By Mary Burns
The annual Changing the Face of Addiction Walk held in Franklin, Sussex County was started by physical education teacher Elaine Tizzano and me after we lost our sons to addiction. Both Elaine and I decided to turn tragedy into triumph by working toward changing the stigma that surrounds addiction. After our loses, we both felt that much needed to change regarding this misunderstood condition, so we partnered with the Center for Prevention and Counseling in Newton and began this walk.
The Center for Prevention and Counseling is a nonprofit agency that serves Sussex County. The center’s mission, since 1973, has been to promote hope, health and recovery among all people by creating an environment that is safe and free from the effects of substance use and addiction. The center provides substance use prevention, evaluation, counseling and recovery support services to Sussex County children, teens, adults and families regardless of cultural background, socioeconomic status, age, gender or sexual orientation.
The walk is intended to bring people whose lives have been affected by addiction and to change the stigma that surrounds this disorder. The ninth walk was held on August 5, 2023, with over 650 people in attendance raising over $92,000. All money raised is used by the Center for Prevention and Counseling to help those without resources recover from substance use disorder.
Both Elaine and I are impressed with how the walk has grown over the past nine years. Only 225 people attended the first year. We also feel that we hit a nerve in our community.
Each year people come to walk in honor of someone in recovery, in support of someone who still struggles or in memory of a loved one lost. It is a place where people can hold their heads up high and be OK with what has happened in their lives. There is no stigma when they are at the walk, and there is no shame—something that is difficult to overcome when struggling with such an issue.
How addiction is perceived
Both Elaine and I feel that the “face” of addiction needs to be changed, but each of us sees the face differently.
Elaine sees the face in terms of how addiction is perceived. Addiction has always been seen as a moral failing, but that is not the case. Instead, the brain is changed by the drugs used.
According to Yale Medicine, the drugs that an individual uses changes the brain’s reward pathway. When the brain receives a stimulus that makes it feel good, it will want more of that stimulus. When a person develops an addiction to a substance, it’s because the brain has started to change. This happens because addictive substances trigger an outsized response when they reach the brain.
Instead of a simple, pleasurable surge of dopamine, many addictive drugs cause dopamine to flood the reward pathway. The brain remembers this surge and associates it with the addictive substance causing an individual to need to continue using these substances.
How addition affects the individual
I see the face of addiction in the individual that struggles with the disease. Society doesn’t have a favorable image of individuals that struggle with addiction. These individuals are often referred to in derogatory terms, such as, dirt bag, junkie, and other negative stereotypes.
I would like people to remember that these individuals are loved by many and include sons, daughters, mothers and fathers. This negative image needs to change.
Both Elaine and I saw that our sons had issues, but also potential and all we wanted was to see them well.
Changes to treatment needed
Getting treatment for someone who is ready to take steps toward recovery can be challenging. Insurance companies treat substance use disorder differently. Many require an individual go through outpatient treatment first before being given an opportunity to attend an inpatient program. Some companies will cover a 28-day in-patient stay while other companies may cover long-term treatment immediately paying for up to a years’ treatment.
In New Jersey, P.L. 2017, Chapter 28 requires insurance companies to cover 180 days of treatment per calendar year. While this might sound good, it requires that insurance companies cover only 28-days of inpatient treatment, which is not enough for most people to attain and maintain recovery.
I have worked with state legislators, Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union) and former Senator Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) to change Chapter 28 to require insurance companies to cover 90-days of inpatient treatment. Unfortunately, the cost of such a change was deemed to be too expensive for policy holders so it won’t be brought forth to committee for review or a vote.
In April 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation (A-2031/S-1339), which requires health insurers to provide coverage for mental health conditions and substance use disorders under the same terms and conditions as provided for any other sickness. This was done to meet the requirements of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, a federal law enacted in 2008 requiring equal coverage for mental and physical health care services.
Even with the Parity Act many people still don’t get proper treatment that they need to attain and maintain recovery. Many are still only given 28-days which, in my opinion, is not enough. Also, insurance companies often require outpatient treatment first.
My son, Eric, was required to go through outpatient treatment before our insurance company would pay for inpatient treatment. It was four months before inpatient treatment was afforded to him and Eric’s addiction became much worse during that time.
Treatment needs to be immediate, aggressive and long-term for most people to successfully overcome their addictions.
Sharing our stories
Both Elaine and I are very open about our journeys with our sons. We both believe that people should feel comfortable about sharing their addiction journeys. Educating the public about this issue is paramount in trying to change the stigma, or face, that surrounds this issue.
I wrote a book called Saving Eric, which is about how my son’s struggle became my struggle. Addiction doesn’t just affect the struggling individual but all who love them as well. My book discusses my son’s struggle with mental illness which ultimately leads him to become addicted to drugs.
In the beginning the drugs that Eric took alleviated his internal pain and, as he often said, allowed him to feel on top of the world. That feeling of exuberance disappears once an addiction takes hold and then life becomes a living hell.
It is my hope that publishing my story will make those who struggle with a loved one that is addicted to not feel so alone. I also feel that it would make a good cautionary tale and can be used for drug education. In addition, I think that those who have never had a personal experience with trying to support someone with mental illness or an addiction issue would benefit from reading it to increase understanding of two very prevalent and devastating issues.
Help for families
When looking for treatment for a loved one, utilize your local state agencies and your own behavioral health care coverage phone number (on your insurance card) to vet reliable treatment resources.
In New Jersey, contact the New Jersey Department of Human Services REACHNJ hotline for more information at 844-732-2465 or 844-REACHNJ and/or review the list of recovery community centers at nj.gov/humanservices/reachnj/help/centers.
Refrain from using an internet search when looking for treatment. Many unscrupulous treatment centers spend their money on fancy advertising tactics and skimp out on their actual professional treatment services.
Concerns about parity
People who feel that they aren’t getting appropriate treatment for substance use disorder or mental illness are encouraged to communicate concerns and complaints regarding parity by calling the Department of Banking and Insurance Consumer Hotline at 800-446-7467 (8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday), or by going to the department website and clicking on Consumer Assistance – Inquiries/Complaints, at state.nj.us/dobi.
Mary Burns is a science teacher at Hopatcong High School and the author of Saving Eric, an International Firebird Award winner in the Addiction and Recovery Category. Elaine Tizzano is a physical education teacher in the Franklin Elementary School located in Franklin, Sussex County. Burns can be reached at email@example.com.