that come before turning the addiction over to God and some that come afterward.
First, admit the addiction—the addict must stop lying to himself and others. Admitting the addiction helps close the door on what the addict was and opens the door to what he can become. Second, seek help. Addiction must be attacked on the same three fronts it affects: physical, mental and spiritual. Third, accept the past and move on. The past can’t be undone, so the addict needs to quit looking backward and focus on the future.
TestCountry: What steps would you recommend family members take to confront and help someone with an addiction?
Sylvia Yates: Most addicts deny they have a problem and resist recovery. The following steps may help, although they may differ based on the particular circumstance of the addict or the family. Confrontations should be loving but firm. Help the addict admit she is destroying her life without being critical or condemning. Also, offer support and assistance in getting into a treatment center or support group. Provide assistance that will reduce excuses to avoid treatment; for example, offer to keep a child or pet while the addict is in rehab. Educate yourself about addiction to understand what the addict is experiencing. And finally, attend support groups sponsored by Narcotics Anonymous for family members.
TestCountry: Is there anything you experienced that you would recommend family members and friends avoid doing?
Sylvia Yates: This is a tough question because each situation is unique. Personalities and problems differ, and family members need to respond in ways that help rather than harm the addict based on his particular life circumstances. Although there are no rules that apply to everyone, family members should at a minimum try not to do or say anything that will give the addict the excuse to continue using. It is particularly important not to further damage an addict’s self-esteem through criticism. Recognize that the addict feels bad enough about himself already.
TestCountry: How can an addict regain his or her life?
Sylvia Yates: Complete surrender is the key to recovery—it is the beginning of the end of drug abuse. Suggestions include: learning to have a relationship God or a higher power through prayer and meditation; recognize that God is powerful enough to help you stay clean; forgive yourself for past wrongs and let go of bitterness; forgive others and try to make amends wherever possible; resolve your shame, guilt, anger, or resentment; and of course, don’t live in the past.
You can look up Hooked But Not Hopeless by her and her sister Dr. Hoppe on Amazon.