A Family Disease

My precious daughter has a crippling illness that could very well kill her.  It is progressive, and creates chemical changes in the brain and affects behavior.  It has destroyed her ability to parent her children, or have healthy relationships with the people who love her the most.  It has alienated her from loved ones, landed her in jail repeatedly, and pretty much destroyed her decision-making process.  It is destroying her from the inside out, and all we can do is watch this train wreck helplessly.

This disease is called addiction.  It kills countless people each year, yet it's one of the few diseases that carries a personal stigma against the sufferer.  People feel comfortable calling people with addiction horrible names, such as tweaker, doper, loser, piece of shit, and many other hurtful things.  I have even been attacked, as her mother, as it must have somehow been my fault that my daughter has this "flaw."

I'm guessing that nearly every parent of an addict has spent dark hours questioning where it all went wrong, examining every parenting mistake, every slip from perfection that may have caused hell on earth for their child.  It's confusing to vacillate between grief, hope, anger, fear, shock, guilt, worry, resignation, and many other emotions toward that person, often within the same day.  It's hard to look back through old photos and try to pinpoint something that maybe I missed, some clue I should have seen.  It's a very efficient way to slowly go crazy, yet I still catch myself doing it.

I heard a quote on a page called, "I Hate Heroin" on Facebook that said, "You didn't cause it, you can't cure it, and you can't control it."  This has helped some but there's still that "mom guilt," the worst guilt of all.  Defying all logic, a part of me continues to question what I did wrong.

Like any other disease, no loved one wants to "give up" on the sufferer.  We all love our family members, especially our children, and want to help them.  It's a very hard road to find that fine line between helping and enabling; I'm still looking.  What if the one time I turn my back was the one time she would have been ready to get help?  What if I shut down contact and something horrible happens to her?  Addiction doesn't just affect the person who has it; it's an equal opportunity destroyer.  It affects entire families, workplaces, communities.  Everyone who cares about the person is destroyed on some level, and it has changed me irrevocably. 

It's hard when I'm on Facebook, and see memes and photos and jokes poking fun at people with addictions.  I just can't see any humor in kicking people when they are down.  Everyone of them makes me think of my daughter.  The same people who think it's hilarious to put up pictures of "tweakers" wouldn't even think of posting jokes and pictures ridiculing those with other illnesses, such as heart disease or cancer.  I know her children will grow up hearing her called horrible names and ridiculed by society.  It's hard to know how to prepare them for this.  I can no longer see those "funny" pictures without wondering who that person was before their life was destroyed, and if someone out there is hurt that their loved one's illness is being exploited for cheap laughs, or if anyone cares about them at all.

I feel the same way about the "People of Wal-Mart" pictures and other pictures who make fun of strangers in a mean way.  How much intelligence and class does it take to kick someone when they're down?  I don't know that person's story, whether it involves poverty or mental illness, or why they are dressed the way they are, but it's none of my business.  How is this any different from the playground bullies who gather around to taunt others for their clothing and appearance?  Can't we adults do better than that?

I KNOW who my daughter was, and is.  She's a younger sister to two loving and protective brothers, and a kid sister to all of their friends.  As a child, she was one of the most sweet and loving children I have ever met, and she still is one of the sweetest people I know.  She loved everyone, and everyone loved her back.  She was bubbly and funny and kind.  She liked to sing, and had an adventurous tomboy spirit.  She once had a dream of joining the coast guard and doing water rescues and saving lives.  She still has a goofy and hilarious sense of humor, plays guitar, and loves to do outdoorsy things.  She is an easy person to talk to, and someone her friends would often go to for advice, because she was always level-headed, empathetic, and wise.  I raised her to be loyal, and she is; unfortunately, her loyalties are to people who don't deserve it, rather than to herself. 

Last year, her mug shot was posted online, on a Facebook page that seems to exist for the purpose of giving unhappy people someone else to ridicule and hurt.  As if it hadn't been bad enough watching this disease ravage my girl, worse yet was watching people post cruel, mocking comments on her photo as if she were some circus sideshow.  It was horribly painful, and I don't wish it on any parent.  Those people didn't know her, so it was easy to pick on her in her defenseless state.  Yeah, she's not a little girl anymore, and I can't shield and protect her, but that doesn't justify her being persecuted.  Her life is hard enough already, dammit.  Some of her friends saw it, and deluged the site with comments in her defense.  Tears streamed down my face, as I read the beautiful things that were said about her.  They will never know how much that meant to me.

But what about those other people, those who don't have anyone?  Are they worth any less?  Why do we have to be so unkind, just because it's a stranger?  Maybe you don't know that person who's in the People of Wal-Mart line-up, or in that mug shot.  Maybe it makes you feel better not to know.  But what if you did?  Would you still post it?  If you are ridiculing someone with a disease, what does that say about you? 

I'm not doing it to "out" her, or to evoke sympathy.  Our entire family has been devastated by her disease for over two years, and kept fairly quiet online, for the sake of her feelings.  But it's not just about her at this point.  It's a family disease.  I don't feel I'm doing her any favors to tiptoe around this, when I feel her life is on the line.  I'm writing this in the hopes it will help others to understand.  I also hope that someday she will look back and read it and know how very much I love her, and I DO understand.  With one out of twelve people in our society suffering from this disease, I know our family is not alone.  There's a lot of us walking wounded out here.

Just like mental illness, addiction is seen in our society as a character flaw.  There are genetic components to addiction, just as there are to eye and hair color, and diseases such as cancer and heart disease.  In 50% of people with addiction, genetics plays a role.  Some people can dabble in a substance and walk away; my daughter apparently couldn't.  I've been trying to learn and understand the very complex facets of addiction, the physiological effects on the brain and body, and the chemical changes that take place in the brain that make a loving, warm person walk away from those she loves.  And then the hardest part: applying t hose facts, not to some nameless statistic, but to my daughter.  Here's some myth dispelling for starters:


Numerous studies show unequivocally that shaming people does not result in lasting, positive behavior change.  So calling addicts weak, worthless, losers, etc., isn't going to give them the impetus they need to turn their lives around; it's only going to affirm what they believe about themselves to begin with, perpetuating cycles of self-destructive behavior.  There's no "magic bullet" for addiction, but there is plenty of evidence to show that punishing people doesn't help.  Rehabilitation can be very effective, if they are ready to take that step.  Certainly calling someone horrible names is not a proven or effective method to help someone get straight.  For that matter, even the word "addict" is a label and can hurt.  A person is more than their addiction; it's like calling someone in a wheelchair a "cripple."  Words can hurt.

I don't know what my daughter's future holds; everyone is different, but I will never give up hope.  I plan to remind her at every opportunity that her family loves her and we are here for her.  When she is ready to combat this beast, she won't be alone.  Even in moments of deepest grief, I believe with all my heart that eventually she will find recovery and create a healthy life.  So do the other people who really know her.  I will not allow myself to lose sight of her real self, and I see glimpses of it in our sporadic conversations, and in pictures and moments, and I hold on tight to those.

But for the sake of every addicted person out there, and their families, let's please all be kind.  Remember that person who looks terrible, whose picture you posted on your Facebook page, who everyone laughed about and said things like, "gross," and "what a loser," etc., is another human being less fortunate than you.  Consider that they may have no knowledge of, or did not consent to, that picture being online at all.  Think of some of the lowest points in your own life, and ask yourself how you'd feel if they were exploited as online entertainment.  A little empathy goes a long way.


  1. Unfortunately in our case, depression lead to addiction and then suicide. It was a vicious cycle. What I do know about addicts and it is a lot, is that in 99% of the cases they are geniuses. Their brains are wired differently as are the brain chemical ratio. It is a disease. That is incredibly hard for most people to wrap their head around. It affects everyone and not in a good way. We as parents feel we have failed them. I struggle with this everyday. My son took his own life 7 months ago. Some things are out of our control. We cannot fix them. Obviously if we could we would. Hugs to you Romy. I know you are an excellent mom.

    1. Thank you so much. I'm so sorry about your son. Losing my daughter is one of my worst fears. Interestingly, we also have quite a bit of mental illness in my family, particularly bipolar disorder, which is often linked to super high intelligence. I wonder if someday they will find a cluster of related illnesses such as addiction/mental health link. I know you understand what this pain is like, and that means a lot to me.


Father's Day

I spent this last Father’s Day in silent, burning rage at my dad, and it’s taken me three months to sort it out enough to write.