By Melissa Shaw, Illustrations by Endia Kneipp
Parents recovering from opioid addiction face the everyday stressors and challenges of raising children on top of those associated with abstaining from substance abuse. A new, free program has launched in Massachusetts, aimed at helping parents in recovery manage both.
Sober Parenting Journey is a 14-week program based in Somerville. Participants meet two hours a week in a small group setting and focus on strengthening the bonds with their children while maintaining their abstinence from drugs.
The program is free, with childcare and a meal provided at each session. The only qualification participants must meet is that they've been in recovery for at least 30 days and regularly see a primary provider to support their sobriety. The program is a new offering from Parenting Journey, a 35-year-old Somerville-based nonprofit that offers a series of programs designed to support parents and make families stronger.
Officials are quick to point out that Sober Parenting Journey is not an addiction recovery support group, but rather a family support group infused with key elements of addiction recovery.
"We're not a recovery community, we're not recovery specialists," Clinical Director Ellie Zambrano noted. "We are a family support program for people in recovery. We provide the family support, which is unique in that a lot of recovery programs focus on separation and isolation in early stages of recovery. We really want people to be safe in their recovery, but we also want people to realize that family is a wonderful asset to helping people facilitate change. We want to talk about the role of parenting in recovery, it's really important."
Run by a trained facilitator, the program's curriculum is based on research, practical recovery experience, and anecdotal experience and input from sober parents who participated in a series of pilot versions and shared their feedback.
"People discover who they are as a person, a person in recovery, and then as a parent," Group Facilitator Delores Reyes said. Other sessions focus on honesty, trust, stressors, coping skills, self-advocacy, and the effect substance use disorder has on parents.
"We look at what research says as it relates to relapse prevention, motivational interviewing, and harm reduction, and we infuse that with our knowledge and expertise around family work," Zambrano added.
"Relapse prevention is in every session, and in every session we also ask parents where they are at in their recovery," Reyes said. "One person could be in a different place from another person. We don't want to tell them where they should be, we want them to tell us. We have really great retention. A lot of people in the program are really dedicated and committed to their recovery, so this is a huge success for parents in recovery."
Zambrano said there is a significant parallel between typical parents and those recovering from substance use: isolation and judgment.
"There's actually a lot of similarities in what somebody in recovery and someone who's parenting are struggling with," she said. "Both struggle with isolation, both of them struggle with stress. When parents are dealing with stress, there's a lot of shame around expressing their challenges. It's very much related to our culture, society is very judgmental toward parents. Acknowledging that and giving people the safe space to have discussions about what that means to them is so important. I see substance use disorder as a major health issue, but it's been stigmatized as a personal issue or a social or behavioral issue. That's been problematic, and as a result of that we're dealing with a major crisis. We know there are 11 million Americans impacted by the opioid crisis right now, and it's really devastating in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."
One of the opioid crisis's devastating characteristics is that it is cutting a swath through all cities and towns, regardless of a person's status, income, or location.
"We see a very diverse group of people who are in need of these types of support services," Zambrano noted. "We know substance use disorder doesn't discriminate, it crosses all socioeconomic groups."
While most participants are referred by the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families, Reyes said any parent at least 30 days sober and actively working on their recovery is welcome. More information can be found at parentingjourney.org or by calling (617) 628-8815.
"It's a safe place to come and talk about things they definitely could not talk about in a regular group," Reyes said. "I've seen a lot of changes: I've seen people get housing, jobs, work on their own health problems. Parents are communicating much better with their children, including children who are only months old; they talk about how they can hold their baby. People are having discussions with their older children, because the children are asking them, 'Why were you gone for three months, Mommy?' They're able to talk more, depending on age-appropriateness, about their illness. There's a really good quality that's surfacing in the Sober Parenting Journey program -- communication with their children -- and that's a real special blessing for this group."