October 2017 Column Winner

Shake the disease
Dorothy Ballard, Miami News-Record

My mother died too young.
She also died an addict.
When I talk about her to those outside of my family, I rarely speak about her lifelong battle with addiction.
Something I have recently vowed to amend.
Part of it has been a daughter’s need to protect her memory, but when I’m honest with myself, a lot of it has also been shame.
Addiction is one of a handful of chronic diseases that carries with it a grievous social stigma that puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of the one afflicted.
It is an illness that is often framed as a personal failing, an inherent weakness that should be managed by developing a better character and stronger force of will.
Something we would almost never demand of those gripped by diseases such as cancer or arthritis.
Yet here we are, in the throes of another national crisis and still, we blame the afflicted instead of the disease and the enabling systems that help it fester.
What I am about to share will be both raw and hard to read, but necessary in my opinion. I want people to know. I think she would want people to know.
Her battle with addiction began when she was a pre-teen when she finally summoned the courage to report longtime abuse at the hands of a family member.
Her behavior had become erratic from carrying the burden of this secret, and soon she found herself wracked with both extreme anxiety and depression. It was decided that the solution was to “normalize” her and the situation by not removing her from the reach of her abuser, but medicating her so she could “cope.”
She was prescribed a steady stream of opioids and antidepressants to keep her stable. Each had their long list of side effects, but the worst would be her developing chemical and psychological dependencies to these substances.
As is easy to predict she did not improve and at barely 13 was committed to a mental health facility for wayward girls. She would spend the next three years in and out of that facility, and I remember when I was at the same age she had been when this all began she held me tightly to her chest and sobbed into my hair the horrors she had experienced through those years.
I had walked into the bathroom catching her as she injected herself with heroin. Later I would learn the pills she did have access to had long ago stopped helping. She tried at first to tell me it was just medicine and then collapsed into a puddle on the floor with me clutched to her as she cried and tried desperately to make me understand.
I hated her for not being stronger. All of the trouble at work, our perpetual poverty, and her strange moods suddenly made sense.
The people she had exposed us to, the sudden weight gains and losses, and her seeming inability to be consistent with just about anything snapped into focus at that moment, and all I knew was that she loved whatever was in that needle more than me.
I would not know better until close to a decade later, and by then our relationship had been so damaged it seemed impossible to repair. Forgiveness came too late, and for my mother, the ravages on her body outpaced her ability to maintain sobriety.
She died of a massive heart attack in 2007.
Intravenous drug use via shared needles and dental disease had exposed her to a series of infections, which led to Pericarditis, an inflammation of the pericardium, two thin layers of a sac-like tissue that surrounds the heart.
Unbeknownst to her, she had suffered several small heart attacks over the years that caused little tears in her heart. The night she died, she first experienced another of the minor heart attacks, but this time the sac around her heart filled with blood and fluid crushing it to a stop.
She was gone.
Flying back to New York to manage her cremation and memorial I remembered that night on the floor years ago and let a stranger on the plane hug me as I quietly chanted over and over “I should have listened.”
We all need to learn how to listen.
My mother was an incredible human being, and she was an addict. She had a disease, and it was woefully neglected and mismanaged.
That is not to say there were not better choices she could have made, but she certainly did not decide to be an addict, and she absolutely did not love the drugs that had a grip on her more than she loved her children.
If we are to get anywhere with genuinely tackling the epidemic of addiction the first thing we must do is dial up our empathy and understanding of this disease process.
Addicts cannot just shake the disease, and we cannot either penalize nor ignore it into nonexistence.
Beating this starts with us. The well must care for the sick and addiction is a sickness. Not of character, but of real biological, psychological and systemic shortfalls.
It is us who must shake the diseases of denial and ignorance.

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