“You don’t look like the mother of an addict.” This was said to me by an adult I met after my son died. Shocked I merely walked away thinking to myself, “What does the mother of addict look like to her?” Stigma shows up everywhere – even in places where compassion is emphasized. Stigma pushes us into isolated corners where everything becomes worse. The mind can be a scary place to be…especially when we aren’t getting balanced input.
In 1981, I discovered Jim was skipping school. Never one to shy away from a problem I went through his room like a crazy person. Finding boxes of capsules of Dexedrine from Dave’s of Colorado, I didn’t like what I was learning. Getting referrals Jim and I began working with Dr. Bill, a relatively young PhD who specialized in troubled children. In short order Dr. Bill informed me Jim’s problems were caused by me. I had divorced his father and worked outside the home.
Did he not hear about the alcohol and marijuana use…the infidelity…the allergy to employment? Did he miss the neglect of family responsibilities? Dr. Bill began making arrangements for Jim to have a battery of psychological tests. I went looking for other resources. Reading the book “Tough Love”, I began to recognize behaviors in myself today known as codependency. Parents were recommended to attend local meetings where possible.
On a stunning early November day I nervously walked past a koi pond lost in thought. There a woman stopped me in my tracks. Jeans spray painted on an amazing body, long auburn hair, she wore little make up and didn’t need it. What was I expecting? Brashly asking me why I was there, it took her only moments to size me up. Sitting me down, she boldly told of her years as a heroin addict and biker gal. “This is the fight of your life for your son’s future. Don’t mess this up!” She had my full attention.
Up to that moment I only wanted Jim “fixed” – to have him return to school and be what I considered normal. I had envisioned his agile body and quick mind as a leader on the wrestling team. Maybe he would hold a student body office… school dances where I could be a parent chaperon. Now heroin? More terrified than before I met this striking woman, I was now more determined.
When Jim was placed in a hospital program, I attended every session offered including weekly parent groups. There I asked every mother about their martial status and if they worked outside the home. With some 40 mothers to sample, it was 50/50 for those who worked as well as those divorced from their child’s father. These experiences taught me early on that it was important to keep learning – to connect to others. Dr. Bill was wrong about other things as well.
Stigma is a means of creating distance, of setting ourselves apart from others. Reaching out to others with similar issues, we find sanity, comfort and often great community. In 1981 support groups were fairly new. Already long standing options included 12-step programs – an excellent place to find others willing to openly speak of their imperfections, their fears.
Today support groups abound – in community centers and churches and certainly in a plethora of on-line resources. In a society that is increasingly superficial, judgment abounds even within the very groups established to offer support and hope.
My journey with Jim and addiction covered almost twenty-two years. Without support groups, counselors and compassionate friends along the way, I would have drowned in the terror and pain. As Jim fought his demons, I invested in my own sanity. It was crucial for me to be there for him in the healthiest way possible. This meant owning up to my own contributing behaviors and preparing for a marathon ordeal. Little did I know the extent of the battle for his life and my sanity.
February, 2003 – I notice Frank next to me in our yoga teacher training program. He doesn’t look so good. At break I ask if he’s okay and I get a shrug off. Pressing a bit I ask, “Kid trouble?” Warily, he says yes; it had been a tough night. “Drugs?” I ask. Staring at me with chagrin, I jump in telling him I’d dealt with my own son’s drug issues for years. Frank tells me a bit about their youngest son’s problems.
Before we go back to class, he says, “how come I didn’t know you had similar problems?” Pausing for a moment, I finally say, “It has to start somewhere, Frank. Somehow we need to feel safe enough to talk about this reality. It’s not like I walk around with a “Mother of an Addict” sticker on my forehead.”
Jim dies a month later. Frank and his wife, Sue, are shaken deeply. From the early onset of Jim’s disease my mantra became:
Where there is life there is hope; fight with every ounce of energy and take nothing for granted. Denial feeds the disease. Never give up!
Frank and Sue took this to heart and today their son is alive. He has had some wonderful years and continues to face his disease head on. Frank, Sue and their family are beside him at every turn.
Soon after Jim’s death we began attending meetings of The Compassionate Friends – an international organization for bereaved families. Concerned about facing stigma and judgment, more than anything I simply did not want to be there. I didn’t want to join other parents who had lost a child from any cause. This dissipated quickly as once again, it helped to be with others experiencing the wrenching pain of such a devastating loss.
At a national conference I did a presentation on losing a child to addiction. Not sure what to expect, we were overwhelmed by meeting so many other parents with similar experiences. We met police officers, addiction nurses, store clerks, firemen, doctors, executives, stay at home moms and on it went. Together we laughed and cried and bonded. The following year I thought back to Frank’s comment in that yoga program some years before… how do we identify each other?
How can we connect to one another if we don’t wear a sign, especially given the stigma of addiction and social judgment? There are pink ribbons for breast cancer, Lance Armstrong’s yellow wristbands… why not a wristband for families struggling with this disease? Will anyone want such a thing?
Choosing the colors representing my children (Jim’s favorite purple and pale green for Jessie’s potential cut short), I searched for a meaningful phrase. One morning I woke with a simple phase on my mind: No Shame or Blame – Just Love.
Packing for an upcoming coming conference in 2007, I took 250 to test the waters. Fearful that no one would want them, I figured there was nothing to lose by handing them out. As it turned out I could have taken that first order of 1,000 and come home with none. As word spread about the wristbands and my articles began appearing in various magazines and e-zines, requests came from large and small cities and towns across the country. Today over 10,000 have been distributed across the US and Canada.
In the years since Jim’s death, I’ve connected with hundreds of parents who children suffer this disease as well as those whose children have died. This is an enormous community of families struggling to make sense of addiction. Having others to connect with makes the battle less oppressive and offers sanity and hope. Addiction is beyond an epidemic not only in the United States but across the globe. The debate rages on as to how to deal with drugs – many including prominent law enforcement personnel, national leaders, researchers and addiction specialists have declared the War on Drugs a failure. There are many links from this site for you to learn more for your own discernment.
Meantime the stigma continues. Even among those of us whose children and family members have died, there is bias. At a recent conference Bob stormed up to me in full fury. Talking to another parent who lost a child to addiction, he was almost incoherent with rage. Typically a friendly and open person, Bob had been talking to a woman about their children’s lives. Suddenly the woman said smugly to Bob, “Well, my daughter wasn’t that bad!” and walked off.
After giving a presentation two women approached me saying, “We’re really angry with you!” As it turned out their sons had died at ages 19 and 20. They were angry that my son had lived to be 35. They wanted more time with their sons, understandably. Is there a better time to lose a child – from any cause?
A friend’s healthy baby died of an infection picked up in the hospital the day of his birth. Later a co-worker told her it was for the best. His son had died at 16 years of age. His observation was that “at least you didn’t have time to bond with your son; it’s easier for you.”
“Of course your son died; he was an addict.” The person who said this to me would later lose his beloved stepdaughter to suicide as a result of her heroin addiction. Family is not immune to their own issues with stigma.
Battling judgment, stigma and bias can seem overwhelming at times. The letters, emails and notes I’ve received continue to make my efforts incredibly rewarding.
Together, out of isolation and into the sunshine of hope, let us work to shatter the stigma of the disease of addiction.