November 1st, 2010

Learn to Cope becomes addiction‘school’ for parents

She’ll probably downplay the whole thing by saying it started by accident. She’ll probably tell you that the majority of the site is written by her only because she likes to write.

But, the picture gets bigger when you learn what started as a one-woman support group for parents with kids addicted to opiates now has five chapters that meet as many days each week or that her Web site has a 1,700-member online forum.

And when she tells you she was trying to help her son find recovery, but she ended up finding herself, you don’t need to have met her to know she’s a woman who has made a difference.

Joanne Peterson is the youngest sister of two siblings with alcohol and drug addiction that lead to their imprisonment, AIDS diagnosis and adult diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Knowing the signs and the toll it took on her parents as they tried to keep her siblings safe, Peterson did all she could to instill positive values in her son.

It seemed to work: He was a good student, a good athlete, and a good boy. But when he was introduced to crushed-up drugs on a mirror at an under-age party, the good in him couldn’t combat his biology. That night began a four-year spiral through addiction, imprisonment and hitting bottom before he could rise again.

Peterson’s son has since recovered and for five years, has blossomed into the trusted, loving man she hoped he’d be. Along the way, his behavior drove his mother to thoughts of suicide as she often sat incredulous about what she’d done wrong.

In April 2004, Brockton’s district attorney posted flyers near Peterson’s Raynham, Mass., home, warning parents of the dangers of Oxycontin and heroin use. “What Parents Need to Know” was the name of an upcoming event at Stoughton High School for families to learn the prevalence of opiate use.

After three years of dealing with her son’s addiction, his having graduated to heroin, Peterson’s son was in prison. “I was angry,” she says. “I was isolated. I was alone. I felt like his life was over. I felt he’d be just like my brother. I felt like a failure.”

Peterson went to the event, but not before telling the DA’s office she would share her story as one of the night’s agenda items. She shared her story with other despondent parents. She cried.

What resulted was a reporter asking permission to use her story in the one being written for the paper. In it, her e-mail address was published – learn2cope2001, after her state of mind and the year her son started using. When the story came out, she began receiving emails from parents looking to connect. A few weeks later, she called her local high school to ask to borrow a classroom so parents could come together to talk. About 20 people attended the first meeting. Today, Peterson is still connecting parents through a widespread network of parent-run support groups held most weekday evenings in one of five locations – Brockton, Gloucester, Salem, Lowell, and a soon-to-start weekly session at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Peterson once ran all Learn to Cope sessions by herself. But with the growth of groups and demand for new locations, Peterson opens each new group and then connects with a parent she feels will be a good session facilitator and informally “trains” them on how best to run group time.

Peterson says the Learn to Cope sessions don’t dole out professional advice: they are, after all, groups of parents who come together for a few hours to share what’s on their minds or listen to speakers brought in to educate on everything from the gruesome task of knowing how to revive a child after overdosing, to how and where to obtain Narcan, a nasal spray that can be given at home to help reverse the effects of an opiate overdose.

Some 90 percent of Learn to Cope parents have children addicted to prescription opiates. Peterson notes there’s a “huge trend for Percocet 30s, and a lot of anti-anxiety drugs.” There are parents seeking solace for their kids addicted to alcohol and marijuana, too.

By Jennifer E Chase

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