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Valley addiction therapist gets twofold look into opioid crisis

PHOENIX — Robin Byrne has been a clinical social worker and addiction therapist for 35 years.

She’s helped countless people fight addiction, but the people she struggled to help the most were the ones closest to her.

All three of her children are recovering addicts.

Her youngest son, Gabriel Tomaeno, began abusing opioids when he was 13.

“Being a therapist but also having a child with addiction, it didn’t make that much of a difference,” Byrne said. “I was still a mom who was dealing with a child with a serious illness and the emotional devastation was great.”

She said once she realized her son was suffering she worked to get him into treatment.

Her son relapsed nine times in a year before treatment finally stuck.

“He walked out of several different facilities until we took him to facility in Texas,” Byrne said. “He was pretty exhausted from the repetition of detox and relapse, detox, and relapse.

“He stayed in the facility in Texas for 45 days, relapsed within a month, a couple of times.”

Tomaeno’s addiction struggles helped foster their relationship — and a plan.

He began working in treatment centers to help focus on his sobriety.

After a few years, he approached Byrne about starting their own clinic.

She was hesitant.

“My initial reaction was ‘no,’” she said. “But because of what we’d been through, it was important work to be done.”

However, her son’s persistence convinced her to embrace the idea.

They opened Purpose Healing Center in Scottsdale last year with Byrne as the clinical director, alongside Tomaeno, the chief executive officer.

As they continue on their mission to provide holistic recovery options for men struggling with addiction, they recognize how much work there is left to be done.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, 4 out of 10 Arizonans know someone addicted to prescription painkillers.

Despite this and the continued issue of opioid addiction in Arizona, Byrne still said one of the hardest parts of having a child who is an addict is the isolation.

“Because it’s such a difficult disease to understand, you kind of crawl in a hole to protect yourself,” she said. “You don’t want to talk to your friends whose kids are graduating high school and going to prom about all their good stuff, and what colleges they’re getting in to when you’re just glad your son woke up today.”

Byrne said the best advice she can give to friends and family of addicts is to love them.

“Just love them through it,” Byrne said. “If you can do that, if you can stay loving your child through what they’re suffering — because they’re suffering — you have potential to come through the other side.”

Tune in to KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Bruce St. James & Pamela Hughes Show each day this week at 10 a.m. for special coverage of Arizona’s opioid epidemic.

To reach the Arizona Opioid Assistance and Referral Line, call 1-888-688-4222, or visit the website for more information.

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