Addiction and substance abuse is an all too common and tragic issue that plagues many people and families. Like many others, Ciara and Tony Brady saw first-hand how brutal addiction can truly be, as their oldest son struggled with it for seven years. Starting at 12 years old, their son battled substance abuse and nearly died from an overdose, prompting Ciara and Tony to bring him to the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre (AARC).

"We're in because we have no choice here. Our kid is going to die if we don't buy in and do what's needed here. It was life or death, we came to AARC from life support," Ciara said.

The AARC provides long-term treatment for youth and young adults struggling with substance abuse and addiction. Saying the AARC is "considered the last house on the block for a lot of kids," Ciara explained the treatment goes as long as needed and involves the entire family in the youth's recovery process. While it can definitely be a challenging process, the entire Brady family can speak to the success of the program, as their son is now two years sober and living a healthy life free of addiction.

Part 1: AARC and treatment for the whole family

AARC's program is multi-faceted in the way they approach addiction. For example, they have psychiatrists and doctors, but some of the staff engage in peer support programs, and these staff members have gone through the AARC program themselves. Tony believes the peer support is an extremely important and effective facet of what allows AARC to help people through addiction.

"They (the staff) are street smart, but they're also book smart now, so they have the combination of both. They're not just educated about addiction, they've been through it, so they understand it and they can get down to the level of the kids sent into the program," Tony said.

This peer support extends to the family, and Tony and Ciara both believe this is an invaluable part of the experience. Having parents be able to understand the struggle of seeing your child battle addiction was incredibly helpful in the healing process.

"There are such strong emotions around having a kid who struggles with addiction, so to sit in a group of moms and be honest about your feelings and have these moms and dads in the room nod in agreement and say 'I felt that way too,' that is extremely empowering at that point," Ciara said.

"Being a parent, you think you're in control. Addiction takes over that control, it doesn't discriminate. Being a father, it'll make you angry because you don't know what to do, but the resources are in AARC to help the fathers through it, to help the mothers through it, help the siblings... they have sibling groups to help the family," Tony added. 

The Brady family has four younger siblings other than the son in the program, and Ciara explained seeing their older brother in a life-or-death situation was extremely challenging for them too, and comes with a lot of complicated emotions. AARC addresses the effects addiction has on everyone surrounding it, and Ciara says this is one of the most important parts of AARC's process.

"If you just take a kid into treatment on their own, there is resentment; by the time you get to a place that provides long-term treatment for your kid, there's resentment in the family. And if that resentment isn't dealt with, then your kid goes into treatment for nine months and then comes home, there's not going to be a high success rate there because everybody has to deal with their pain around what addiction causes and that's what the family component at AARC allows," she said.

Part 2: Addiction Education

For Ciara and Tony, learning about what addiction truly is helped them understand the situation and approach how they would respond to their son's treatment and struggles.

"I thought addiction was like 'screw you. I'm doing drugs and I don't care about my family.' It's not like that, it's actually a brain disease, like the drugs hijack their brain and there's nothing that these kids can do. They pass a level that they become so dependent that there's no turning back without treatment," Ciara said. 

Ciara and Tony also learned that people's brains are all unique, so there isn't one "normal" way a brain responds to drugs. Some people's brains may be able to try a more addictive drug and simply move past it, while others may try what's considered a milder substance, like alcohol, but get addicted to it and have a considerably stronger reaction than others.

Addiction is frequently linked to mental health, which often leads many people to prioritize mental health care over addressing the addiction itself, as it's believed mental health problems are the reason for addiction. This can be true in some cases, but Ciara added for their son it was actually the other way around, and AARC recognized that so they focused on the addiction itself, which in turn helped other areas.

Part 3: The importance of empathy and understanding

With the knowledge of how brains react differently to substance abuse, Ciara and Tony said this knowledge helped them understand the situation, which in turn shaped their response. However, the value of understanding and empathy extends beyond the immediate family, as Ciara added community support can be a huge help for a family struggling with addiction.

On the flip side, Ciara added the last thing any family needs is judgement, and hopes that people who aren't directly involved in the situation show compassion rather than disdain.

"When you're at the point where you don't know where your kid is going to live or die... you can imagine how heavy that is to deal with, so to add judgment on to that and concern about what other people are thinking... when I'm worried about my kid's life, I don't need to be worried about what other people are saying about me as well," Ciara said.

Understanding that addiction is a disease and not a choice goes a long way toward shaping our empathy for people struggling with addiction. There are many factors at play that go into substance abuse, but it's never a choice someone willingly makes to potentially destroy their lives and families.

Part 4: Reach out

Having gone through the recovery process themselves, Tony and Ciara urge anyone impacted by addiction to reach out. You're not in this battle alone, and the support that's available through AARC or other means can change your life.

"Reach out to whatever's out there, go to AARC, make a call, see if you can talk to alumni, make yourself feel comfortable. Just don't stay at home because you just get into your head and it won't end nice," Tony said.

"It saved our lives, saved our son's life. Gave us a great outlook and you just want to get the word out there because there's success out there, there are people out there that can help in all aspects: for the actual addict, for the families, the resources are there." 

You can learn more about the AARC at its website HERE.


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