'Helping is the only thing that makes me feel better'
Published March 20, 2019
Sharing her family’s story is incredibly difficult, but necessary.
“My hope is to prevent what happened to our family from happening to other families,” said Melissa Flynn. “They need hope and they need to know that they’re not alone.”
Flynn’s stepson, Nicholas*, died from an opioid overdose in May 2018. Since then, she’s made it her mission to help others by recounting her painful experiences and increasing awareness of addiction resources.
“I feel like I have an obligation to share what I have been through. We’re losing so many people to addiction, and I just feel like this has to stop,” she said. “We need to help educate families, we need to save lives, we need to end the stigma and allow people to talk about it and seek help. And honestly, helping is the only thing that makes me feel better.”
A lifetime Sioux Falls resident, Flynn has worked as a corporate training leader for more than 15 years. She has three children, including Nicholas.
“I have a hard time answering that question, so I just say I have three kids,” she said. “Because he’s still my child even though he’s not with us.”
Nicholas’ years-long battle with addiction was tumultuous, isolating and painful for the entire family. But the last few months before his death offered “real hope,” Flynn said.
“We learned how to cope with the nightmare we were living in and we started to see a change in Nicholas for the first time in many years,” she said. “We got to see the loving, smart, talented, caring and funny human being he was. This was the longest period of time in 10 years that we got to spend time with our beautiful son. We finally felt we were on the road to recovery. We had joy and hope.”
Flynn largely attributes this period of time to Face It TOGETHER.
“I truly wish we would’ve found Face It TOGETHER earlier in the process. I feel like if we had, Nicholas would still be alive,” she said. “We had a few short months with him before he passed away, and those great conversations and wonderful memories would not have been possible without what we learned at Face It TOGETHER. I guess I want families to know that they should not wait to get help. They need to get help for themselves immediately – the sooner they can get help for themselves the sooner they can start helping their loved one.”
Flynn’s husband*, Nicholas’ father, started loved one coaching about a year before she did. If she had to choose one word to describe her coaching experience, it would be “safe.”
“There needs to be more programs like Face It TOGETHER – ones that give families the lifeline they need, the correct advice, the community and the safety of the shared experience,” she said. “The people you’re talking to understand exactly how you feel, they don’t judge you, they don’t tell you what to do. They listen and make suggestions and then they refer to tools that actually work.”
Often, loved one coaching members don’t know they need help themselves until they start receiving it from a coach. Flynn said she was no different.
“I don’t like these labels anymore, but to use labels, I was more on the ‘tough love’ side and my husband was more of the ‘enabler.’ After meeting with our coach, we realized we needed to be in the middle of those two,” she said. “And more importantly, we needed to be on the same page and unified in our approach. It was really enlightening to understand that.”
Now, when speaking with other loved ones, Flynn talks at length about the differences between healthy boundaries and so-called “tough love.”
“I think ‘tough love’ can equate to rejection and isolation, and that’s the last thing that the person suffering needs,” she said. “It’s essential to understand the person suffering from addiction needs love, acceptance and compassion. They’re not choosing to be this way; they have an illness.”
Though there were many elements Flynn found helpful about coaching, one of the most significant served as a kind of “epiphany moment” about the nature of addiction.
“I was complaining about Nicholas’ behaviors – lying, stealing, manipulating – and my coach said something to the effect of, ‘Yeah, the symptoms of addiction are maddening.’ And this lightbulb went off in my head, like, ‘Whoa. It’s a symptom,’” she said. “Because I think for some family members, when you’re in the midst of it, you have a hard time separating the person from their behaviors. So I had this realization that my stepson wasn’t a morally bankrupt person or a bad kid. It really helped me understand the choices he was making.”
Leading with love
Flynn describes their fight with addiction as a giant octopus with an unrelenting clutch.
“We would fight to get one tentacle off of us, and then another tentacle would grab us. It was a constant battle with little to no relief,” she said. “The octopus squeezed the air out of our lungs, the joy out of our lives and the money out of our pocket books, but we kept fighting. We kept hoping. We kept loving.”
For loved ones who still feel they’re in this position, Flynn’s advice includes education, hope and compassion.
“Talk about it, seek help for yourself first and educate yourself. I like to say, ‘Lead with love.’ Understand that your loved one is suffering and needs help in the right way,” she said. “I also want people to know help is possible – it’s ok to hope. Because for so many years, we felt hopeless.”
There were plenty of times throughout the years that Flynn felt judgment and stigma from people around her. Sometimes those perceptions – like being the parent of a “bad kid” – were hard to shake.
“Some people made what I call ‘hit and run’ comments. They’d be unexpected, awkward and very inappropriate. There was this feeling like they would catch something from us – like catching the flue or cold,” she said. “As a family member, you almost buy into it. It’s almost like I don’t measure up. Even though I knew that wasn’t true, you just kind of always feel separate or isolated.”
That’s one of several points Flynn tries to get across when speaking about addiction in the community.
“I really focus on love and compassion instead of judgment and shame,” she said. “I feel like I owe it to Nicholas and to everyone suffering from this disease.”
*Full names have not been included per Flynn’s request.
Flynn recently became co-chair of the South Dakota for Addiction Policy Forum.