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The Briar Patch | Seeing the Self Beyond Addiction

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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.

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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.

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21 Responses to “The Briar Patch | Seeing the Self Beyond Addiction”

  1. Lauren Shows says:

    Editor’s note – The News appreciates all appropriate comments that run the spectrum of opinions, as long as the comments remain in the realm of respectful discourse. Unfortunately, some of the comments made in this section have not maintained that level of respect, and therefore the News has closed the comments section.

  2. Walter says:

    You tryin’ to gaslight people struggling with drugs to believe they racist?

  3. LongSober & Proud says:

    It sounds self righteous to tell addicts things like “your deeds” and new ‘people not knowing about them.’ It’s very defamatory towards people in recovery and based on what? Durgans personal experience which she claims is something that has no addiction component for her personally; but how does she know what lies ahead if this disease is in her family?? Also, some people in recovery, as I am pretty certain ‘anonymous’ is, have trouble with words and may occasionally get the meaning wrong, but, I cannot support the paper for laying out blame because of an objection to a clearly obvious holier than thou attitude. I support recovery and I support those in recovery being protected from these type of assaults like being called racists or haters simply because they stand up for themselves when a Black woman writes an article as an editor and chose to include in particular comments while other comments of clarity were omitted. Many times victims of violence don’t post their names for their own protection; as do rape victims often remain anonymous. I’m appalled that any paper continues to allow this charade where they encourage someone to post and then criticize them for remaining anonymous. It’s BS. Shame on you. And may all the people in recovery have the respect that they need and deserve as human beings to live sober and clean lives. There is no denial of where they’ve been; they’re brave; most will tell their story and not try to hide their recovery from “someone unencumbered by their past deeds” That is such a diminished outlook on what you think people in recovery do that it reeks. Speak for yourself; don’t tell addicts what to remember about the people who they’ve lost (or the community). That is telling someone how they should grieve. And the song on repeat comment is not uplifting to those already struggling. If you need to deal with personal issues as a family member of an addicted uncle, go to a meeting with other family members rather than hoofing that judgmental mouth in the paper just ’cause you are an editor. It’s a small community but it needed have a small mind. Don’t reflect it as such. Please.

  4. Kate Hamilton says:

    Beautifully written. Thank you for your eloquent words, Cheryl.

    As for the haters… I would ignore those who are too weak to put their actual name behind their words.

  5. Tosh Dorsey says:

    “Condescending to who? Not this person’s family and if you aren’t a member of his family (you aren’t) why are you so pressed while changing your profile name each time. “

  6. totally disgusted with the paper says:

    Obviously. She’s good and pissed cause someone called her on her condescending article, but hey, don’t make it about race when that’s not apparent.

    grow up

    wah wah wah

  7. Autumn says:

    Stupid thing to say as you don’t know the race of anyone. Sounds to me the problem lies with frustration over opinions of addicts. Vu

  8. Andrea Cobbs-Waterman says:

    Wonderful article Cheryl. Thank you!

  9. Carole Cobbs says:

    It seems to me someone has a problem with a black woman editor. Wonderful article Cheryl.

  10. Beauregard Glance-Worth says:

    It seems to me if you wanted to protect someone’s privacy you wouldn’t have mentioned someone well known died at all. I don’t think the article appropriate. Please let someone know your online photo archive is misbehaving again also. I think Mr. Minde handles that. Thank you.

  11. FYI says:

    Also, if you click on the “addiction” link under this article another article is listed from the past and it appears that possibly that person may be the one your talking about here and attempting to maintain privacy goes out the window. Unless, it’s not him, which certainly isn’t good either because of association with this article’s link. Just thought you should know that.

  12. anonymous says:

    Sometimes addicts/alcoholics willfully estrange themselves from ‘loving’ family members because those members are still using, or in denial and it is the only way the person wanting to maintain sobriety/recovery can continue on a clean path.

    So, when you pit “the community and family” against the ‘recovering person’, bare that in mind. It isn’t always the addict who has become estranged because they are an addict; but rather, the addict may have become estranged because they’re recovering and have come to understand that recovery is paramount above all else. The rebuilding and maintaining of relationships sometimes changes as it must because — old ways tend not to work. I still don’t like the article and not a fan of your comments either. Good luck with that.

  13. Cheryl Durgans says:

    I am not speaking for addicts, I can’t nor would I attempt to do so. I never said I know about addiction. You seemed to have missed the point of the column. What I wrote about is specifically related to the challenges of being a family and community member navigating building/rebuilding and maintaining relationships with people we love and care deeply about who are at various stages of recovery – which is a perspective I know about.

  14. anonymous says:

    You seemed to “imply” that you know all about it via your uncle. Was his name Sam, by any chance? Unless you are an addict, yourself, why are you speaking for them? And as far as the obits go. Doesn’t matter. People wait long enough the obits show up. Sad thing is lots of time that’s the only way estranged family members learn of a passing. That’s how I learned of my mother’s. It isn’t just the whole country as a unit that’s divided, but it is family units also. Sometimes drugs; sometimes politics are the dividers. It gets harder to tell which one drives a deeper wedge these days. Maybe you should get someone who is in recovery to write a column addressing the issues of common to recovery and the dysfunctional tidbits revealed of who we are as a society these days. Thanks for the response.

  15. Cheryl Durgans says:

    Thank you for your comments. It is really a great thing that we can still all disagree on column topics, and dislike what we read in this society. However, no where in the column did I ever posit a “I know what you feel” claim- and I made it very clear that many people in our community do have substance abuse issues, and no, I did not tell people how to grieve. You placed those conclusions on the article, not me. The other important thing I’ve experienced is the diversity of viewpoints – many people who are at all stages of recovery have personally communicated to me that what I wrote hit home for them and gave them a different perspective.

  16. Cheryl Durgans says:

    Busted – that’s exactly why I wrote the column – to not respect the privacy of the family members of the person who passed away, but to make people purchase a subscription so they can access the obits – which may or may not list a cause of death. You got me.

  17. anonymous says:

    I really dislike this article. First off, it positions the rhetoric in an “I know just how you feel” light which alcoholics/addicts have an issue with. Because, frankly, you don’t. Secondly, it assumes people reading it don’t have a substance abuse issue, which is a very presumptuous proposition these days. Next, it portends instructing people how they should grieve. You must be more broad minded that this article projects or you wouldn’t share ownership in this paper. Cheryl, (mind if I call you that) there is an old Bob Dylan song with the lyrics ‘don’t think twice, it’s alright’ …. well, I beg to differ, please do think twice. Some issues are just so sensitive, a person commenting needs more background than a bag of chips from a once addicted uncle. Thank you.

  18. Obi wan says:

    Why would you hint that someone well known has died and not allow readers access to the obits? Is this another ploy to generate subscribers? I also noticed that Dayton and Springfield papers have altered access by location about a week ago making it more difficult to access obits. These kinds of things are exactly why I do not subscribe. It appears to be using public information for personal gain of subscribers. I am so sorry that papers are that desperate but less inclined to subscribe. Good luck.

  19. YouDon'tKnowMe says:

    Hate the disease; not the person. Seems to be what you are trying to say.

    I don’t do warm fuzzies if they interferes with me being honest about my own sobriety. Sobriety comes first. Always. I’ve learned that much.

  20. Godfrey-Helen says:

    There have always been buffoon quacks around to dispense drugs that do more harm then good. Benzos and ‘diet pills’ are examples from the 60’s before amphetamines were considered street drugs.

    I grew up in a household where there were both — and alcohol! No matter how much emotional pain parental bad habits created I fell victim to similar foes. Especially beer. People lie to themselves about beer and wine. Yup, they’s alcohol. That’s the baffling and powerful part about addiction. Even though you can promise yourself that it will ‘never happen to you,’ it often does. One way or another, addiction oozes it’s way into acceptance and shouts “I gotcha!” You may not hear it as others do.

    Sober today and grateful. Very grateful. Thank you.

    One thing I’d like to suggest is that communities offer more local support meetings during the day rather than only in the evening hours. Many recovering addicts, especially those not working, may already be too high or drunk before dark from struggling to get through the day to attend. O.K.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Any kind of addiction, including alcohol, always hurts more than just the user. It’s easy to say ‘that will never happen to me’ but, honestly, addiction is often just too damn cunning to ever take recovery for granted.

    I am truly sorry for the Village’s loss.


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