I was scrolling through my Facebook feed on Friday when I saw it: the now-infamous photo posted by the Ohio police of two addicts passed out in a car with a child in the back seat. As a recovering drug addict/alcoholic who is now a mother of three, it elicited in me, a very strong reaction. Mostly because, for several years, I was them: someone whose disease propelled me to seek out drugs above all else. And if not for the grace of God, I could have had children while I was still using. So, while the Internet is screaming with either judgment or outrage over this photo, I’d like to share with you my reactions, from someone who’s been there.
Here I sit, staring at the face of the four year old boy in the back seat, aching with an overwhelming sadness that addiction has taken his childhood from him. The disease of addiction is a relentless thief that does not discriminate. Addiction doesn’t care if you are male or female, rich or poor, white or black, educated or non-educated, married or single, and it most certainly doesn’t care if you are a parent trying to raise children. Addiction will rob you and everyone around you of everything you have. The addict is like a tornado, repeatedly ripping through the lives of the people they love. This four year old boy did not choose to be born into a situation that has devastated his life in every way possible and my heart breaks for him. I can’t imagine how scared and lonely he must be growing up in a home where his parents are unavailable, neglectful and unpredictable. I know that his parents’ addictions will have an everlasting effect on him and that sickens me to my core.
But my hope for him is that he grows to know that his parent’s didn’t choose the addiction over him; their choice was taken by the monster of addiction. And more than that, I pray that he understands that they are sick people, not bad people. Addicts are not cold, heartless people. Typically, it’s quite the opposite. Most addicts I know (and I know A LOT of addicts) are the most loving, genuine, kind-hearted people you will ever meet. They are like this because they feel deeply, which often scares them. They turn toward drugs and alcohol to numb their feelings because their capacity to empathize is too great and the pain of feeling so intensely becomes unbearable.
As my gaze shift from the young boy to his parents, who are passed out in the front seats of the car, I feel so much love and compassion for them. I love addicts deeply because I know them; I am them. I know what it’s like to wake up every morning and pray that the incessant need to get high will dissipate. I know what it’s like to promise yourself, “Today will be the day I don’t pick up” and then inevitably, a few hours later, you beat your head against a wall and ask how the hell it happened again. I know what it’s like to care for someone else so much more than yourself and just want to stay clean for them but no amount of will power or love or devotion to them can keep you away from the illusive effects of the drugs. I know what it’s like to feel like the absolute worst person in the world because you just can’t seem to string a day of sobriety together. I know how insanely hard it is to battle this disease day in and day out and I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of compassion for this family. They did not choose this life, it chose them. And I can’t help but wonder if this horrible day will turn into one that they will eventually look back on as a turning point in their journey.
FEAR and FRUSTRATION
I understand that the intent of the Ohio Police Department was to raise awareness of the epidemic that has taken over our country, but I’m saddened that they did it at the expense of a helpless child. This photo will inevitably follow him around the rest of his life and I am frustrated that the police department put their own agenda ahead of his safety and confidentiality. I also understand that the Police department were trying to give society a glimpse of the painful reality of addiction- that real people- real families- are affected by this disease every single day, but I fear this photo will just further stigmatize us addicts. Most people don’t understand addiction and when they see photos like this, it creates more judgment and stereotypes in their minds that further isolates addicts. I feel that if the police department was really trying to combat the disease of addiction, they would implement more programs to help addicts recover rather than humiliate them on social media.
Whenever I see other addicts struggling, I can’t help but feel grateful to have found my way out. I was a low-bottom, hopeless, helpless meth addict/alcoholic and even though I was fortunate enough to get clean and sober prior to having children, I am no different than these people. What gives me hope in this situation is that maybe this divine intervention, as humiliating and heart-breaking as it is, will turn out to be God doing for them what they couldn’t do for themselves. I tried to get sober on my own so many times, but it wasn’t until I accepted that the God of my understanding was the only one who could relieve my addiction, that I was able to maintain sobriety. God works in mysterious ways- sometimes through jail or rehab, sometimes by taking our loved ones away from us, and sometimes though losing everything. As a parent and marriage and family therapist, I can confidently say that this child will be taken out of his home and placed somewhere safe for the time being. My hope is that his parents are able to use this time to learn how to take care of themselves so they can make up for the time they’ve already lost with their child.
I wish this photo wasn’t the catalyst that spurred this conversation, but we need to continue talking about addiction. We need to bridge the gap between how society perceives addicts and who they really are. We need to stimulate compassion and empathy for those affected by the disease of addiction, rather than judgment and hate. My prayer tonight is that this child would rest peacefully in the safety of whoever is currently caring for him, that these two addicts would find their way into recovery and that society would continue to open their hearts and minds to the understanding that addicts aren’t terrible people, we are just sick people who are trying as best we can to get well.