We have to solve the opioid crisis.
Anyone in 2017 with a fully functioning set of ears heard this phrase, repeatedly. It’s an issue that exploded onto the national stage during last year’s polarizing election season. It was one of several subjects that neither candidate found any common ground on, although, unlike the issue of climate change, both parties acknowledged the problem and the need for a cure. The numbers speak for themselves, and according to the Center of Disease Control, overdose deaths due to prescription opioid abuse exceeded 40,000 deaths in 2016 alone. Multiple factors have led to the rising mortality rates. Higher overhead costs have led many dealers to begin counterfeiting pills, using the extremely potent narcotic analgesic, fentanyl, as a cutting agent. The result has been lethal, as the compound can be nearly 100 times stronger than heroin. Cost can be a huge issue for users as well. The street price for certain opioids can be crippling, and in some instances users are intentionally switching to heroin as a means to afford their habit.
How did we get here? What do we do to solve it?
These are the questions that were asked debate after debate throughout the election and since. There has been much contention as to how the nation should go about solving this epidemic. On one side, the republican ticket, the solution was to wage a greater punitive crackdown. Then candidate Trump suggested implementations such as the death penalty as a form of fair punishment for illegal street dealers when a sale leads to a fatality. The democratic candidate at the time, Hillary Clinton, was less vague. She laid out a multi-faceted combative initiative to solve the epidemic, which essentially added up to throwing millions of dollars at the problem.
The biggest obstacle is how the issue is being approached. It can be frustrating when our nation’s leaders see the issue as two-dimensional. The idea that this happened overnight is absurd. It didn’t. This isn’t a problem that can be simply wished away with speeches, careless sums of money, or commercials. There are no banalities that can save us from this.
The story of addiction in America is far older than the past ten years or the most recent drug fad. It’s a complex and multi-layered, socioeconomically relevant problem. Every person affected has a story, and each story goes deeper than bad personal moralities and peer pressure. This is my family’s story, and a conversation that has been put off for far too long. It’s the story of a mother and her son, and the city they hail from; the shared problems in their community, and one woman’s recollection on how she found herself at rock bottom along her journey.
The first time my mother died was in 1999. It was January, just a month before my seventh-birthday, and the holiday season had just come to an end. I remember there was a blizzard that year, the worst I’d ever seen in my short lifespan. Outside, the snowfall had reached nearly a foot in height and the conditions were scary. I remember having a bad feeling about it, her being out there, and I wanted desperately for Mr. Williams to invite her in to stay. Looking back at it now, I understand how unrealistic that dream was. Unrealistic because Mr. Williams and his wife could not trust my mother with staying in her condition, and unrealistic because Mom didn’t want to stay there either. She didn’t want to quit; not yet, at least. I kept my concerns to myself and if asked I always knew the drill. Some parts of the city gossiped more than small towns, and Ma used to warn me about those kind of people, the kind of people who concern themselves with the business of others—people with negative intentions. She would call those kind of people rats.
“Listen, Ant,” she would say, “there’s almost nothing worse than being a rat.”
So, for all those years I handled the nosey rats with Ma’s signature technique. Going about town and with only the exception of family friends, I would start the moment they’d ask. Without letting them finish their questions, “Ma’s doing great! She’s got a new kitty,” and all that. I’d rant about irrelevant details. That was the key, remaining visibly optimistic, though underneath my façade was a terrified child.
The first time my mother died was in 1999.
I can still remember nights that winter, sitting in the cozy warmth of Mr. Williams’ living room, heated by the fireplace. I would pull a chair to the closest window and stare transfixed watching snow fall in flurries, plummeting to the ground below. I couldn’t look away. I was haunted that winter, haunted with the image of my mother somewhere out there, frozen.
At the height of that year’s awful blizzard my worry must have begun to show. Small signs like a slight loss of appetite and loss of sleep were detected immediately by Madame Williams. She guessed right away the reason behind my additional stress. That’s when Madame started taking me with her into the library, a small room in the house with large glass display of bookshelves and gorgeous, yet uncomfortable matching furnishings. The tables were wooden antiques and so was the seating, mostly Victorian era. There was a certain fragility to just about everything in the room, including the chairs. The atmosphere was more reminiscent of a museum to me than a library. Madame would then open the second book shelf on the left, the middle row, and then retrieve a small oak box. That’s where Madame kept all the rosaries. She would take one for herself and then hand me one, and together we would arm ourselves with the beads of God to send good will out to my mother. At the time, I wasn’t fully certain how pretty beads would help Ma, but I was willing to try anything. I sat in Madame’s lap as she used her beads to show me the way. It took a few full trips around the rosaries for us to get into a rhythm, but soon enough we were well on our way to my mother’s salvation.
Of all locales affected by the 1990’s heroin chic epidemic, I can’t imagine a city more impacted or devastated than my family’s hometown of Detroit. Sadly, it was a perfect storm, between the city’s economic depression and the drug’s newfound popularity. Pop culture let us down, and for the first time in the drug’s history, heroin addiction was no longer exclusive to the low class. Young people were exposed to the dangerous myth that heroin use could have the effect of making you beautiful. Major modeling campaigns furthered this myth by scouting models with the “look.” The absurd concept gained enough national attention that even the president of the United States came out to speak against the company practice of encouraging the heroin image. The only problem with him condemning it was that it was too late.
Growing up as a boy during that decade, heroin was everywhere. I attended school in the best district the state of Michigan had to offer, Grosse Point public schools. Madame Williams was an educator and she believed nothing to be of greater importance than my education. Strings had to be pulled. Grosse Point was not my style but it was an undeniable fact that Grosse Pointe was a marvel and not difficult to find. Driving eastbound away from the Detroit skyline, there is an invisible line. Magically the potholed streets and cracked sidewalks transform into a newly paved, freshly landscaped utopia. There were amazing libraries, fantastic parks to play at, and friends with actual Fathers. That’s where I was living when it happened.
At the time I was with Mr. and Madame Williams for at least a year. They were who the court had entrusted me to be with temporarily, while the terms of my custody were being sorted. This was ideal for me, as she was my mother’s next of kin. The thing to explain is that I did, and still do today, love my mother, more than anything. It’s an important perspective to explain since there is much said today about parental rights. Even today I can still remember plotting through all the custody hearings and temporary guardians. I would try to use whatever influence I had to get the nearest proximity to my mother as humanly possible. I was not sheltered from or naïve about her circumstances. I fully understood what heroin was. It was all over the city, affecting the lives of my friends and their families. Every kid in my neighborhood past the age of five knew what a junkie was, but that was never the way I looked at it. I never looked at my mother like a villain. Mom is just sick. That’s the way I would phrase it, that’s how I perceived it.
The topic of my mother caused many altercations between my poor grandmother and I. Her only sin was attempting to set a realistic expectation for me. I think she believed that she could soften the blow. Regardless, it was déjà vu. Mom was supposed to come over that night to see me. She had called our landline from a payphone two nights prior asking Madame to put me on the line, which she did, but still she eavesdropped from the old rotary plugged up in the living room.
“Hey hunny!” she greeted me in a gentle but euphoric tone of voice. Her demeanor seemed loose, optimistic, and that excited me. You never knew what you were going to get with mom, even before the heroin. Mom would go through phases of depression, usually after a disappointing life event like being laid off or losing a friend. Those were tough times. She could take all day and night just to get out of bed. I remember all the little trouble I would get into during her slumbers. I was just a stir-crazy toddler at the time, but it was in those days that I had my first knife related accident, first time sneaking a sip of beer (gagged), and my first and last time trying to eat toothpaste. Hearing my mother excited, made me excited.
“Guess who’s coming to see you Thursday?” mom almost shouted it, and I was elated. She went on to explain she had some things to take care of the next couple days but was going to be by the house to see me after school that Thursday. I told her about my new Winnie the Pooh movie, and she made me promise to wait so we could watch it together.
“Oh, I promise!” I cheered, “I triple promise!”
Madame Williams, Sergeant Buzzkill, charged in the moment I put the phone back down on the hook. First it was probing questions, with a slightly condescending tone, at my mother’s expense of course. “So, you talked to your mother and she says she’s coming?”
I knew what she was getting at right away. I could feel my blood boiling. I may have been a child, but I was precocious enough to understand the way adults put each other down. I was not afraid to talk back, so I did.
“Anthony, I just don’t want you to get your hopes up and then get hurt when she doesn’t show up,” she’d continue. “You know your mother.”
My ears rang. You know your mother, boy did I hate that. In that moment, I hated my guardian. I could’ve been my mother’s attorney. I defended her as if my life depended on it, crying so hard I almost threw up. Complete tantrum. I couldn’t understand why it was so important to ruin my moment. That was all that registered, nothing else.
Fade in two nights later and there I am, sitting in the living room with my life-size Tigger stuffed animal and Winnie the Pooh movie cassette tucked tightly in my arm, like a running back’s grip. I sat there watching the living room window for headlights, jumping at every flash or flicker. I almost had a heart attack when the street lights came on. Hours passed but still I sat there, facing the blinds, unblinkingly. I was unfazed until Madame Williams came into the living room to suggest I maybe start getting ready for bed. All hell broke loose. I threw a fit with twice the proportion as the last one; I even got away with cursing. Madame Williams never fought back; she just tried to coax me with little results. Eventually I blamed her for everything and charged up the stairs to my room.
I sat up in bed, furious, not with Ma, but with Madame Williams. I was certain that mom was still coming and I intended to stay awake. As far as I was concerned, closing my eyes would have been an act of betrayal. It wasn’t long before the sound of the phone ringing stirred me awake. I darted for the downstairs line in full-stealth mode, crouching past the furniture. Mr. Williams was asleep in bed; Madame was sitting on the couch with the living room phone. I picked up the kitchen line and was taken aback to hear an unfamiliar voice. I was not expecting whoever was on the other line. It was a man’s voice, raspy, and he had a heavy accent. It was clear this person was not my mother. Listening to the details of the conversation, he was also not a friend of my mother’s. The man identified himself as being with the police. He was requesting that Madame Williams come down to the coroner’s office, to identify her daughter and my mother’s body. Murder.
That night wouldn’t be the last time my Mother did this to us. In fact that wasn’t even the last time she gave us the exact same fright. The contract on my Mother’s head stayed open, and redheads all over the city were turning up departed. Each time Madame Williams would get the call and in the middle of the night have to travel up to the morgue. Who knows exactly what my Mother did to deserve that kind of violence. It was probably over money, my Mother fucking over the wrong people. I’ll never ask the details, out of respect. Still, my Mother would go on to expend each of her nine lives over the next couple of years before finding a treatment program that worked for her. My mother never did regain full custody of me, and I finished out my childhood being raised by relatives. That’s not to say that she didn’t work to become a true presence in my life, although to what extent we may have opposing viewpoints of. Today, my mother lives in Greenville, South Carolina, works in the telecommunications business, and we speak every month.
We are your cashiers, your bankers, your parents, your new boyfriend, your children, your supervisors, and we are not exclusive to any particular social or economic class.
When I approached her about doing this interview, asking these questions, she understood my point and immediately agreed. My mother has kept her eye on the news as well, and has seen nothing new in the plight of real Americans. Like me, she believes that to understand the true struggles of all people is the only route to saving the American way of life. Addiction is a disease and must be treated as such, or the only outcome is death.
Let’s start from the beginning. Tell me about when you found out you were pregnant? What was your immediate reaction? What were you fearful of?
I first found out that I was pregnant when I was 16 yrs. old. I felt like I’d been hit by a bus, I thought… oh, shit, now what?! I was terrified, I was almost 17…I had aspirations of travel and adventure, a future in art. I knew from the bottom of my heart, nothing was ever going to be the same ever again.
Tell me about that? How did it affect your childhood?
I wasn’t living at home anymore my life hadn’t been “typical” for quite some time. I had no illusions of childhood, but I did want to run and play like other people but I had to work and go to school. Then I found out I was pregnant and I knew that would never happen.
My biological father. How did you tell my father? What made you decide to tell my father? What was that like for you? What was his immediate reaction?
Your biological father wasn’t bad about it actually… I guess, looking at our history, he was getting what he wanted. Power and control over me. I told him, because he had a right to know, and you my child had a right to 2 parents…even though you didn’t get that.
Tell me about the time you spent trying to make it work with him? What happened that caused you to be alone? What point did you decide enough was enough? Or what point did he leave?
I tried almost your entire life to make it work… I mean him being a father. I never gave up, not until the ship sank. I was very early in my pregnancy and your father was extremely abusive, it wasn’t my life anymore. I left when I was 3 months pregnant… He would come and find me and I would try and I would get the shit beat out of me. When I was 7 months pregnant, I was living in a ghetto apartment on Harper upstairs over a business and working at Amoco. I had to walk to work in the freezing cold and snow and home in the middle of the night because your father was in the process of yelling at me about being morning sick and the smell of Taco Bell made me vomit. He wouldn’t take it out of the car so I puked on him and he crashed my car into the back of a custom van then chased me around the car to hit me… so, I didn’t have a car anymore. Well, he found me again. He hit me in the face and knocked me backwards off an eight step high porch, vandalized my apartment and disappeared.
As a victim of abuse, was Detroit law enforcement helpful? What steps did they take to make you feel safe?
Haha! Law enforcement! That’s funny. They showed up and all, but the whole enforcement thing. No. Your father never had to face his actions, ever. Still hasn’t in any way.
Not to victimize you, but you certainly have (had to face your actions), how does that make you feel?
(Takes a long drag of her Marlboro Red,) well… I try not to think about it that way. I don’t want to take away from my own wrongdoings as well.
Adopt, Abort, or Keep? Tell me about this decision?
You know, of course the passing thought of abortion came…and went. I never really considered it an option. Don’t get me wrong, I support and believe in it. Just not for me. Somehow, I knew you were going to be the best thing I ever did.
Tell me about the major struggles being your age with me? Did you feel there was enough assistance available to you?
Being a 17-year-old mother was fucking insane… there was NOTHING for me. I went to welfare for help. They did give me Medicaid, for you… However, I sat in the welfare office in 1992 next to black women wearing gold, fake nails, with CELLPHONES (in 92)! Driving caddies and I had a Buick Century. They got money, food stamps, insurance, housing. I was told I had too many assets, because I had a job, a bank account, and a Buick. Amazing.
How did you handle juggling both roles of being my father and my mother?
Well, I guess a lot of the time I didn’t think about it…except to say that I agonized over what that was doing to you. I mean, when I was potty training you I came up with the fruit loop situation. I put a bowl of fruit loops on the back of the toilet and would throw a cpl in it and tell you to sink them. Haha! Worked like a charm… but it was just a solution to a dilemma. Then as you got older, I didn’t know how to teach you to be a man… so I tried finding strong men, what a laugh. I should have just kept doing it myself.
Tell me about the daily struggles? What were the little things that people don’t know about?
There were a lot… I mean logistics: juggle work, college, home, making sure you were cared for and I spent enough time with you. Money, feeding you, making sure you were eating well, correctly, being read to, played with, activities, stimulation, music, art, culture… I wanted you to have it all and I sure as hell tried. It was never easy, nothing… everything was a struggle. Except you. You were always happy, no matter what and I can say how grateful I was for that. Anything we did you loved, you were so excited about…you were an absolute pleasure. I think that made me so much more determined to give you everything I possibly could. I just wanted to make up for absolutely everything. I think that was the biggest struggle. The guilt I had for cheating you of a decent and good childhood.
So it’s my understanding that you began to have severe issues with mental health, can you describe those issues to me? When did that begin? What exactly was happening?
Yes, I struggled with mental health issues since I was 13, I lost my mind. I became uncontrollable, even to myself. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t shut off… but when I was 23 and you were 5 I fell into a deep and unwavering depression as a result of my Bipolar disorder. My mind failed… with it everything I knew. I couldn’t get off the couch, I couldn’t feed you, I couldn’t feel anything. I called your grandma and told her I needed her help. I needed her to help you. I told her I didn’t know what was going to happen, I’d never been there before and I was terrified. I wanted to claw my skin off.
Tell me about the episode, the one that led to you passing me for guardianship? Summarize your decision around that? What were the obvious benefits to allowing this? What were the cons? First night alone with an empty house, how did that feel?
When I lost myself, I did everything I could to feel human… to get back to you. My life ceased to exist without you in it… I couldn’t get my face above the water. I was drowning in sickness. I had no reasonable thoughts or feelings that I can remember. It was a never ending mess in my head. I found heroin… I was sick enough for that to be an option, and the first time I did it… I thought, “So, this is what normal people feel like.” I am not shitting you. How sick is that? Then I was a junkie… I could no longer be a parent. I wasn’t go to drag you through another broken life, you were not going to be a victim of that as well. There was no choice or option, your father was an abusive piece of shit and your mother was a junkie… you were going to be taken care of by grandma and that was that. I loved you too much to leave anything else to chance in your life. I loved you enough to no be your parent. I knew I wanted to find and locate nothingness. I wanted to find silence, I wanted to find death…
Tell me about drug use in your adolescence? What were you guys doing? Before I was born? What age did you guys start?
I started smoking, doing drugs, and drinking at 13… started with pot, then acid, mescaline, mushrooms, hash, coke… we all did. I mean, everyone I knew anyway. It was better than life. It was our right to decide how we wanted to feel…finally. And, we did.
What was the heroin scene in 1990’s Detroit like?
Oh, it was everywhere. Every dope house had heroin and crack… so easy. The “industrial scene” had rolled in and Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails… heroin cool(haha) was every where anyway. Who could tell who was a junkie and who just looked like one. We could move in and out of the world without so much as a nod. It was the perfect disguise to get what one would want… Cryptic, I know… it was. Life was a puzzlement to a junkie anyway.
Do you think that your situation as a teenage Mother caused in some way your heroin addiction?
I don’t think being a teenage mother helped with my mental illness, however I don’t believe it was as much the parenting as the lack of resources and respect added to the strain of my broken mind.
What kind of resources were there available for you as a drug addict?
There were no real resources without money, I checked myself into hospitals claiming the desire to kill myself so I could get help. If you were suicidal they had to take you in for at least 72 hours. When you were admitted then you could get other help…but you always had to play an angle.
Can you tell me about any arrests related to Heroin you may have endured?
I can honestly say I don’t remember how many times I was arrested, shaken down, harassed… I would hazard to guess, at least arrested 5 times. I was dragged in one time for being in a known drug neighborhood and I had nothing on me, they still arrested me and impounded my car… I was fairly well known.
Were you ever close to dying? from either the drug or the lifestyle?
I overdosed once and was revived by my drug dealer, I was always on the edge of life and death. There was a particular situation in which I was being looked for and I didn’t know it… a girl was mistaken for me and was taken to an abandoned house shot execution style and set on fire. I will live with that my entire life.
In your own words, how did heroin effect your ability to be a mother? Can you describe to me the guilt you felt? Did you own it, did you over-guilt yourself, or did you justify most of your actions to cope?
I couldn’t be a human let alone a parent, that is no life for an animal let alone a child. I could absolutely not be a parent… it was agony, the guilt was unbearable and even though I knew I did the best thing I could for you… it pushed me closer to destruction everyday.
Can you tell me about a specific event that heroin caused you to let me down? How did that feel?
No, honestly I can’t… not a specific time. All the time. I let you down everyday by not being there and not helping you grow and learn about love and life and joy. I wasn’t there. It was a lot like being dead inside, nothing existed.
All these years later how does that feel?
To be honest honey, I will never forgive myself for missing out on so much and cheating you so badly. I will live with that forever.
Were you aware that things were salvageable, or did you feel hopeless?
I never thought you owed me that, but I prayed you would forgive me and we could move on in a new and different life. It was my biggest desire.
Can you describe the situation that led to your recovering from heroin addiction?
When the girl was killed, my mother was called. The police just knew it was me…she had to go to the Wayne county morgue and identify the body. It wasn’t me, and so she set out to find me. She paid people money and drove in the worst of neighborhoods with grandpa bob and when they finally found me, my mother told me they were moving to Georgia and either I came with them or I was going to die in the gutter. She didn’t tell me about the girl until much later on… I just couldn’t lose my family and I knew that I was going to have to do the hardest thing in my life. I chose to go. Grandma found a clinic in Richmond VA that did what is called ultra rapid detox by a doctor in recovery. I was put to sleep and my blood was “cleaned” and was implanted with Naltrexone… so that if I did heroin again, I would feel nothing and could result in death. Don’t take ultra rapid detox as easy, it only brought you a week through the process. I was still sick and had more than a month to deal with, but the initial hell was relieve
How many friends of yours lost their lives?
I have lost more friends than I can count, just as recently as 2 yrs ago… it goes on without me.
Describe the method you used to recover? Post-recovery. Tell me about reconnecting with me, what was that like for you? Was it a joyous time? Was it an awkward time? Was it a mix of both?
Rehab never worked, AA worked and I utilized that…but since I went through the process with my family I was never actually reunited with you, I was always around in the periphery and as undeserving as I was, you always loved and missed me. I had to deal with my own guilt and shame and tried never to let you see that. I took you places and brought you around meetings so you knew mom wasn’t going anywhere and all I could do is keep showing up and hoping that I would never let you down like that again.
Describe the dynamic between you and the person you involved to be my guardian? Did you both bump heads? Did you feel at times undermined?
Your grandma and I will always bump heads, she made me impudent and still continues to do so much of the time. My mother never felt that I was able to be a parent and has always made sure to fulfill her prophecies. I love her, but I will never forgive that… she did so much for me that I will never discuss it again with her especially at her age, but it’s always there.
Is there anything you never said to me that you wish you would have?
No son, I have said what I’ve needed and wanted to over the years… but it was my actions that had to speak. I’m sorry is just hollow. I love you, not enough. It has to be continuous and earnest action on my part.
Looking back what advice would you give to a pregnant teenager?
Your life isn’t your own… you are the blue print for their lives, do not take it lightly and if you are truly committed, NEVER let anyone stop you from being the best mother you can be. But, remember… you don’t have to be an unfair mother. You can bring a child into a loving marriage with adult parents by simply using your head instead of your body. Do the smart thing for an innocent child, WAIT!!!
What advice would you give a woman in an abusive relationship? Do you regret that my Father wasn’t in my life or is that outweighed by it’s benefit? Should a Woman stay so her kid can have a Father? What is your opinion?
Run like hell!!!! Get out, he doesn’t love you and you can end up dead! Go! There is help. Your father was the worst thing that ever happened to you, I wish I could’ve spared you that man. I’m so sorry I didn’t/couldn’t. He was never a good person, he’s never been a good or caring parent.
What advice would you give to a drug addicted Mother battling to have custody returned? What would you say to her?
FIGHT!!! GET CLEAN…FOLLOW THE RULES, NEVER MISS A CHANCE TO LOVE THEM! YOU CAN OVERCOME AND YOUR CHILD NEEDS YOU! DON’T GIVE UP!!! DO WHATEVER IT TAKES!
So, I’ll pose the argument: there is no such thing as an opioid crisis. Our epidemic has nothing to do with opioids specifically, and even if you could get rid of every prescription narcotic, or imprison every illegal dealer, it wouldn’t make a difference. The true crisis is with society, and it’s inherent troubles have made way for the problems we face today. I shared this story of the past because it rings a bell. My mother’s story rings true for opioid addicts today. In sharing this I hope anyone realizes that we can look to the past to help us decide the best course for solving our true epidemic, an addiction epidemic. Addiction exists, no matter what the substance. The Surgeon General boasts the figure to be one-in-seven Americans that will experience the disease in their lifetime.
We are your cashiers, your bankers, your parents, your new boyfriend, your children, your supervisors, and we are not exclusive to any particular social or economic class. Poverty enables a market for these vices, and the neighborhoods with money are the customers. All levels of society are in cahoots with this. We’re interconnected by strings that cannot be seen with the naked eye. This isn’t a problem that a figurehead can solve or even comprehend over the span of a few short months. I have nothing to say in contradiction to my mother’s words. This was her story, a story that only she can tell. It’s a story that’s only relevance is in her perception. Her father’s sins laid the foundations for hers, which then laid the foundations for my own. My only argument is that in order to cure this epidemic, we have to look cure all the epidemics within and throughout our society.