By RUSSELL RAINEY, MS, LPC
The year was 1989. On July 4th of that year an unexpected diagnosis was presented to the patriarch of my family. One short month later, on a sultry hot day in late summer, my family received the news that my beloved grandfather had passed away at the young age of 53. Being the strong, spiritual leader that he was, his death left a void in us and in our community where he served in a local church.
Cancer was the culprit. The insidious, quiet, destructive spread of cancer shook our world, as it has so many others before and since. These days you can rarely find a person that hasn’t been directly or indirectly affected by some form of cancer. Apparently it had come on so quickly, with minimal symptoms, that by the time they found it, virtually nothing could be done. My curiosity about our loss and what could or could not have been done to potentially save my grandfather’s life has never left me. I have never talked about it though; I just wondered what might have been.
Just a few weeks ago my family of five retreated as we do every year to someplace sunny—a place where we can soak up the sun and let our brains be replenished with some much-needed serotonin that was depleted during the winter. With the older kids’ birthdays right around the corner, we capitalized on an idea to take a charter deep sea fishing adventure as sort of an early birthday surprise. We arrived early, the sun wasn’t even up yet, and my family set out to conquer the ocean. The water was peaceful, with only the sound of the boat engine and the smell of the salty air, the sun started to peak out from over the horizon. The sea was a little rough but this outing promised to be relaxing and very spiritual.
Out on the ocean, my wife and I struck up a conversation with the captain of the ship. He was a young man in his twenties, with deep eyes and sundrenched skin. The captain began telling us about some of his recent experiences on the water. An accomplished angler, he never felt that he needed to defend himself because of his age. He was relatively quiet compared to our bunch, but had a confidence about him. He began telling us about being raised on the water and that he had lived in the area all his life. As conversations tend to do, the topic turned to family.
Obviously he had met all my family and I asked about his, he glanced in the distance and said, “I lost my father last year.” I gave the knee jerk response that I have been trained to give and said, “I am sorry to hear about your loss.” Almost instantly a king mackerel hit one of the lines and the young captain went to work. My daughter reeled in the catch, and after the captain set another line, the conversation returned to his father. The captain said, “You see, he was an alcoholic. He had a disease. I moved in with him after he tried to get some help, but there was nothing I could do. This past year he died.” The insidious, quiet, and destructive spread of addiction took this young man’s father.
He spoke a little while about his mother and siblings before turning his attention back to the task at hand. Although he seemed to shrug off his feelings surrounding the events of his father’s death, our captain had a firm grasp on the complexity of his father’s illness and the great loss his family suffered.
The two narratives about the captain’s dad and my grandfather may seem vastly different—and in some respects they are. But there are striking similarities in the progression of a disease like cancer, and the destructive spread of addiction. The impact that a substance use disorder has on relationships, resources, and opportunities is tantamount to the catastrophic implications of cancer.
Today, at this very moment, more and more families are finding themselves in the throes of the deadly disease of addiction. The faces of addiction have long been of those in their early twenties or thirties, but now, we are seeing our patriarchs and our matriarchs suffering, often unintentionally, from the downward spiral of the prolonged use of substances.
Consider this, according to published reports:
- Nearly 20% of adults age 60 and over are affected by alcohol, illicit drug, and prescription medication abuse.
- Nearly $60 billion is spent on alcohol and drug-related medical care in middle aged and older adults annually.
- There is growing concern about the unintentional misuse of prescription medications by older adults. The current accidental overdose rate is higher among older adults than in the 18-45 year old demographic.
These numbers, while alarming, are not the end of the story. At Pine Grove Behavioral Health & Addiction Services’ Legacy Program, which specifically treats adults age 55 and over who are battling substance abuse, we see patients restored and families in the positive process of healing every day. At Legacy, this disease of addiction is overcome by a spiritual and all-encompassing program of recovery. It’s a path that millions of people have successfully followed before and they continue to follow each and every day to live happy, healthy and productive lives.
To honor my grandfather is to tell you proudly that he was not defined by his death, but by the great life he lived—the legacy that he left behind. See, he spent his life in service to his family and to his community, spreading the good news of the gospel of Christ wherever he went. In much the same way, the individuals and families that we treat at Legacy are not defined by addiction but by the lives they choose to live in recovery, and the hopeful legacy they are leaving behind for generations to follow.
Russell Rainey, MS, LPC, is Director of the Legacy program at Pine Grove Behavioral Health & Addiction Services. Rainey completed his Bachelor’s degree in Religion and Biblical Studies and Language before earning his Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.