Drugs took their kids. These Pierce County moms are fighting back

Pierce County has a substance-abuse problem. While the devastation of alcohol and meth abuse has been known for years, the rate of overdose deaths from prescription drugs and other opioids has quietly more than doubled in the past two decades. Pierce County also has a higher than average rate of hospitalizations due to opioid overdoses.

But users aren’t the only victims of addiction. Every day, families are on the front lines of the epidemic; they’re the ones left to negotiate limited treatment options while trying to keep relationships alive under considerable strain.

Resources are stretched thin, and too often family support gets short shrift.

A group of mothers has come to the rescue. The Addict’s Mom, or TAM, is a national support group 100,000 members strong. The group lives out a mission that can be distilled down to one word: hope.

Who better to help families traverse the rough terrain of substance abuse than moms currently living through the struggle, or moms who have seen their child through to a successful recovery?

Pamela Shimek-Kirgin leads the Pierce County chapter. Mostly they offer mutual encouragement via Facebook — “Share without shame” is the group’s motto — but last Saturday they convened at Puyallup’s Pioneer Park.

They met in the early evening to light three candles: one for those in active addiction, another for addicts in recovery and a third for those who’ve lost their lives.

Shimek-Kirgin said there were tears and the personal connections were palpable. “People could see they were not alone in this.”

No doubt they could also see that no race, religion, ethnicity or economic standing is immune to drug addiction.

Shimek-Kirgin knows firsthand the pain parents feel when a child’s life is taken over by addiction. Her daughter battled meth dependence for ten years. TAM was a place the Puyallup mom sought refuge.

Now that her daughter’s been in recovery for 4 ½ years, the group is a place where she can offer advice, knowing a mother’s first step toward helping a son or daughter with an addiction is to seek help for herself.

Perhaps the biggest misconception families must contend with is that drug use is a moral failing. “The first or second time a kid uses a drug may be a bad choice,” Shimek-Kirgin told us, “but after that, their brains get hijacked.

September is National Recovery Month, but as TAM states, “There are no breaks, no holidays, and no vacations from this heart wrenching disease that our children are being engulfed with. The legal system is housing our broken children in their jails and they are not equipped to handle them or the disease.”

It’s why the group hopes to flex some political muscle going forward. In 2016, the Washington Legislature passed Ricky’s Law, or the Involuntary Treatment Act, allowing loved ones to commit a family member with a life-threatening substance-use disorder to 72-hour evaluation and treatment.

But what good is a law if it can’t be implemented? There are only two treatment centers in Washington that accept Ricky’s Law patients — one in Spokane, the other in Chehalis.

Shimek-Kirgin said TAM is advocating for Ricky’s Law to gain more support. “There has to be a way parents can say, ‘Our kid is dying’ and get the help they need.”

Improvements in school outreach and greater access to the rescue medication Naloxone are also on the moms’ to-do list.

The Addict’s Mom may be walking into stiff headwinds, but there’s strength in numbers. And as groups like MADD have taught us, there’s nothing more powerful than a mom on a mission.