GraffittiYears ago, I was fortunate enough to meet a young woman who taught me more about addiction than all the books and workshops and classes stacked together ever could. She is dead now. Her life, short and tragic, snuffed out by the risky behavior she indulged in to get the fix she needed to get through every day. Even when she confided in me the terrible things she did, I liked her. But from the first time I met her I knew she was not going to get well.

People might think that unkind of me, but in every conversation I had with her I could see the deep black hole in her that only crack filled up. It had eaten away any softness from her face and body. Her teeth had rotted away. I could see she once was lovely, but that was gone. For her the drug was not a choice but a need. She didn’t choose it over the family who walked away from her to keep their hearts from breaking. She didnt choose it over having a place to live. She didn’t love it more than the kids she lost. She just had to have it. Even when it cost her more than she could afford.

Before I met her, I thought that addicts loved the drugs more: more than stability, more than family. I learned through her that it’s not like that. Its not about not loving family…it’s about having a need that nothing else can fill. Before I met her I believed that the people I worked with who had addiction issues valued their children less than the rest of us. Certainly they behaved in ways that supported that belief. Her openness about her lifestyle made me reconsider. Sometimes life damages children in ways that makes them need to numb the pain they feel in order to get by everyday.

I’ve been fortunate to only feel that kind of emotional pain a couple of times in my life. I do know that when I felt it, or even when I recall it, there is nothing I wouldn’t do to stop it. We all know drug users that we think didn’t have it that bad. I know some from really wonderful families who can not understand how their loved one got to where they are. The way I understand this is we all interpret what comes at us in life differently. What for some of is a hurtful but manageable event can be the straw that breaks the camels back for someone else.

So how do we deal with people who are addicted? I see the effects of addiction around me daily. Sometimes it’s the lethargy and apathy of chronic pot smokers. Sometimes it’s the erratic, unpredictable behavior of drinkers and sometimes it’s the empty hollow zombie look of someone who’s smoking crack. While they present differently, they all have costs. The price for numbing whatever they choose to numb comes with losing the connection to the good things in life as well. Kids who are experimenting with drugs and alcohol for fun do not understand this vulnerability in themselves. Everyone else is partying for fun. But what if that substance erases the thing that hurts the most, even for a little while? That’s the hook.

Dr. Gabor Mate and Dr Bruce Perry both discuss the power of patience and kindness in dealing with addiction. Ive seen families struggle with this. Where is the line between caring and enabling? How much forgiveness is enough? It is possible, as one of the interventionists on the powerful series Intervention says, to love someone to death? It’s so easy to judge. We have so much research and knowledge but really in the end we are helpless. I have heard people say so many times, “Well, if that were my child…” The only thing I know for sure about that statement is that if that were their child, their heart would most surely be broken in two as well.

That young woman still haunts me. I wonder if her family knows that even in the midst of her struggle she wished for something different. I want her children, now old enough to wonder, to know she loved them. I don’t want them to question their own value and feel she chose drugs over them. That’s not it. I want them to know the good things about her. That even in the depth of her despair she had the humanity to try and help another person. That she was funny and smart.

Human beings are so fragile. I watched her lose over and over again and finally shatter into tiny little pieces. Everyone around her was powerless to change the course, even her.


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  1. avatarChristine says

    Donna. I would like to connect with you. I knew Mark Leskosek, son of Ed and Diane. I am also a child protection worker. Front line.

  2. avatar says

    I guess there are always two perspectives. I can understand how childhood trauma can sometimes be overemphasized as a cause for addictions. But I had to deliver the eulogy for a sister who drank herself to death because of not wanting to face a violent and traumatic childhood. I’ve witnessed how it can be deadly to ignore the impact of trauma during formative years. Sure the past cannot be changed, but it can still exact a huge cost if it is not taken into account.

  3. avatar says

    Thanks for sharing this Donna – so many of us (all of us?) struggle with trying to understand the ’cause’ of drug issues. As you note, finding a patient balance is the big challenge for those who know and love people with addictions. The ‘need’ versus ‘desire’ perspective is a valuable way of looking at things.

  4. avatarMartha Sherwood says

    I work as a volunteer with alcoholics and drug addicts through two different agencies, and have had my own issues with this in the past. I would never say, meeting someone in the throes of addiction, that I was certain they were not going to recover. The probability is higher for some people than for others, obviously, but some very hard cases do turn around.

    I think that sometimes too much emphasis is put on childhood trauma as the source of social and mental pathologies in adulthood, particularly when (as this author mentions) the identified trauma is something rather common that many people seem to experience without notable lasting ill effects. The past, which cannot be changed, becomes a justification for not taking actions in the present that have the capacity to produce a better future.

    • avatarNancy Lorr says

      Hi, Martha,

      Yes, I agree with you. My husband is an alcoholic because he doesn’t want to change, because he is happy the way he is. At least he claims this. He seems to have lost the capacity to be sympathetic to how it affects others. He seems little harmed himself by the addiction. He is a high functioning alcoholic though he needs more and more to get where he wants to be. But in the morning he is like new, it seems. By the way Martha, we were together in the 70s in Oregon. I’d like to get in contact.


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