by Joan Peckham
Those suffering from addiction are sometimes hard to love. But they are loved. They are in many ways the most sensitive and wonderful people to be with. They need to be loved because it is essential to their recovery and survival. We all have a responsibility to help them reconnect so they can find freedom from their pain. It does not help to further marginalize people who are already in pain. They need to be loved.
Below I have written a few stories from my own family. I observe that my family is not alone in this. These stories are my own but they are also universal. These stories are hard to tell, just as they are hard to hear. With this I hope to break through the isolation, yours and mine.
MY FATHER, A VETERAN
Early on, I didn’t know why my father was so disconnected from the rest of our small close-knit community. While other fathers joined the fire department and the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), he was always working…working in his TV repair shop, or working on our house. When family and friends visited, he would be out wandering around puttering. The men had to sit around and watch him put up the next wall or paint the next section of the house. In later years my mother helped him to stop working by plying him with a cocktail as he arrived home. That was the beginning of the “wet” drunk years.
He never touched us, with his hands, but the tongue can carry mighty blows to the psyche of the most sensitive children. To make sense of this, I subscribe to the theory of addiction as an attachment disorder. He was in submarines in WWII. He had to be awake during attacks from the Japanese, for this he was given amphetamines. He was asked to breathe the exhaust of the diesel engines vented inward to muffle their sound as they waited in silence to escape notice of the enemy.
The seeds of his lung cancer were sown then and the nightmares began. He was called back to active duty on the day of the attack on Perl Harbor for the duration of the war. When the war ended, he decided to come home and start a family. His reaction the to war was to detach from society. He decided no one could understand his horrifying experiences in the South Pacific. This heavily influenced the way he fathered.
He and my mother did not drink while raising us; he did (almost hilariously) fall off the wagon a few times. As soon as we were grown, my mother developed her plan to help him to stop overworking with the evening cocktails, and unintentionally placed him on the path toward nightly drunkenness. Cancer is usually a perfect storm of factors. He died of lung cancer at the age of 61…much too young for his children who were still young adults.
MY FIRST HUSBAND, A STORY OF HOPE
He ran away from home when he was seventeen. He was a very bright and headstrong kid with strict parents. He needed more freedom and found it in New York City. However the man who took him in and helped him find a job was a heroin addict. He began to use heroin too. One day he returned home to find his friend and mentor dead from an overdose. He immediately realized he was in danger. He left New York to find the closest Daytop (drug and alcohol treatment) center. He recovered, applied to college, and that is when I met him. We married and for various reasons divorced two and a half years later. He then married a sensible healthy, and sober woman and they had two lovely children, now grown. He left addiction, and moved to steady employment and a satisfying career and partner.
Many of my friends have told me that once a heroin addict, always a heroin addict. This, I have learned, is not true.
MY BROTHER, THE SENSITIVE ONE
When my brother was two and a half he crawled into the liquor cabinet and drank a shot of whisky. My parents always had one bottle that they rarely touched. We lived in upper Appalachia, in a very small town where most folks were either teetotalers or heavy drinkers. There was no in-between.
My parents were horrified, but my brother knew that this was the substance for him. When he was young, as young as six, he started acting strange. No one knew what was wrong with him. I now know it as depression, deepened by a bullying father trying to toughen up his son for a world that is brutal to sensitive souls.
Where I grew up, folks would rarely go to a medical doctor, and never a psychologist or psychiatrist. That would be an admission of a flawed body and soul.
Upon taking his first job after college, he turned his car around and came back home asking my father if he could work with him in the TV repair shop. My father turned him away. He worked in that job for a while, hated it, took another, hated it, and then he took another on the boats in the Gulf of Mexico. He used to tell us of all of the alcoholics on the ship. We listened to his salty stories, but did not know that he was one of those troubled souls too.
The pattern persisted; he would get a great job, whine about how horrible everyone was, quit it and take another. He was respected and successful at each job, but always unhappy and felt that he was not respected and valued.
His wife realized he was alcohol troubled and reported that to the family. We tried to intervene, but it did not work. In the end, his wife told him that she was leaving with their adopted daughter. He admitted to me that he had been addicted to alcohol since he was fourteen and later to prescription drugs.
His doctor told him that his liver was on life support.
He died by his own hand.
MY SON, THE NEW KID
My son completes this lineage of sensitive men. For him, surviving a change of schools after my divorce at a young age proved to be a challenge he was not ready for. He suffered dismissal at the hands of peers because he is bi-racial and was the new kid. The school system practiced the “weed ‘em out” and “focus on who remains” mode, instead of the more modern “let’s try to bring everyone along” mode.
He left a blue ribbon school system that understood the balance between challenge and support and worked alongside parents to provide the very best education. He moved to one that promoted competition, lacked an understanding of diversity, and held parents at arm’s length.
We found quickly that in this new community of parents preferred their children to smoke pot to avoid alcohol. The stress of being the outsider led to a choice of friends who were also sensitive, disconnected, and marginalized. He self medicated with the drug of choice… pot.
Off to college he arrived at a Midwestern school where parents bought their children fridges and filled them with beer and wine (the allotted drug). When a few very wealthy friends asked him to join them in using cocaine and heroin, he tried it. Heroin took all of his emotional and physical pain away. It made him feel whole and alive for the first time.
His new wealthy college friends were able to afford drugs, share with him, and then go off on their merry way to work for family businesses. He was left behind.
After my brother’s suicide I finally recognized that certain familial behaviors were not harmless personality quirks, but rather symptoms of addiction. So I reached out to my son, and he is now in recovery.
He gets better every day.
There is hope.
We have the support of talented professionals working hard to help him to reconnect and better manage the pain and enabling culture that drove him to self medicate in the first place. But our educational, workforce, cultural and societal practices around the addicted makes it challenging to truly achieve that attachment. Sometimes it feels like the weed ‘em out mentality again. That along with the incorrect belief that there is no recovery from addiction, so we should just move on without the addicted.
I am not ready to give up. Until my last breath, I will reach out with a helping hand. He is strong, honest and hard working. I am optimistic.
A MESSAGE FROM ME, DAUGHTER, SISTER, MOTHER
A professional once told me that the characteristic most common among those suffering from addiction is that they are the most exquisitely sensitive folks. Many wrongly believe that men are not supposed to be sensitive. These men, like my brother are subjected to bullying.
Compounding the problem, people from rural parts of the country are frequently disrespected in white-collar circles. We are like the dogs that try to kill off the psychological runt of the litter, but in fact it is exactly these “runts”, our sensitive and different ones, who contribute so much.
Our sensitive and different ones contribute so much.
I hope that as a community we can begin to think together about possible solutions. Let us help everyone reconnect and seek evidence-based and robust treatment programs to relieve their physical and emotional pain and overcome addiction.
Those suffering from addiction need to be loved. They are in many ways the most sensitive and wonderful people to be with. They need to be loved because it is essential to their recovery and survival.
They need to be loved.