I got out of bed and followed the smell of bacon and the sound of my parents’ voices to the kitchen. The Eagles were harmonizing from the tape deck, and I could hear laughter mixed with kissing.
Following the morning routine of fathers everywhere, mine poured a cup of coffee and flipped through the morning paper. He then noticed the time, grabbed a can of Easy-Off Oven Cleaner and sprayed it directly down his throat.
He swallowed hard, kissed my mom goodbye, told me to be good at school and left for work.
My dad. The pill hustler.
He would spend his day rocketing his white Chevy Nova over the twisting Appalachian Mountain roads to present his Easy-Off-blistered throat to local doctors in exchange for prescriptions for narcotics.
When I got home that afternoon, our tiny apartment in Oceana, West Virginia, looked as if it had been picked up and shaken. There was a lingering smell of stale beer and cigarette ash. Empty pill capsules and rolled-up dollar bills littered the coffee table and floor.
My mom, Starr, was sitting in her usual place on the couch, but her makeup had slid around and formed a garish mask, and her left eye was starting to swell from a jab by my dad. Her head was slowly slumping forward like a willow that had just started weeping.
This was a scene that would be played out again and again throughout my tumultuous ’80s childhood: my parents going from giddy at the prospects of scoring drugs to petulant and abusive when they ran out.
My parents. The drug addicts.
In 2012, four years after my mom’s overdose death, I began corresponding with my dad, Steve, then an inmate of Potomac Highlands Regional Jail. He and I had been estranged for years. I blamed him for making my mother an addict – essentially, for killing her. However, when my husband and I became parents, I had an overwhelming need to know how my parents came to choose drugs over me. Steve was the only one left to ask.
His letters were filled with soul-shaking guilt and regret. Despite dropping out of high school at 16, his grammar and spelling were solid from years of reading one paperback novel after another. We found we shared some favorites: “No Country for Old Men,” “Lonesome Dove” and “Beloved.”
Steve wrote about falling in love with my mom for the same reasons that everyone fell in love with my mom – her sparkling blue eyes and megawatt smile.
“Let’s see, I was fourteen and Starr was sixteen when we met at school. We had to sneak around.”
They would meet up in alleys and sometimes sneak off to a secluded hollow to “smoke pot and drink wine.”
From his smeared southpaw scrawl, I learned that Steve’s stepfather was an abusive alcoholic and that he did his first “shot of dope” at 14. “I’ve never been able to shake that feeling of warmth, it just totally engulfs you, it whispers to you that everything will be alright.
“I have done every drug you can imagine … I always come back to opiates, to that warmth.”
He and my mom didn’t choose to be addicts, he assured me, and he was sorry for how my siblings and I were raised. “No one would choose the hell that comes with being an addict, Sosha. No one.”
When I first read this, I burned with indignation. What a cop-out. I had chosen not to be a drug addict; it really wasn’t that hard.
Then I read through his letters again. I thought about Steve as a boy who protected his mom from her abusive husband and then curled up with the warmth of dope.
I made myself admit that I had often used alcohol as an escape route. I had not chosen addiction, but perhaps it was also that addiction hadn’t chosen me.
I’ve watched addiction swallow up loved ones, people who were smart and loving and charismatic, and it still took me decades to accept that, as then-Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy stated in his landmark 2016 report, addiction is a chronic illness, not a moral flaw.
And it is an epidemic with a stigma attached. An estimated 20.8 million people in the United States are living with a substance abuse disorder, which is more than the number living with all cancers combined. Yet people don’t pin colored ribbons to their lapels for substance-abuse awareness or lace up their sneakers to race for the opiate cure.
We must see beyond the statistics and headlines. We must remember that buried under disease are real people and real families. And some were once just a couple of teenagers who fell in love.
Sosha Lewis lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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