We’ve all been there. We’ve walked down a street, stopped at a red light, pumped gas. And there’s been a person with a sign. Or a person that comes up to you, asking for money. And the first thing we do is assess the person’s physical condition: what clothes/shoes is the person wearing, does the person have a cell phone, what other accessories does the person have, etc. Immediately, we assume that the person does not look worse for the wear, does not look “homeless” the way we define homeless in our minds. And then what do we assume? The person must be looking for a few bucks to score the next hit. There are definitely drugs involved, we conclude. A lot of the time, we are probably right.
I’ve been guilty of this. I’m still guilty of this. I make judgements. It’s a natural part of the evolved human being. We make inferences based on what we know and what we see.
Though I make these assessments, I will tell you that my viewpoint, my emotions regarding the situation, have quickly changed. Books, movies, and music are all created to evoke emotion, to connect to the person on the other end. An avid reader, I’ve never had a problem being emotionally invested in the lives’ of the characters I’ve read about. They come alive for me in the books that I love most. Movies, on the other hand, have not always had the same effect. But not too long ago, I watched a move that hit home for me. Becoming a parent has altered my perspective on many topics, and that is what made the difference for me with my stance on addiction as well.
I should start by telling you how I felt about addiction before, and how I feel somewhat ashamed in hindsight.
If you were to ask me a year ago what I thought about addicts, my position would have been something like this: it’s a choice. You choose to try drugs the first time, knowing full well what you’ve been taught your entire life about them being bad for you. You choose to put the substance in your body. You choose to do it time and time again. You choose to lose your job, your home. You choose to sell all your belongings to make some extra cash. You choose to steal from your family and friends. You choose to beg for money to go blow on your next high, even though you know you’ll be resting your head on a park bench that night. You choose overdose and be revived by Narcan. You choose to commit to a rehabilitation program and drop out of it a week later, or relapse shortly after it ends. You choose to lie to your loved ones about being or staying clean. You choose to let it end your life.
You choose. You choose. You choose.
That was my philosophy.
But now, and let me be very clear in saying this: YOU. DON’T. CHOOSE.
That’s a bold statement, I know. And I used to become quite angry at people who would say something like that. But let me explain to you why I’ve so drastically turned tide.
The movie I watched was Beautiful Boy starring Steve Carrell. It wasn’t enticing to me at first, but it had been getting a lot of hype and I wanted to see for myself if it was worth the hoopla. It’s about a father who raises a son whom he thinks he knows well, only to discover there are parts of his son he never knew existed. It highlights the spiral of a young man who gets caught in the web of addiction and the effect it has on his family. That’s all I’ll tell you about that- you’ll just have to check it out for yourself. If you think you know where you stand with addiction, I encourage you to watch it.
What I will tell you is that I became a mother last year to my own beautiful boy. He is my heart, my soul, my entire world. He is the only person who knows me literally inside and out. He is funny and smart and kind and handsome and the most perfect person that I have known. He is also only one, and right now, I am his entire world too. But someday all too soon, his world is going to get so much larger, and I’m only going to be a piece of it. He’ll have to live through his own experiences and make his own decisions, form his own thoughts and opinions about that very world. And it will be out of my control what he makes of it. I can teach him right from wrong. I can teach him manners and values and morals. I can try to mold him in a way that accentuates the best version of himself, but I can’t make him adhere to that path. At some point, I know I am going to have to hope that I’ve done my best by him, and hope that he will continue to stay safe and healthy.
The scariest part of being a mother? No matter all the good you do, no matter how well you think you’ve raised your children, you lose your autonomy very quickly. Yes, that’s part of it. But even scarier than that? You can spend all of those years raising your children and you can still not know them. You can miss the signs on the road map of life that point to destruction, because they are not always so evident. I just got done telling you how perfect my son is. That’s what he is to me. We see the best in our children. By definition, it’s what is expected of us as parents. But this often means that many parents miss the red flags. Some are absentee parents, of course, but most of us just don’t see until it is too late.
Picture this: you have a beautiful boy. The years of his childhood are spent learning and growing: homework at the dining room table after school, family vacations, movie nights, sleepovers with friends, playing sports, baking cookies, tickle fights. It’s all very “normal” as you see it. But you missed the journal he kept under his bed where he writes about how alone and unhappy he feels. You never noticed it because he never gave you reason to search his room after he reached the age where he could clean it himself. You missed how the number of his friends dwindled as he got older because you just chalked it up to the fact that sometimes kids drift apart as their interests change. On the same token, it didn’t bother you that he didn’t want to play sports anymore because he was such a good student, you assumed he just wanted to devote more time to his studies. You didn’t see that while all of these pieces fell away, he was still searching for something to make him feel joy again.
No one would blame you for it. These dots that you didn’t connect could have nothing to do with each other. Or they could illuminate a cry for help.
This brings us to the elephant in the room: mental health awareness.
Most of us feel that we would never succumb to addiction, that somehow we are stronger, wiser, better. Depending on your interpretation, somehow that might be true. I myself have an adverse reaction to most medications. I try even to avoid taking Advil if I can help it. When I had my C-section, I genuinely needed the pain medication, but I remember wanting to do nothing but sleep after taking it. I was holding my son, simultaneously never wanting to let go and afraid that I would, inadvertently. This is just one on the list of negative experiences. My body’s “rejection” of these substances makes me less likely to fall victim because there has been nothing enjoyable beyond the necessity of alleviating pain or symptoms. I am also not a follower by nature. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the self-confidence to generally not feel the need to give in to peer pressure. I have not suffered from depression. Some may label these fortunes in personality “strength” or “wise” or “better”. Do you know what I call it? Luck.
I used to get irritated when people called addiction a disease, but now I do believe it’s an illness. I don’t think that it stands as an illness on it’s own, though; it’s the hydra of illnesses. Sometimes it is influenced by a traumatic past. Sometimes a person could have lived a seemingly normal life until one setback influences a choice that sets one on a path to addiction. Sometimes pain medication from a surgery leads to addiction. Sometimes depression leads a person to seek an escape from the constant pain felt, for a temporary high that fills the void. Sometimes a teenager’s self-consciousness and need to belong to a set of people causes him to take just that first hit to feel like he fits in. Maybe, for some, it’s a combination of all of these things.
There’s something to be said for the fact that such an epidemic exists in our time across all races, all classes, all walks of life. Our mental state as a human race is so fragmented, so fragile, that people are taking desperate measures to attempt to find an answer to the pain they are feeling or the problems they are facing. As a human race, we feel so lost and alone that we see no other way out. That is why addiction is a problem for all of us.
I tucked my beautiful boy into bed tonight. Right now, he can do no wrong. Right now, he is safe from the troubles of the world he will one day face. But it crushes me to think… breaks my heart to think… what if this were to happen to my boy? What if someday he found himself on the corner of a busy road, begging for money to get his fix? What if no matter how well I raised him, no matter how hard I tried, he became an addict? Would I want everyone to write him off and say he couldn’t be saved? That he wasn’t worth saving? What about all of the other wonderful things that I would know he could be?
I’m under no fairy-tale illusion that this is an easy problem to solve. I don’t have any solutions to offer. I’ve held off on the writing of this article for some time because this is an issue that affects people who are near and dear to me, whether directly or indirectly. But we can’t keep sweeping it under the rug. We can’t keep treating mental illness and/or addiction like if we ignore them, they’ll go away. We can’t keep acting like this is “someone else’s” problem. This is your problem, and this is my problem. Addiction can happen to anyone’s loved one, regardless of life circumstance or how immune you may think you are.
I don’t hand money to the people I see on the corner, whatever their story may be. Because I know that often times, this would not be helping them. It would likely not go towards dinner or a warm place to sleep. I know we cannot have a bleeding heart because that will not create real solutions either. I don’t believe that every addict can be helped, nor does every addict want to be helped. But I do believe that we can all empathize and work towards helping the members of our community who are susceptible to turning to drugs. Let’s work on prevention by means of watching our friends and family closely for signs of depression. Let’s make mental health and addiction platforms that cannot be ignored.
And most importantly, before we are quick to assume the worst, let’s try to remember that every addict is someone’s beautiful boy or girl.