I was eight years old when I first found out my father was an addict. He was picking my sister and me up from our mom’s house because he was supposed to take us to her office. I had just gotten into the car and was in the back seat putting my seatbelt on when my dad said that he needed to tell us something. Without any further preface, he told us point blank that he was an alcoholic.
I remember stopping in my tracks not because I knew the severity of what that meant—I had a very limited understanding of what alcoholism was at that age—but because I knew that I was supposed to react in a certain way to this confession. From what I had seen in movies, I knew that alcoholism was a serious thing, an indication of grave circumstance, and so I reacted in accordance with this knowledge rather than what I actually knew or felt. I haven’t really thought much about that day since, but doing so now, I am amazed by how telling my behavior was, even as a child, of the culture of misunderstanding that surrounds addiction.
When asked what the most important problem facing the nation is, 1% of people say drugs. Of course, for rural America, that number jumps up to 25% and in some cases, 41%. That’s because in places like the South and Appalachia, the opioid crisis is not an abstract concept like it is for the majority of urban Americans who read about it in The New York Times. It is present, persistent, and insidious. It takes the lives of 115 people per day. When those people are your neighbors, your teachers, your family, and your friends, drugs become what the economy is to other people: the number-one crisis facing the nation.
However, despite the overwhelming crisis for rural Americans, and despite the fact that more than 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, which is a two-fold increase over a single decade, the drug crisis remains, in large part, ignored. Which begs the question, why? But also, how? How does an epidemic responsible for the loss of tens of thousands of lives per year and the ruin of millions more maintain its reputation as a low-grade crisis barely worthy of cultural discussion? It took me several years of my own battle with addiction before I would be able to answer that question.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Now, after my dad dropped the A-bomb on my sister and me, we got the answer to a question we’d been curious about our whole lives: why did our parents get divorced? Of course, that was only the short answer. The long answer came out in bits and pieces over time. It all began with a lie. My dad didn’t tell my mom he was an alcoholic when they met or even after they got married; she didn’t know he had been pouring vodka in his orange juice every morning until after my sister had been born. Our dad’s older brother pulled my mom aside one day and asked if she knew he was an alcoholic. Apparently it ran very strongly on my dad’s side of the family, because all of his five siblings but one had the disease. Some of them were able to get sober, like my dad’s eldest brother, while others never could.
Despite the immense feelings of betrayal my mom must have felt, she and my dad stayed together long enough to have me (yay?), and she helped him through treatment program after treatment program, but they never stuck. When she was afraid to leave my sister and me alone with him (my sister was five and I was two) for fear that he would fall asleep drunk and we would get hurt, she knew she couldn’t stay.
It was because of this sacrifice and the knowledge that addiction runs strongly in my genes that I went through most of my adolescence with a strong aversion to any type of substance. In high school I was known as the girl who would never drink or do drugs. I didn’t want to become my dad. Growing up, I saw flashes of who he used to be, which I’ve used to piece together an image of who he was, but they were just remnants. He destroyed himself a long time ago, and so I went back and forth between extreme anger at him for never being able to overcome his illness and extreme sadness in knowing that he probably tried as hard as he could. These feelings kept my hatred of substances alive all throughout high school, but not much longer after that.
Like any other person who holds off on something for a long time, my resolve wore thin when the social pressures of college and the dormant curiosity that had been building in me for years erupted a few weeks in. Drinking quickly led to smoking weed in my freshman year, which led to taking Molly in my sophomore year, which led to coke in my junior year. I definitely had an affinity for substance abuse before coke, but it wasn’t until coke that I fell head first down that slippery slope of addiction.
Before my various traumas which I experienced the year after college, coke gave me the confidence, coolness, and desirability I had always yearned for as the awkward girl who never quite fit in all her life. After my traumas, which included having an unsafe abortion, my sister being diagnosed with brain cancer, and me having a psychotic break all within two months, coke gave me the escape from reality I desperately needed. It didn’t take long for my habit to progress to full-blown addiction.
Now looking back at my own battle with addiction, a specific behavioral pattern starts to take shape, sometimes conscious, sometimes not. A pattern of concealment which affected me and my actions every step of the way. Observe:
I couldn’t manage the emotional and psychological pain I endured from my traumas, so I turned to substances to ease them. I couldn’t face the reality of my inner turmoil, so I masked it with cocaine, molly, weed, alcohol, pills. Isn’t that how all addicts start out—they want to mask their pain? Is that not why Indigenous communities experience the highest rates of substance abuse and addiction? Is that not why addictive tendencies are more prevalent amongst almost every marginalized community? None of us want to deal with the excruciating pain of trauma, illness, or our shitty life circumstances, so we put a mask over them and eventually we dissolve into the mask itself. It’s just easier that way...right?
When my substance abuse really started picking up steam, I concealed my dependency with the excuse of being young. Isn’t that what people in their teens and ‘20s are supposed to do? Live it up? Get fucked up? Have no regrets? I’m not sure how many times I’ve heard this from various people in my life, and now I just see it as a nudge into the arms of addiction.
When all of my friends got over the extreme partying phase we’d went through together and me asking if they wanted to do blow with me every weekend was starting to earn some worried looks, I decided that I needed to conceal how much they saw me doing. I hid the severity of my addiction from my loved ones. I would hide my coke baggie in my sleeve and turn the faucet on in the bathroom so my roommate or sister or whoever wouldn’t hear me snorting bumps and lines. Like father, like daughter, I suppose. My dad hid his habit in his orange juice, I hid mine in my sleeve. Not the best family legacy, I’ll tell you that.
However, when my mental and physical health got so bad that I was severely underweight, sick all the time, and wanted to kill myself, I couldn’t conceal my problem anymore. And yet, I was met with more concealment when I went to seek out help. Addiction treatment is built on the foundation of anonymity. Narcotics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous. This is not to say these programs don’t work and haven’t saved thousands of lives, but what are we saying to the world and to ourselves when we have to hide this part of ourselves? How does concealing the presence of this affliction help those trying to recover from it? It certainly didn’t help me feel like I should be ashamed for having a disease which took several years of my life.
I tried to get clean countless times over a course of at least two years. I moved back home and eventually managed to get clean...from coke. Which is where I am to this day. I had an appointment with my psychiatrist last week, and we essentially talked about how badly I need to get sober. Like, sober sober. Because even though I’ve been sober from coke for a while now I have just switched my addiction from one substance to another. On a good day I’ll have a few glasses of wine in the evening. On a bad day I’ll snort adderall at 9 in the morning, start drinking around 1 PM to calm my heart down, smoke weed around 3, and then continue drinking through the night. Pretty gross.
So I was talking to my psychiatrist about this and she was telling me that she was going to refer me to an addiction therapist with a specialty in substance abuse. However, being a petri dish of other mental illnesses, I expressed to her my concerns about only focusing on my addiction issues in therapy when I had so many other problems to work through as well. She proceeded to tell me that an addiction therapist would be able to help me with any other issues I may have—from depression, to anxiety, to trauma—because addiction is never just addiction. Treating addiction requires healing from whatever led to it in the first place. Addiction is never just addiction. I already knew that on some level, but I had never heard it put so plainly and concisely.
My father used alcohol and drugs to conceal the pain he felt from years of being abused as a child, which he then concealed from his loved ones, the severity of which he concealed from himself so he could keep using. I followed suit by concealing the pain I felt from my traumas and mental illnesses with cocaine, which I then concealed from myself and my loved ones; and today, I’m still concealing the severity of my disease from myself. Treatment and recovery options conceal the actual existence of addiction, making something that desperately needs to be talked about openly into something shameful that continues to be hidden.
On TV and in movies, addicts are represented in one way and one way only: scum. We are immoral, fucked up in more ways than one, cheap, dirty, trashy, narcissistic, broken beggars, thieves, and criminals. It’s no wonder so many people don’t realize their behaviors are those of an addict, because what they see of addicts on screen is often nothing like real life. Perhaps if people saw more representations of addicts that look like what they see in the mirror, they’d see that their actions are not those of someone who is well.
So how do we break this cycle? If the problem arises out of concealing and hiding, the solution must be truth. Raw, painful truth. My father was never able to be honest with himself about a disease which will ultimately take his life. I don’t plan on continuing that family legacy. So I’ll start right now: my name is Tiernan Hebron, I am 25 years old, and I am an addict.