A few days ago, I was scrolling mindlessly through Facebook because procrastination is real and I stumbled upon an update from the Sheriff’s office of the small town in which I was partially raised. Every contact I had from said town had shared the message. It was a warrant notification of a man wanted in association with an attempted armed burglary, and with horror, I realized it was a man that I knew. Well, that’s not accurate. It was a man I had known as a boy. A boy a few years younger than myself. He was one of the underclassmen that hung on the outside fringes of my friend group. A cute, young football player we all lovingly referred to as a little brother. Except he wasn’t. Not anymore at least. The man staring back at me from the WANTED poster looked more like Charles Manson’s insane younger brother than the sweet boy from high school. He bared his teeth in a sinister grin showcasing all of his clearly meth-addled mouth. His hair was unwashed and unkempt. Even his eyes were hollow and vacant, no longer glistening with youth and possibility.
Baffled, I opened the comments to see if this really was the young boy that I had once known. It was, of course, which was heartbreaking in its own right, but more gut-wrenching were the comments. “Hang him!” proclaimed one, “hang him high!” agreed another. “Guess he’s not such a stud anymore,” someone chided. A comment here or there made mention of how sad it was that drugs had stolen his future or of how sweet and kind he had once been and how awful it was that this drug epidemic had claimed another victim, but for the most part, Facebookers gathered to revel in the undoing of one of our own’s humanity.
The scene crushed my soul, not because I had known the boy. We were only passing friends. Truthfully, I haven’t talked to him in over a decade. We weren’t even connected on Facebook. It’s safe to say that had I not seen his mugshot, I would not have thought of him that day or any other. I felt for him, of course, but what upset me even more I guess was that, I wasn’t shocked. While it was jarring to see a name I knew in association with a manhunt, it was not surprising that he turned to a life of drugs. It seems like everyone that I went to school with in that small town either got out or became addicts, and sadly, I’m not exaggerating. Children with straight As and bright futures that stayed within the borders of our small community have almost all been swept up in the free-for-all of opioid and meth use. It’s literally killing the community. I can’t even count on one hand the number of former classmates of mine that have died of drug related causes. Even more than that have had serious injuries and more still have been in trouble with the law.
It’s easy in our society to blame them. To ignore the crushing poverty that kept them out of college despite good grades, to ignore the subpar educational system they’re raised in because it’s hard to find good teachers to live in the poorest county in the state. Hell, it’s easy in my home town to blame them because it’s easier to say “well, they’re just bad people” than to admit the reality that addiction is a disease that know no bounds.
It’s not easy for me, though. I wish that it was. I wish that I could go back to a time where the issue was black and white. I can’t though. I’ve come too far. At this point in my life, I’ve known and loved at least ten addicts that I know of, recognizing that given the percentages, I probably know/love someone that has struggled or is struggling in the shadows. Of all of those people, two are in recovery and have been for a substantial length of time. Two are in the roller coaster of early recovery, three are in jail and the rest are dead. Unfortunately, included in that last group is my father who passed away almost two years ago of what the death certificate listed as “chronic alcohol abuse”.
My father’s addiction changed everything I knew about addiction. My biological mother was also an addict, but she went to rehab and came out the other side clean and sober and has been for well over a decade. I didn’t even know my father was an alcoholic until my stepmother died. He was a highly successful attorney well-loved by countless friends and family, and highly valuable to the community (the big city where I spent most of my life, not the small town). When my stepmother died, though, he did, too. He drowned in drink despite the fact that all he wanted to do was survive. To enjoy his life. To have a damn life. Still, despite every fiber of his being wanting a different ending, despite rehab and therapy and prayers and homeopathic healing and at one point maybe something with an iguana, he succumbed to wet brain and loneliness. Really, it’s too much to even go into now, but suffice it to say that the world’s best father and grandfather became the indomitable alcoholic. I was constantly having to take care of him, rushing to the ER for drunken antics, driving grape juice to him before work but after I dropped my son off at school because he thought he was dying. It was an insane period of time in my life, balancing his addiction with being a single, working mother. It was heartbreaking and infuriating and I have never been so damn mad/sad/defeated in my entire life.
Before my father, if asked about addiction, I would have sad that it was sad, because it is. I was educated and empathetic enough to realize that it was a tragedy and no one ever wanted their life to end in addiction. I knew it was awful, and I was heartbroken every time it claimed another victim, but not like I am now. Not after living through the struggle. I didn’t know the gutwrenching chaos and pain the monster put on. I didn’t know that you could do all of the things, that you could want it SO DAMN BAD and still fail.
That adds a new dimension for me, and while I’m mortified that it took watching my father battle to honestly understand the hell that addicts go through on a daily basis, I get it now. Not just at a “oh it’s shame” level, but at a “this is a goddamn travesty” level. Because NO ONE wanted to end up being an addict.
I’m not saying that my high school friend, or any addict, doesn’t do bad things, and that those things should be overlooked purely because of mental disorder. My father did horrible things in the last few years of his life and we fought constantly, and I was not always the super forgiving, oh-I-understand child. I yelled and screamed and kicked and cussed. When loving his addiction away failed, I tried berating it away, I tried fighting it away, I tried ignoring it away. I tried a lot of things that failed because nothing would work, but still I feel like there’s got to be a better away. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s not hanging. I know it’s not laughing and making jokes and peering down from our high horses in judgement, or even pity.
Anyway, I’m not sure why I wrote this, but a voice has been gnawing at my brain to put this into the world and so it has. Maybe it will help you? I hope it does. Maybe I just wanted to give a voice to the darkness, because for a long time I let my dad live in the darkness. I didn’t talk about his addiction a lot when he was alive because he was embarrassed of it, and no matter how angry I was at him, I never wanted to embarrass him. But you know what? I was never embarrassed of him. I’m still not. Sure, he fought the battle and lost. Sure, I’m still angry that my youngest son will never get to meet his grandfather. Of course, I’m still ravaged by the empty chairs at our holiday gatherings. I am many, many things when it comes to my father’s addiction, but embarrassed is not now, and never has been one of them. His own shame wouldn’t let him believe that when he was alive, but maybe someone out there will. Shame is the food addiction lives on, so I’m not feeding it anymore.
If you’ve loved an addict, if your town is one of the thousands losing this battle, if you’re struggling, whatever and want to talk, I’m here. Comment/private message/whatever. Let’s talk.