The Briar Patch | Seeing the Self Beyond Addiction
- Published: June 9, 2022
I wasn’t born when my uncle’s heroin addiction reached fever pitch — like the time he tried to set my grandmother’s South Side, Chicago, apartment on fire, when she wouldn’t give him any drug money. I didn’t experience how terrible it must have been to have to put a lock on the refrigerator so your own son wouldn’t steal the food out of it to sell for drugs.
His era of addiction was in the 1940s and ’50s, before painkillers containing opiate derivatives were introduced by the Sackler family — one of the biggest legal drug cartels in the world — to mainly white middle- and working-class communities under the banner of the painkiller OxyContin.
This was a time when heroin was running roughshod through Black communities, and the way the story of racism goes in this country, instead of calling opiate addiction a public health crisis, it was highly criminalized, and considered a moral failing. Never mind that my uncle was introduced to heroin in his early teens by a predatory, drug-dealing woman who owned a candy store and introduced the opiate to neighborhood children by holding drug and sex parties in the basement of her store.
By the time I knew my uncle Charles — who eventually overcame his addiction — I thought he was this super sweet old man who walked with a limp. When I was a child, my family would often travel to Illinois, to see my grandma, uncles and auntie. I used to accompany Charles on his walks to the corner store. He would buy me my favorite snacks, including legendary Chicago Jay’s potato chips. As a little girl, I sensed his spirit beyond the broken body, especially when I saw the crinkled edges of his bright eyes narrowing with an infectious smile. However, I didn’t comprehend that the battered broken body was that of a early-50-something-year-old man. Uncle Charles was the youngest sibling of five, and my dad’s baby brother.
When we visited my uncle in the hospital when I was around 11 or 12, I understood he wasn’t going to get better. He was dying from lung cancer, and the nurses were struggling to find veins that weren’t collapsed or scarred over from his former life shooting up heroin. I still see my grandmother’s stricken and exhausted face, hovering near his, her eyes searching helplessly for any comfort she could give her baby boy, the child with whom she shared a love of baseball — all past drama and battles with drug addiction forgiven, as they were long before that moment.
Witnessing a third child dying in her lifetime was probably trauma enough for several lifetimes.
The memory of my uncle came to mind, because one of our own longtime Yellow Springs residents passed away after a long and public battle with addiction last month. Judging from the packed house at the homegoing celebration, it was easy to see and to witness through the shared stories that our townie was well loved.
Perhaps more than many of us may realize, our community has quite a few people challenged by substance abuse, who are in various stages of recovery — irrespective of race, gender and income. Through my own family experience, I know the throes of addiction can be a revolving door, a process that challenges even the saintliest of saint’s capacity to forgive. It comes with excruciating angst and intense internal conflict, loving and, at the same time, sometimes hating someone who we know is sick but who is behaving in monstrous and often cruel ways. It just really sucks.
Sometimes our community members, in all stages of recovery, have burned previous relationship bridges beyond all repair. When they meet someone — someone unencumbered by their past deeds, someone they can begin anew with — we hope they can start anew. But often it’s not that simple, and beginning again is like letting go; it’s not just a one-off experience, it’s often a song on repeat. And yet, I’ve discovered there are times when the shadow of addiction quiets for just enough time that it pulls back from a person, revealing a kindness of spirit that extends beyond their struggle, and we can see them clearly. For just a few fleeting moments, there is a tiny victory claimed for the recovery of self. On those days, addiction is tamed just enough for a lawn to be cut for an elderly neighbor, for the offer of knowledgeable advice drawn from past nursing experience, playing an instrument with no care or worry in the world or for a smile and encouraging words of hope to friends.
Those are the days to remember with gratitude.