Episode 23

Conversations With Counselors #1 - Merrit Hartblay

November 26th, 2021

Announcer: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, “Episode 23: A Conversation with Counselor Merrit Hartblay.”

Casey Arrillaga: How has addiction affected your family?

Female Speaker: It robbed me of my father.

Female Speaker: Addiction's affected my family in absolutely every way.

Male Speaker: It has caused a lot of turmoil.

Female Speaker: It goes back to what I understand is at least three generations.

Female Speaker: It robbed my daughter of her mother. It robbed my mother of her daughter.

Female Speaker: Addiction has made our family quite challenging.

Male Speaker: Addiction has affected my family tremendously.

Male Speaker: It's affected my relationship with my sister where I wouldn't – I'd go for months without talking to her. It's a very difficult thing for everybody involved. It doesn't just affect the one individual. It's a disease that affects the whole family.

Male Speaker: Addiction is spread not only genetically through some of my relatives and I assume ancestors.

Female Speaker: It's generational.

Female Speaker: I think of him every day.

Casey Arrillaga: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, a podcast by and for family members of anyone with an addiction. My name is Casey Arrillaga, and I'm a clinical social worker and addiction counselor at both Windmill Wellness Ranch and InMindOut Emotional Wellness Center, and I’m the author of Realistic Hope: The Family Survivor Guide for Facing Alcoholism and Other Addictions.

Kira Arrillaga: I’m Kira Arrillaga, addiction counselor intern and recovery coach at Windmill. Casey and I were in our addictions together for over 10 years and have now been in recovery together for almost twice that long.

Casey Arrillaga: I’ve led hundreds of family workshops, but just as is important is that Kira and I have lived the experience of being family to addiction as both children and adults.

Kira Arrillaga: Join us as we offer experience, strength, and realistic hope about how you and your family can find recovery together. In this episode, we kick off with a new feature on our show, conversations with counselors, in which we bring in the voices of other counselors who work with individuals and families affected by addiction. Today we’re going to hear from Merrit Hartblay who is a social worker and addiction counselor in New York. Merrit has his own podcast, Recovery Road, and is the author of the book Lost Innocence: My Journey from Addiction to Recovery. He and Casey spoke recently and covered a wide range of topics from the kinds of things they’ve seen most help families deal with addiction to their personal experiences of how recovery has brought healing to their relationships with the people closest to them. All this after a word from one of our sponsors.

Welcome back. Here’s Casey’s conversation with Merrit Hartblay.

Casey Arrillaga: Merrit, welcome to the show. Would you introduce yourself to our audience and let us know what are you doing on a podcast called Addiction and the Family?

Merrit Hartblay: Wow. Let’s see. My name is Merrit Hartblay. I’m a social worker and a chemical dependency counselor, and on the flip side, I just celebrated 13 years of sobriety, so I’ve been on both sides of the show so to speak. I’m very proud of that. It started out – I guess I reached a point in my life where I was working in corporate America. I was working for a big company that crashed and burned. I lost everything and hit my knees, and drinking got really bad. Basically, I decided that what am I going to do with my life, and I just did some praying, praying and meditation, and the answers came.

What happened was my son was – he was captain of the high school football team, and he came to me, and he said dad, the guys on the team don’t take drugs and alcohol seriously. Can you come into the school and talk to them? I was newly sober, and I said Trevor, if I come into the school, these kids are going to know me because I coached baseball for a long time in that town, but I did. I went into the high school and talked to the kids, and the stories that acme back from these kids were pretty sad. I’ve been smoking pot since I’m 10. I’ve been drinking since I’m 12. I think my mom’s an alcoholic. I decided to do something more, so I decided that I really wanted to go to school to become a drug counselor so that I could help people, and I did.

At that time, New York state considered alcohol and drugs to be a disability, I got a full scholarship to go to school to become a drug counselor, and I did that. It was an accelerated program, 11 months of intensive education. I was also interning at the time at a couple of outpatient facilities in Long Island, and graduated from that, and I love the work. I realized then – Casey, I’m not going to get religious, but it was a bout a spiritual thing for me that my whole life I had always had those foxhole prayers to God. Oh, please, God, help me out of this. Help me out of that, and I’ll do the right thing. Of course, things work out okay, but then the next day, I go back to being a jerk all over again. It was the first time in my life that I actually said okay, it’s not what God can do for me, but what can I do for you, and I really just turned it over, and I said you know what, just point me in the right direction.

I graduated from that school, and I got two part-time jobs working as a drug counselor at two outpatient facilities. Then one became a full-time job, which I did for about two years, and then another voice inside of me said you have to do more. I wanted to eventually become a therapist, and I had to get a higher education, so at 59 years old, I went back. I applied and went back to my alma mater, SUNY Binghamton, a state university school here in New York and applied to their grad school, and got accepted, and went and got into a Master’s of Social Work program. It was three-and-a-half-year program, part-time, two nights a week, going to school, working full-time at a drug facility in Binghamton and did that for three and a half years. Graduated with honors. Love the work. I did a lot of good work.

I was working in a trauma hospital, working in a high school, got all the worked I needed to get done, came back to Long Island, and I’ve been back here now about five years. I’m working at the outpatient facility where I first started at before I went to school, and I have a small, little practice that I work with with families and people on the side, and yeah, grateful to be doing it. A lot of the work that I do is family work. As you and I have discussed in the past, that’s one of the biggest challenges is that you’re working with an addict who’s trying to get clean and sober from whatever drug it is, and they go into inpatient, then they go to outpatient, and they start the process. They go to AA or NA or whatever 12-step program they’re involved in, but the family – addiction is a family disease, and everybody in the family becomes addicted to the addict, so just like the addict is getting help, so the family has to do that as well.

I love doing family work because when you work with a family who’s willing to do the work, you see miracles happen, families change. Yeah, so I’ve been doing that now since I got back here on Long Island, and then, Casey, I decided that I really wanted to do more. I had been writing a book for about five years. I finally got it published, and it came out a year ago in August. It came out number one best seller on Amazon, and that book – it’s called Lost Innocence: My Journey from Addiction to Recovery, and it told my whole story, and then as you know, I wanted to take it a little bit more, and I met with my publisher who’s also my producer, Jess Branas, and started a podcast in February called Recovery Road, which you were on several months ago. That’s where I’m at. I love doing the work.

I think something which I wanted to get into was – I don’t know how much you’re aware of this whole fentanyl crisis that’s going on in this country, but hundreds of people are dying every day, and I got involved, and I had a couple of moms on my podcast about six months ago these two women Cathy Lawley and Diane Urban, they had started a group called APALD, Association of People Against Lethal Drugs, because both of them had lost their kids to fentanyl murder because – we do call it fentanyl murder because it’s not an overdose. Every drug out there now is being laced with fentanyl, and after that I put it out on social media that I was going to dedicate my podcast for months moving forward, maybe toward the end of the year, so that moms and parents could come on and tell their story. Each week – I’ve had a couple of fill-ins in between, but for the last six months, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been having moms and family members come on Recovery Road and tell their story.

August 28th I spoke – we had a huge rally down in Washington, DC, outside the Chinese embassy, and about 300 families were there. It’s a sad story, Casey, because – not to get into the politics, fentanyl we know is being manufactured through hundreds of factories in China. They’re working with the Mexican cartels to bring it through Mexico into the US, so we’ve got a lot of work to do, but I’m grateful to be doing the work. My life now is all about what can I do to help a struggling addict or a struggling family member try to find some peace of mind.

Casey Arrillaga: Thanks for sharing all that. We got into a number of topics there, and you talked about addiction as a family disease. If you don’t mind my asking, was it family disease in your family?

Merrit Hartblay: It was. Both of my parents were big drinkers. They were alcoholics. Amazing that Jewish people drink, but my aunts and uncles all drank. As a kid growing up, I was aware of it, but as I got older, I started to see that my parents, they both drank to self-medicate, to get through the day. Dad would come home from work and have three or four drinks, and the same with my mom, and then I realized that drinking was a part of their routine. There were pretty some scary moments there. My father used to love to drive fast. We’d come back from visiting one half of the family in Brooklyn, and he’d be doing 90 miles an hour on the parkway, and me and my sister – I talk about it in the book. We used to huddle down in the backseat of the car scared about getting home, so yes, addiction ran in my family, but at the time, they didn’t think that they were alcoholics.

They didn’t think that they had a problem. I think they believed that they were just having fun, drinking and having fun, but as I got older, I started to see that my parents were really both drinking to just make it through the day, and because of that, I learned probably unhealthy coping skills on how to deal with life. I began to believe that well, when things get tough, you drink, but I was very fortunate because I broke away. I got a track scholarship to college and I broke away, and my track coach, who’s still a very dear friend of mine today, a mentor of mine, took me under his wing, so I didn’t really start drinking – I don’t think I had my first drink until maybe junior, senior year of college, and that’s when things started going a little bit south for me where I graduated and came back to New York City, and it was the ’70s, and it was crazy times. Yes. To answer your question, as I look back now, yes. There was addiction running through the family.

Casey Arrillaga: Thank you. Another way we talk about addiction as a family disease is by saying how all the other members are affected by it, whether they get directly into chemical use or some other addictive behavior. Sometimes we recognize it’s a family disease where one person it’s alcohol, another person it might be pills, another person it might be gambling, shopping, food, sex, whatever.

Merrit Hartblay: Sure, whatever.

Casey Arrillaga: If we look at that, we can often see it even further into the family tree, but also the people who aren’t addicted in the family how they get affected. Do you mind speaking to that?

Merrit Hartblay: It’s funny. One of the tools that I use, it’s called the genogram. I got to that when I was in social work school, and if you sit down with a family and really lay out, it’s like a detailed family tree. The husband and wife and the kids and the sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and grandparents, and if you put little liner notes next to each one of those people, you can see where the addiction came from. You can see where the mental health issues came from. You might have somebody who doesn’t have a drug problem or an alcohol problem or mental health issues, but clearly, they’ve become affected by the members of the family that are addicted. In that way, they really do become addicted to the addict. Then a lot of codependency exists because they’re focusing all their time on trying to save this person, trying to help this person, and by putting all the focus on the addict, they’re losing touch with themselves.

There’s a guy John Bradshaw who’s done – he passed away. He did amazing work on family work. He would talk about – you remember when kids would make those little mobiles you would hang from the ceiling, and if one piece spins, all the pieces spin? That’s what happens in an addictive family. The addict is spinning, and the entire family is spinning out of control, and people – members of the family take on roles. If the mother is the addict, that the younger daughter might wind up playing the role of the mother or the wife to the father, so a lot of times kids wind up having to grow up much faster than they had hoped to. It can be a mess, but I think that if the family – and these days I think it’s a lot different now. Families are beginning to see that drug addiction, it’s not just bad behavior. It's a disease like anything else, like lupus or cancer or diabetes, and there’s treatment plans for it.

When the families begin to understand that – I had a mom – I’ll never forget this – a couple of years ago. Her son was a huge heroin addict. She said to me why can’t he just stop. Why can’t he just stop? I said Mom, it’s not about self-will, and I said to her let me ask you a question. How did your self-will work the last time you had diarrhea? It didn’t work, did it? It’s like you can’t stop it. It’s just a disease. It takes a lot of work, and I know that you do family stuff, and I think that the beauty is when you get a family who’s willing individually to do their own work and as a family to come together, I find that for the first time, the family begins to really live, begins to really appreciate each other instead of isolating in their own little cocoons.

Casey Arrillaga: Yeah. One of the joys of what I do is getting to work with families every week and seeing that transformation. I do a weekly family workshop at Windmill Wellness Ranch, and we have families that are coming back each week, and what’s even cooler is that we get to invite some of our alumni, so we have people who have come through our program, and then we have family members of people who came through the program. When a family’s showing up for the first week, they’re like what’s this family workshop? We’ve never done this. Often, like you said, they’re focused on the idea what can we do to save our loved one. What do I need to do to support them? Then you’ve got somebody else showing up saying when my kid came through this program a year ago or a year and a half ago or when I went through the program two years ago – they can give a whole different perspective, and that perspective keeps coming back down to you need to work on your own recovery.

Merrit Hartblay: That’s why if you go back to the history of AA when Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob started AA, what would happen is they would bring these husbands, these guys to the house for meetings, and all the wives would sit in the kitchen and talk, and then Lois Wilson realized they needed help too. Lois Wilson was the one that started Al-Anon, and she started Al-Anon so that the housewives could begin to realize that they were powerless over their husbands’ addiction, but they needed to heal themselves.

In fact, when I work – I’m working now, actually, with a family. It’s an amazing story, Casey. You’ve got the father who’s the alcoholic, okay, so the mother is having her own issues, the 17-year-old son is going through his own issues, but as I started to work with them the beautiful thing was now they go to a church in their town – let’s say it’s a Tuesday night. Father goes to the AA meeting, the mother goes upstairs to the Al-Anon meeting, and the son goes downstairs to the Alateen meeting. Each one of them – actually the mom now and the son both have sponsors, and they’re both doing step work just like the father who’s in AA.

Casey Arrillaga: That is great to hear. People started finding that freedom early on, and they still say that in Al-Anon, that you can feel better. You can find serenity and even happiness, whether the alcoholic stops drinking or not, the person with the problem, the identified patient in the family. I’ll take a moment and shamelessly put in a plug that I write about this in my new book that just came out.

Merrit Hartblay: Tell me about it. Yeah, tell me about the book.

Casey Arrillaga: It’s called Realistic Hope: The Family Survivor Guide for Facing Alcoholism and Other Addictions.

Merrit Hartblay: Nice.

Casey Arrillaga: One of the things I wanted to do in the book is write just a hands on, how-to, here’s what happens in the brain, here’s why we consider it a disease, here’s what treatment looks like, here’s what happens after treatment, different levels, all that kind of stuff, and then talk about things like codependency and enabling and boundaries, and all that, hands-on information hat you can use as a family member. I wanted to write the book that I wish someone had handed me when I was 16 when my dad was drinking and I’d gotten into sex and love addiction, but I hadn’t tried alcohol yet. I was like oh, my dad does that, so I’m not going to do that. That changed, of course, very suddenly. In the book, one of the things that I’m trying to get across, the overriding theme is family members need their own recovery.

Merrit Hartblay: They do.

Casey Arrillaga: But really looking and saying why do you need your own recovery and trying to lay out an argument because I don’t know about you – I’m sure you do – I run into a lot of families that will come in and basically say I’m not the one with the problem.

Merrit Hartblay: Sure. They point fingers at them.

Casey Arrillaga: Yeah, and so we talk about that identified patient model and how to move away from it. I’m sure you see that too.

Merrit Hartblay: Yeah. It’s interesting. I’ve always said that I think I wouldn’t call it AA. I would call it Peoples Anonymous because, Casey, if you take the alcohol and the drugs out of the picture, everybody out there is addicted to something like you said earlier. It could be food. It could be shopping. It could be sex. It could be a lot of different things, so what happens is just because – let’s say it’s my wife that’s the alcoholic. Just because I don’t have an alcohol problem doesn’t mean I don’t have an addiction issue, so when the identified person now goes into treatment, now I’ve got to take a look at myself. I just can’t sit back and wait for her to get better, and I found that it can either go one of two ways.

I had a husband a couple years ago he had been drinking for 25 years, a functioning alcoholic. The wife, her job is raising the three kids, paying all the bills, buying all the clothes, taking care of the family, and he’s just out there working, and she’s taking the paycheck, right? He hits rock bottom, and he goes into 28 days of inpatient, goes to outpatient, and he’s slowly starting – the cobwebs are starting to clear, the vision’s starting to get clearer, he’s going to AA, he’s got a sponsor. Now he comes home, and it’s like hey, honey, where’s the checkbook. Now the wife is like I’m busted because she was the martyr. She was taking care of the family, and actually, she’d rather have the alcoholic husband that she can control.

Now the husband comes home, and he looks at her and he goes who are you, and she’s looking at him like who are you because he’s been drunk for 25 years. She’s been taking care of everything, and now he’s like looking at things and being responsible, and it’s like so that can go one of two ways. Either they both go into family therapy together and she goes to Al-Anon and tries to make things happen, or a lot of times, they wind up separating because they realize they didn’t really know each other. They knew each other through rose colored glasses, right? Now one gets sober and it's like oh, my God, who is this person?

Casey Arrillaga: Yeah, that’s something I try and warn both my clients who are addicted and their families about. Whenever someone in the family changes, everyone else in the family is going to get nervous, even when it’s the change they’ve been begin for, like please stop this behavior. The person stops the behavior and no one else is sure what to do.

Merrit Hartblay: Now, oh my God, what do I do?

Casey Arrillaga: Yeah, I joke with my clients that the people around you may still offer you the crazy card, like you’re the crazy one in the family. Because if you don’t take it anymore, then they’re left holding it. Now what? Now what do we do?

Merrit Hartblay: They don’t know what to do. Now what do I do? Yeah.

Casey Arrillaga: One of the stories I heard about Lois Wilson, cofounder of Al Anon and wife of Bill Wilson, who is one of the cofounders of AA, is that she and some of the other wives of the early AA members became concerned. They said, “Our husbands are growing. They’re growing spiritually. They’re growing as people. We don’t want to get left behind.”

Merrit Hartblay: Right, right. It’s funny. I’ve had some moms or wives that have gone into Al Anon, but then as the husband is going through AA, the wife realizes, “I’ve got a drinking problem, too. I’ve been drinking to self-medicate so I can take care of my drunk husband.” Now the drunk husband is now in recovery and the wife is like, “I’ve just realized I’ve been self-medicating to watch over him for the last ten years and take care of the family.” It’s very interesting how that whole dynamic shapes up.

Casey Arrillaga: Absolutely, now, if you don’t mind talking about this some more, you mentioned your own teenage son and how he approached you when you were in earlier recovery. How has had that whole dynamic changed during the course of your recovery?

Merrit Hartblay: Wow, I talk a lot about that in the book. When I first got sober, it was 2008. Trevor was 15. My marriage to his mom at that time had pretty much been over. It was a mess. I was sleeping on the couch for about a year. It was just a horrible situation. I realized that when I finally hit my knees and I have to get sober that I really have to move out of the house. I had to get healthy and get sober so I could be a good sober father. I went up to Trevor’s room. He was 15 years old. I said, “Trevor, your dad’s got some drug and alcohol problems and I have to get help. I’m going to be moving out.”

Initially, he was very upset, very angry, like he had been abandoned. I was going to four or five AA meetings a day. I learned about acceptance. What I did, Casey, was for six months I sent Trevor a text every day. “Trevor, I’m your dad. I love you. I’ll always be there for you,” and just let it go. I could have been a dad like, “How come you’re not calling me back?” I didn’t want to push him farther away so I just learned to let it go. Six months later, I was walking into a meeting and my phone went off and it was a text from Trevor saying, “Hey, Dad, what do you want to do tomorrow?” It was Father’s Day.

We are now the best of friends. He has all of my coins, all 13 of my coins, come to all of my anniversaries. When I went back to Binghamton to get my master’s, he was a sophomore there. We spent two years in college together. We didn’t see each other a lot but we spent some good quality time together. He was an economics major for three years. I think he was around me at that point during the work that I was doing. He said, “I don’t want to be an economics major anymore. I think I want to get into psychology because I think I want to be able to help people someday.” He switched majors. He has a beautiful wife and has been married for two years. He’s an amazing kid – a young man now.

I think that he gave me the time to heal our relationship. Now he is absolutely 100% my closest friend. We have the best times together. I love his wife. Me and his mom, my ex-wife, we’ve become the best of friends. I think, you know what? In time, listen, I learned, my whole life I’ve tried to change people, Casey. I tried to change my son, tried to change my ex-wife. I’ve learned that you can’t change anybody ever. The only person you can change is you. Once you really start to change indirectly, people around you change.

To answer your question, it was a challenge for a while, even in sobriety, I made some mistakes, but I didn’t pick up a drink. I was growing. Thirteen years later, one day at a time, we have an amazing relationship. I can’t look backwards for all those times that – I mean, I was there as a dad, but I was there but I wasn’t really present. I was there but I wasn’t really being the dad that I should’ve been. I put on the role. I know that Trevor – kids are very intuitive. They know what’s going on. I learned about forgiveness. I think Trevor did, too. He forgave me. I forgave myself. It’s a beautiful thing today.

Casey Arrillaga: That is really beautiful to hear. I’m reminded, if I may share, some of my own story.

Merrit Hartblay: Sure, yeah, please.

Casey Arrillaga: I grew up around my dad drinking. I told myself, “I’m not going to do that.” I was getting caught up in my own addiction to sex and love, as I shared earlier. Then I did get into drinking and then I got sober in sex and love addiction, and then figured out I needed to stop drinking. Along the way there, my mom and I had stopped talking. My dad and I had a very tense relationship probably as a result. Amazingly, out of that whole dynamic, I was the identified patient. I was the one hearing, “If you would just shape up, we’d all be okay.” We stopped talking for several years for various reasons. It wasn’t just my addiction but that certainly contributed because of my inability to show up emotionally for the family.

When my dad was dying, I got to see my mom for the first time in years. It was clear that we both wanted to have some kind of relationship so I started calling her. This reminds me of what you were saying in your story. I was the one calling her. At the end of each phone call, I’d say, “Mom, I love you.” Here I was a guy brand-new in recovery and I’m thinking this is what I’m supposed to do to show up in a new way in the family. For a while, she couldn’t even say anything back. Then I don’t know exactly how long so I’m going to say a ballpark, maybe six months, she says, “You, too, hon.” I got off the phone and I turned to my wife and I said, “My mom just said, “You too.” It’s so cool. Check this out.”

Then one day, she was about to say, “I love you,” and then later got to the point where she could say it first. We have this beautiful relationship now to where I write to her because now it’s getting harder for her to talk on the phone so we just write cards back and forth. I know I’m going to fly out there and see her for the holidays and she’ll be thrilled to see me. This illustrates to me where we get to go in recovery from not talking, don’t darken my doorstep, to when do I see you again? It’s an amazing transformation.

Merrit Hartblay: Yeah, it really is. For my 13th year anniversary, I decided to buy myself a present. Trevor and I are huge baseball fans so I surprised him and I bought season’s tickets for the Mets. We went to a game and I told him about it. We go to baseball games and we share so much together. I think about when he was little and we had season’s tickets a lifetime ago in Chase Stadium. I was drinking all the time, Casey. I couldn’t even sit in my seat to watch a whole game. Now it’s like we go to a ball game and we don’t even leave our seats for nine innings, except maybe to go to the bathroom.

I think that, for me, I’m grateful, because at the end of the day, Casey, all we have is family. As a kid growing up, I used to blame my parents, it’s my father’s fault, it’s my mother’s fault. I learned in recovery that we can’t blame our parents for anything. Our parents were doing the best they could, whatever tools they had, whatever kind of life they were going through. Through the process, I had to learn. I did forgive my mom, forgive my dad. Unfortunately, my dad passed away and I wasn’t sober. When he passed away, it was like, “Poor me. Look at what happened to poor me,” when I should’ve been there for the family. When my mom passed away, it was a very different story. I was a social worker. I was there for her in the hospital. I was talking to the social workers. I was there for her. I realized that so many people waste a lifetime living with resentments and guilt and anger. Then sometimes it’s too late, right, Casey? It’s too late.

Casey Arrillaga: Yeah, well, one of the beauties in doing the work that we do is being able to help some families avert that tragedy or get back the time that they can.

Merrit Hartblay: Yeah, you know what I love doing? I love doing interventions. I’ve done a bunch of interventions with families, and I’ll tell you, that’s really something special. You meet with a family ahead of time. This one family was three sisters, four brothers, the mother and the father. It was the identified patient was a middle brother who was a full-blown alcoholic. I met with the family and talked about the process, talked about what the options were. There’s in-patient facilities where the brother could go. You have to get the family to a place where they’ve had it. They don’t know what to do anymore.

You get them to a place where, once we do the intervention and they bring the identified family member together, each family member writes a letter and says to this family member, “I love you, I care about you, but if you don’t do this, if you don’t do this, if you don’t go in-patient and get the help that you need, then I’ll never see you again. You’re never welcome in my house again. We’re going to cut all ties with you.” Most of the times, it works, but sometimes, the addict says, “You know what? F you. What the hell are you all talking about? I’m out of here.”

I love doing interventions. I love working with families. You take a family who’s been split into pieces and they don’t know what to do. If you can come together with them and explain to them about the disease of addiction and explain to them how they’ve all been affected, and if the family embraces it and if the identified patient embraces it, wow, I’ve seen family members come together. The life they had after this happened was so much better than maybe 20 years that they had before, you know what I mean?

Casey Arrillaga: Absolutely, you talk about writing those intervention letters, and I wonder. If you were able to go back in time and write a letter to younger Merrit, what would you tell him?

Merrit Hartblay: Oh, I would tell him, “Don’t be ashamed to be who you are. Don’t let people tell you what you can or cannot be. Stick up for yourself. Tell people how you feel.” Because I think that – yeah, that’s what I would probably do. I would say, “Don’t be ashamed of yourself. If you have dreams, go after them. The only person that can stop you from accomplishing those dreams is you, not anybody else.”

Casey Arrillaga: Beautiful.

Merrit Hartblay: Yeah.

Casey Arrillaga: You mentioned becoming a lot of different things. You’re an author now. You have your book out. This is a podcast for anyone dealing with addiction, but especially for family members. If a family member out there listening right now picks up your book, what do you hope they’ll take away from it?

Merrit Hartblay: I think what they would take away from it is that so many people live most of their life based on other people’s expectations for them. They live their life the way other people want them to live. I think what comes out of this book was that I finally got to a place where I realized that you don’t have to live your life that way. You don’t have to live your life based on other people’s expectations. That’s a horrible place to be. If you really start to look in the mirror and say, “I love myself just the way I am,” which most people can’t do, but if you can do that, I think what they take away from the book is that all things are possible when you have faith and you learn to love yourself truly before you can really love anybody else. Listen, I showed it, Casey. I got sober at 54 years old. I went back to grad school at 59. I think what the book tells people is that you can rise from the ashes and completely deconstruct and reconstruct yourself as long as you have faith. Again, it’s not about religion. As long as you have faith in God or whatever you believe in, then nothing can stop you.

Casey Arrillaga: I know a lot of family members might hear that and say, “I hope my loved one who has an addiction will hear that message and lift themselves up.” If you were going to tell a family member how they can apply your message for themselves, what would you say?

Merrit Hartblay: Yeah, I would tell a family member that they have to stop and ask themselves, “How much more am I willing to sacrifice if my husband or my son, if they’re not willing to get better? I realize that I’ve sacrificed a big part of my life to help my son or my daughter or my husband or wife and I’ve lost my own identity.” I would tell them that you have to take a look at that and decide, do you want to continue to go down that road and be miserable for the rest of your life or do you want to just stand up and say, “You know what? Enough is enough. If you want to go on down that rabbit hole, I’m not going down that rabbit hole with you anymore. I’m going to get the help that I need so that I can find the mental health and the peace of mind that I need so that I can live my life and enjoy it, be happy.”

Casey Arrillaga: Perfect message. I love that.

Merrit Hartblay: Yeah, man, thank you.

Casey Arrillaga: Anything else you want to say to family members before we close up?

Merrit Hartblay: Yeah, I would say that family members should really understand that if somebody is struggling with drug addiction and mental health issues, that they shouldn’t be shunned or turned away from. They need to be able to educate themselves on the disease, whatever that disease is, if it’s addiction, and understand that would you throw a kid out of the house if they had lupus, or diabetes and weren’t taking their insulin? I would embrace families to really take a look at what’s going on, get the help that’s needed. The problem, Casey, is that the stigma in this country is so huge regarding mental health and substance abuse. I would tell family members, F the stigma. Ask for help. Everybody should have a therapist. I’ve had the same therapist for 13 years. I think even as counselors, we need to be able to process our own stuff. I would tell families, instead of living unhappy, instead of living miserable, get the help that the family needs. Because if you do that, the families can really heal and you can have some amazing years ahead of you.

Casey Arrillaga: So true. I’ve said to a lot of people, the kind of miracles that can happen within families when multiple people reach for recovery at the same time is unbelievable.

Merrit Hartblay: It is. It’s a miracle.

Casey Arrillaga: Absolutely.

Merrit Hartblay: Yeah, man.

Casey Arrillaga: Well, Merrit, tell the audience where they can find you, find your work, your podcast, your book. Where do they look?

Merrit Hartblay: Yeah, you can find my book, Lost Innocence: My Journey from Addiction to Recovery, on amazon.com in both Kindle and paperback versions. In about two weeks’ time, the audio book will be coming out. You can find the podcast Recovery Road on all podcast platforms. Also on branasenterprises.com/bethevoicepodcastnetwork, you can find all my podcasts there. Yeah, and I’m on all social media. You can find me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. If anybody needs encouragement or wants to reach out, feel free to reach out to me at any time. I’d be more than happy to chat.

Casey Arrillaga: Merrit, it’s been fantastic to get to talk again. Thanks so much for coming out to do this.

Merrit Hartblay: Yeah, Casey, I really appreciate it. Thank you for the opportunity.

Kira Arrillaga: That’s Casey’s conversation with counsellor and social worker, Merrit Hartblay.

Casey Arrillaga: Thanks for being with us through another episode of Addiction and the Family. As they say in many recovery meetings, take what you liked and leave the rest. Go out and explore the possibilities for recovery in your life and give your loved ones the space and dignity to make their own choices. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe. It means a lot to us. If you know anyone else who could use what we have to offer, please tell them about Addiction and the Family. If you have comments about this podcast, have a question you’d like answered on the show, or want to contribute your voice, or just want to say hi, you can write to us at addictionandthefamily@gmail.com. We’re also happy to be your friend on Facebook and we can be found tweeting on Twitter.

Kira Arrillaga: Addiction and the Family is produced, written, and engineered by Kira and Casey Arrillaga, with music by Casey.