I stared at the dead squirrel for some time before I recognized it for what it was. Cold, frozen, grey...in the stance of death that renders figures unkindly. I kept flashing to my daughter, the same grey color, the same mouth-slightly-open, because death doesn't allow for working muscles, her hands flexed like the squirrel's paws. As soon as it would flash into my mind, the stronger part of me would push it out with great force, refusing to look. Because looking means it will happen. It means I'll see her the same way I was seeing the squirrel. I forced myself to look away, and staggered stiffly back into a run. Heroin leaves it's victims with the deathly grey pallor only an addict possesses; it's recognizable, in fact, undeniable. Once you become unfortunately familiar with it, it's like being handed a pair of eyeglasses that suddenly show you things that you never saw before, that most people never see. And once you see it, it can't be unseen.
Two years ago this month, my daughter became a heroin addict. It was then that the darkest period of my life began. To look at her childhood, her pictures, she was a happy, outgoing, beloved, popular child; a child that had a safe and stable home, with two parents, who had videos and books and games and got to eat chicken McNuggets and mac-n-cheese whenever she wanted. Who never had to worry about warm, clean clothes, where her next meal was coming from. A child with grandparents and aunts and uncles who doted on her. Who took ballet at age 5, played soccer, played violin, took horseback riding lessons, loved art. Who could read before the age of 5, taught herself to tie her shoes, to ride a bike. Who went camping, went on vacations with her family, had Christmas traditions and a bulging stocking. Pets to snuggle with, many friends, seemingly every advantage. We ate dinner together, even when her firefighter father wasn't home, the 4 of us ate together. She loved her little sister and brother fiercely, taking great care to protect and nurture them. Because she and her siblings were so close in age, there was one bath time. And every night, save for the rare one, bedtime followed a comforting, predictable routine. Bath or wash up, snacks and a family book read aloud, then teeth brushing and tucking in. We read fantastic books, including Where the Red Fern Grows; The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, Harry Potter; often I would read them in English accents, much to their howling delight, her especially. Her siblings and her were close; they hugged, they laughed, they loved. These pictures say it all.
She grew through the typical awkward adolescent braces and glasses stage into a stunningly beautiful young woman. The kind of beauty I'd always wished I'd had as a child. She was incredibly bright, and with a gifted IQ, we didn't worry too much, even though her teachers were always frustrated that she wasn't living up to her potential for grades, in their opinion. Intelligent kids are often bored with school, we figured she'd find her way. They always remarked upon her empathy for others, her kindness, her emotional intelligence. Our house was always full of teens on the weekends, who would stay the night. The Costco bill was enormous, but the sound of laughter from the basement made it seem like a small price to pay. She had a propensity for drama, though, hating to see others being hurt or taken advantage of, and always inserting herself into things to try to help. In an effort to help her navigate the angst of teenhood that she seemed to feel so deeply, we took her to counseling, twice. Once at the age of 14, and again, at the age of 17, after she came to us and told us she'd been experimenting with hydrocodones. Both counselors told us she was remarkedly empathetic, and mature, and that she would be fine. The second one told us, "She will go on to do great things. Don't worry about her." She told me many things about her life, things I would never have dared tell my mother at her age, and I felt grateful for the honest relationship I had with her. Upon her graduation, she was so happy, so bright, it was hard to look at her longer than a few seconds, she shone so intensely. But somewhere along the way, things had happened. Little pieces, little traumas, that I, we, didn't know about. It's funny, how you can get to be 47 years old, and think you know something about something, until you suddenly are faced with the fact that you know nothing at all. Such is my new found unwilling guest, addiction.
It's some of the worst news a parent can hear; especially from the mouth of their child. Heroin. You envision a world of hell, and you're not wrong. Everything horrible runs through your mind, and you're right. Except you don't know it yet. You think it's controllable still. Especially if it's early. You've seen the signs: the gradual loss of personal care, the sleeping late and being awake all night, the drifting away and fighting with close friends until they seem to have no one at all. I watched my daughter struggle with trying to reach out, to want desperately to save her friendships, but her friends, not understanding, withdrew one by one, leaving her in even more desperate loneliness, with only one sure friend, one reliable, steady companion who goes by Brown, and who whispered perfect lies of comfort and promises. The more friends she lost, the more she turned to the numbness of nodding off, deep in Heroin's hellish arms. The more she used, the farther away her friends ran. And who can blame them? We don't teach our kids the real truth about addiction. We don't tell them the role genetics play, that trauma plays. Few among us have not had childhood or adolescent traumas, hurts, shocks, angst. But for some of the unlucky few, those fall into place all at the right, or wrong, time. She had fallen in with a few that played the Roulette wheel and won, but for her, it was a losing game.
She came to us, after we thought she'd stopped using, in the fall of 2016. She hadn't stopped, she wanted to; she needed help. Would we help her? Of course. If I could have traded places with her, I would have. We were encouraged, that the first step was taken. She asked for help. It was a good sign. How we didn't know, how much we didn't know. It's almost like a play: you can practically predict the path of drug addiction. We were naive, although we didn't think so. She started an outpatient, and for awhile, things were looking up. There wasn't major change, but she wasn't using, so we felt it would just be slower than we anticipated. A few months in, and we suddenly found out she was on probation at her treatment center. Her dad and I were separating, and after discussing it with her counselor, we were advised to be honest with her. The response was not what we'd hoped; her counselor had said she didn't have far to fall, but we were wrong. Oh, how we were wrong.
The thing about addiction is, the road is not linear. You hear it, you nod and say "Yes, yes, we know", but you really don't-- until you've been on it a long time. You watch them get better, you have hope.....then it's all burned to the ground. So many times, until you're left wondering, what can possibly be left to catch fire? Your life becomes a Warzone. You stand in the middle of the smoking ruins, and wonder, how did I get here? You learn that the lack of personal care is a visible testament to their lack of self worth, that they carry such a burden of shame, they don't even feel worthy of humanity. They try to hide behind their skins; you feel such guilt for persisting to criticize their appearance you can hardly stand yourself. You listen to brilliant addiction psychiatrists with 22+ years of experience explain how their genetics set them up to fail where so many don't, and you see that your own history had a lot of luck in it. You want to hold them, to let your tears, your sobbing, intense rush of regret and shame absorb all of theirs, to wash them clean of their pain. You lie awake at night, thinking of every mistake you made, and while you rationally know all parents make mistakes, and you're not directly responsible, you know that there are what-if's. She'd been in dance as a child, and she loved it; but it was so horribly expensive, we decided that she'd be ok without it. Often I wonder, if only. If only we'd kept her in dance. You learn what enabling means and does not mean, often through hard won personal experience. You start out initially not wanting to let anyone know, because DRUG ADDICT is a terrible phrase, NOT MY KID. Shhhh, it's private, you don't want the neighbors to know. But you learn, that it is everyone, everywhere; that addicts are worthy of love, of recovery, that they are still the people you know and love inside, somewhere. And yet, you sit amongst your friends, you feel like an outsider. Your friends innocently make disparaging remarks about "Probably a drug addict" when they see people on the streets, in their workplace, on the corner. You sit in groups in treatment, you listen to their stories; the other addicts, their families, their spouses. Initially you think "This is not us. We didn't have that. She simply got caught up in the wrong crowd, we're different." But the more you hear, you nod, you feel it, you realize you are they, and they are you.
Addiction is recognized by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the American Medical Association, and the National Center on Addiction as fitting the Disease Model Criteria. It is a 'real' disease, just like Diabetes, Cancer, High Blood Pressure and others. In fact, the recovery rates are actually better than many of those. It is caused by a combination of behavioral, environmental, and biological factors. Some will argue that people don't "choose to get cancer or diabetes or high blood pressure!" But many cancers are caused by behavioral and environmental factors, along with biological predisposition. Same with diabetes and HBP. We don't walk up to people with type II Diabetes and proclaim "Listen up Fatty! Lose some weight and your diabetes will get better!" Or people with skin cancer "You shouldn't have tanned and laid out in the sun all that time!" "You know smoking is bad for you! It's your own damned fault you have lung cancer and are going to die a horribly painful death!" We don't shun people with lung cancer; we gather around them, we support them. At one educational class, the psychiatrist, a brilliant, compassionate individual, remarked about how everyone gathers around people with other diseases, we hold drives, we make food, we support. But addicts are shunned; vulnerable people, often with untreated mental health issues, who need us the most, are run away from as if they are catching. People often say "But you CHOSE to use in the first place!" Well... very few of us can actually say, we have never done something that could be viewed as risky. Raise your hand if you've never had a glass of wine, a beer, tried weed, used a narcotic, even if it's for prescribed purposes. The point of the disease model in relation to addiction is, you put the behavioral, environmental pieces into the wheel, then add the genetics, and suddenly, it's rolling. And it's a big, stone wheel gaining massive momentum with every revolution. Yes, it's true-- for some, it only takes once. When asked what is was like to use Heroin the first time, one addict replied "It was like a hug from God." People would be wise to remember "There but for Grace, go I." There are so many misconceptions, so many stereotypes, so much judgment. So little compassion. People stare disgustedly at addicts, at their unkempt appearance, assuming they just don't care. No one thinks about what the addict sees in the mirror-- that they often avoid mirrors because it's too painful to see what they have become. They're not sure they even deserve to treat themselves kindly. Taking care of oneself, brushing your teeth, means you have self worth, and self respect. That you deserve to be taken care of, even by yourself. Most addicts have long since felt anything remotely resembling love of self. Maybe they are living in their car by now, or on the street, and they don't have access to bathing facilities. I've watched adults scorn and berate young women simply coming in to use the bathroom at a Safeway. Are we that callous and unfeeling? "Just stop using!" "Get help!" "It's your choice!" Oh, but if it were that easy. I ask all of you who have ever tried to lose weight. How would you feel if you failed even once on your diet, if people stood, fingers pointing at you, glaring accusingly "YOU FAILED. YOU'RE NOT WORTHY". And food, for people without that genetic predisposition, is nowhere near as addicting as Heroin. Failing on a diet even once, sneaking that piece of chocolate because damn it, you've had a hard day. It's just a little....the two are not dissimilar, but one is so much more powerful. And yet we pretend it's simply a matter of willpower to overcome this devil that destroys and controls, when we can't even say no to a plate of pasta. When an addict looks at the ruins of their life, the rubble, the chaos around them, it can be immensely overwhelming to try to overcome. The road is so long, so steep...just a little. One more time. I'll start tomorrow.
So you unwillingly start to learn the Fine Art of Addiction Hell. You don't hide it anymore, you freely tell people when they ask, not much, but some details. Soon you realize, people think the mere mention will somehow taint them. They become tired and weary that your loved one is still battling this. I mean, come on, it's been a year now, how long do you really think I can be sympathetic? I have things to do! I have worries of my own! My child is trying to deal with being dumped by their prom date! THESE ARE BIG WORRIES DONTYOUKNOW. The official term is "compassion fatigue". You understand, god knows, you understand; you wish you could shut the door on it yourself. You still feel like an outsider. People have their own stresses, they feel tired and exhausted with their own problems. You remember what it felt like to have what you thought at the time were major issues. Oh but sweet grace could you only go back to those lovely, silly workplace stresses. Worrying about how to pay for college for your child, instead of rehab. (Did you know that most rehabs average $55,000 for just 20 days? If you're lucky to have insurance, you might only have to put out $5,000 or so, not counting the 20% part and the medical deductibles for prescription meds, the travel to and from, the lost work time to attend groups and education.) There are those who truly mean what they say when they offer you their sympathies, but only one other person really understands the grief-- the other parent. Her dad is a firefighter. The epidemic that is Heroin forces him to confront the reality of her life frequently; administering Narcan to those fortunate few, watching the shocked, grief-stricken family and friends of those who are not. He is exposed to it in ways you are not, and you don't know how to help. The two of you are lucky, though....it has not torn you apart the way it can others, but helped you find an unfortunate piece of ground free from other arguments. You learn how to endure together, you look at your own relationships suddenly through different lenses, in a good way. Still, when others urge you to come to life again, please, let's have lunch, you feel moments of that old warmth, the old you, but only for a fleeting moment. The dark devil on your back grips you tightly to remind you he's still there. Happiness becomes like an old lightbulb that was once bright, that now glows weak and dim. But although the light grows dim, it's not extinguished. You have hope. You look back at the family pictures, you watch the videos, you wonder just how this beautiful piece of your soul, your heart that has grown legs and is walking around outside of your body, can deteriorate into something you barely recognize. It's like Heroin is a massive tsunami and your daughter was playing too close to the shore, she's swept away and you can see her, please, please help me you can see her struggling, swimming, trying to stay afloat godhelpyouwhycan'tyousaveher.
And then the well-meaning begins. People outside this inner circle that think they can 'be the one'. The HERO! They advise you, with heartfelt concern, brows furrowed, that you should do 'this'. 'That'. "You should really stop/start/try/don't/do/ " everything, and nothing. You stop sighing, and just stop responding. They say all the things you've already said; they try all the things you've already tried; they unwittingly enable, undo, all the things you wish they wouldn't, but you wonder, unfairly, unfruitful as it is, maybe it will work, you can't bring yourself to ruin the possibility it might make a difference. You watch your little girl, the baby you cared for, the child you rocked all night, you sacrificed sleep, yourself, to give everything to, slowly become a shadow of herself. Her birthday comes and goes....your heart, what's left of it, shreds even more. You watch her sister and brother worry, and wonder in disbelief at the path their sister is choosing, knowing you can't take away their hurt and feeling it all the more because you can't save them from it; you watch your parents suffer, your sister suffer, your entire family, all suffering, and you still feel like you bear some responsibility for saving all of them. You have family dinners, minus one, but it's almost like death has already come to claim her, for she is not present anymore. You look around and wonder, Is this what it will be like? Will our family pictures now be only four? You watch other families, that you've known and your children have grown up with, transition into happy families that start adulting together. You wonder what happened to yours, then you remember your daughter is a casualty in that tsunami. You see pictures of families vacationing together, and you remember your beautiful past ones, and wonder if they will ever return. You encourage your other children to have hope, to have compassion, to remember this is their sister. You try to teach the concept of loving without enabling, that supporting and loving someone emotionally is different then acting as if the relationship is normal. To let go of their expectations, to simply love. You still have to parent. Even in the midst of this, you must encourage them to continue to grow themselves, to focus on their goals and dreams. You wish you could do the same yourself. All the while, you slowly blacken and wither away on the inside, as the trauma becomes yours to carry and bear, too. You feel cuts deep, and many, so many, that you bleed so much, you become limp from loss. You keep your phone on you, close; you answer every unknown call because you don't know if that's the phone call telling you they found your daughter. You think things no parent should ever have to think. You accept inquiries about your well-being in the spirit they are intended, but you become numb, and start answering with "oh, well, you know. They are what they are" because you have no other answer to say. You feel as if you are wearing Ebenezer Scrooge's chain around your neck and dragging, with no end in sight. It is heavy, so heavy, if only you could put it down.
In the beginning, you suck up the moments of joy, because you still believe. You need these moments, they sustain you. But slowly, ever so slowly, weeks run into months, and months run into a year, and year becomes years. And you die a little more every day. You find less and less happiness makes it's way into your being, because your being has become a shell; a cold, hard husk, bereft of anything living left inside of it. You know you must make your own way, there is nothing you can do. You realize you're becoming used to the weight. You know, even if a miracle happens, you now carry deep and intense scars. As a parent, a mother-- you are forever attached to the soul you brought into this world, that you were tasked with bearing to adulthood safely, and your happiness and wellbeing is directly tied to them, inexorably and forever. The light has grown dim, but it is not out. Not entirely. It lies cold, like the January winter, pale, weak, but not out. You cling to this small hope, that spring will come, that dawn will break.
*I have wanted to write about this for so long. It's hard to adequately express the emotions of having an addict for a child. There are so many resources, please take the time to educate yourself and seek support through Al-Anon or Nar-Anon if you struggle with a loved one's disease. Reach out to me if nothing else.
Resource links: https://www.centeronaddiction.org/what-addiction/addiction-disease