I. Families Affected

Laurie Wicks said she was blindsided by her son Keegan’s addiction, which started when he was in his early teens.

“Our relationship had been very good and out of all my children, Keegan was probably the most open and we had lots of fun together,” Laurie said.

Keegan was funny, respectful and well-liked. But when he started using drugs, he became distant from his mother and their relationship changed.

“When I would get home from school or spend time with friends, [my mom would ask,] ‘How was your day?’ My response would be, ‘Good,’” Keegan said. “Or you know, ‘What did you do?’ My response would be, ‘Nothing.’”

Keegan was struggling with clinical depression and attended counseling, but he didn’t tell his counselor about his addiction. It wasn’t until Keegan told his mother on Christmas in 2009 that she learned about his drug use. Just shy of turning 18, Keegan went into rehab.

When someone suffering from addiction goes into treatment, many facilities don’t create a space for families to play a part in their loved one’s recovery. While that works for some, others say a strong foundation of family support is essential to successful recovery.

In Philadelphia and around the country, programs like Be a Part of the Conversation and Philadelphia Sober Living take two different approaches to making sure people in recovery have a family.

Now 26, Keegan has been in recovery for eight years and is close with his mother again. The two often travel together to share their family’s experiences with addiction and recovery.

Even though Laurie said their experience was frightening at the time, she wouldn’t change a thing.

“It has enriched our relationship with each other,” Laurie said. “[We] highly value each other and respect each other.”

Laurie added it’s important for those struggling with addiction to know they have their family’s support.

“It’s so important to focus on positive reinforcement and positive actions and for that person who is using substances to know that they are loved by their family,” she said.

Philadelphia Sober Living is located on the 1600 block of South Marston Street in South Philadelphia’s Point Breeze neighborhood. PHOTO BY SYDNEY SCHAEFER

II. Creating a Family of Their Own

Some facilities, like Philadelphia Sober Living, offer avenues for residents to spend time with their families while they recover.

The recovery residence sits in Girard Estates, a neighborhood in South Philadelphia.

For a resident’s first two weeks at PSL, they are set to follow structured time every day. In the mornings, residents have to attend meetings and search for or go to a job. Then, after 3 p.m., resident’s can’t leave the house unless they’re accompanied by a senior member, said Alex Knowles, the director of male housing for PSL.

The residence uses a 12-step model to support men and women in their recovery, and owners Anthony Curci and his wife, Beverly Brown, strive for a family-like atmosphere for residents.

Every week, residents gather at Curci and Brown’s home for food and conversation as part of “Family Night.” The gathering is meant to serve as an opportunity for residents who might not have a family of their own, but who still want to feel like they have one.

Matthew Barilone (center) and his parents, Andrea (left) and Dominic (right), pose for a portrait in their Northeast Philadelphia home. Barilone is a resident at
Philadelphia Sober Living. PHOTO BY SYDNEY SCHAEFER

Matthew Barilone, 24, who has been a resident at Philadelphia Sober Living for seven months, said addiction was a part of his family life. His father has been in recovery for 30 years, and his uncle for 33, he said. But when Barilone started using heroin at 14 years old, his family didn’t get involved.

“They saw everything that was going on,” he said. “But they didn’t intervene, because they had to let me go on my own path.”

“My father knows…he can’t stop somebody from using,” he added.

Barilone said his family encouraged him to get treatment when he expressed interest, and they weren’t ashamed that he was struggling with addiction. His father even helped him by taking custody of his 5-year-old son.

“I don’t think I would be clean today without their support,” Barilone said.

Gallen Boardman, another resident at Philadelphia Sober Living, has been in and out of treatment since she was 15 years old. At first, Boardman’s family didn’t want anything to do with her.

“The last time, they weren’t involved because they didn’t think I could do it,” Boardman said.

But now, Boardman’s working on repairing her relationship with her family.

“I spend one day a week with my mom,” she said. “My dad has invited me over for holidays again.”

“I’m blessed they want better for me,” she added.

Boardman said her mother’s emotional support has meant the most.

“I probably talk to my mom every day,” Boardman said. “She’s really supportive.”

Boardman can go to her mother, who is now ready to listen, even though she may not understand the situation.

III. Support for Families

Boardman’s mother went to Al-Anon meetings, which is a support group for people whose loved ones struggle with addiction.

Kim Porter is a certified family recovery specialist at Be Part of the Conversation, a program in the Hatboro-Horsham School District that addresses the impact of addiction on individuals and their families through group therapy and activism. She said parents should seek out meetings like Al-Anon or other family-focused support groups and educate themselves on addiction and recovery.

“What kind of parent does your son or daughter need right now?” Porter will often ask members of the support group she leads as part of Be a Part of the Conversation. This group is similar to Al-Anon.

Porter said when children are young, parents should be in control. But when they get older, parents become more like a guide or an adviser to prepare them for adulthood. Once children reach adulthood, parents are more like consultants.

Most parents at Porter’s support groups are scared, she added.

“While the substances hijack our kids’ brains, fear hijacks us,” Porter said.

Porter added it’s important for parents to define boundaries with their children. Parents shouldn’t be doing things that their children are capable of doing on their own.

“However, if my son is unable to afford car insurance or health insurance because, you know, he’s working a job to pay for his halfway house, then I’m going to pay for his health insurance because he’s not able to yet,” Porter explained. “But if he’s making a decent living, then I’m going to step back.”

Porter said boundaries can help parents feel safe as they try to support their children in recovery, adding that parents also need to take care of themselves.

“The parents have been traumatized,” she said. “We’ve been living like a nightmare while our child has been self-medicating. Unless we are self-medicating, we are completely paralyzed by the fear.”

While there are challenges that come with being a parent of someone who struggles with addiction, Boardman and Barilone said parental support is important for those in recovery.

Boardman’s advice to parents: “The first thing I would tell them is to love them. There’s a difference between hard love and no love. In my opinion, cutting someone off completely adds to their hopeless feeling.”

“Be there for them and encourage them and be their support and don’t turn your back on them,” Barilone said. “The more support and more help they have, the easier it gets.”