I should be clear—this is not a blog about my hometown’s most recent victim of drugs. I don’t know enough about the victim, or about drugs, to write that piece. This is simply a musing of my sad and numb heart.
Since I made the decision to go back to teaching high school students, I have been following the news on the opiate epidemic in our area. I’ve read several articles, one as recent as yesterday, about families who have lost a loved one to heroin. Today I found myself rereading one such piece.
Over a month ago, I read an article in my local paper about the growing opiate epidemic. Three individuals were interviewed in the article. One gave his name.
When I read this article back in March, I recognized the name immediately, and could even visualize Mike B. in my classroom. I remembered where he sat and what his hand-writing looked like. I remembered his spirit and his never-hidden smile. I remembered his kind soul. When I read Mike’s admissions about his use of drugs, my heart sank. How could this happen? How could someone so sweet get mixed up in something so bad? I was asking these questions rhetorically but also because I wanted the answers.
In the article, Mike talked about losing his younger brother to a drug overdose in 2013. He talked about his own addiction and the pain it caused others. He explained that he had been drug-free for over one year now, although the rest of the story was still an ugly one. Jail. Psychiatric facilities. Guilt over his brother's death.
After I read the article, I wrote to Mike. I told him how brave he was. How proud I was of him for sharing his story. I wondered if I would be as brave as he was if my story of struggle wasn't such a socially acceptable one. I honestly don't know.
I think that most people like a good cancer-survival story (especially one about breast cancer), and for that reason, I'm not brave for telling my story. But I will tell you who is brave. The brave ones are the people who write about issues that make people squirm—people who write about being transgender, or depressed, or bipolar. People with metastatic disease or rare diseases that nobody knows anything about. People who write about cancers that involve the rectum instead of the breast. People who write about complicated racial and social issues. People who write about suicide, or drug addiction, or failures that they haven’t yet reconciled. People who write about stories that don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Don’t get me wrong, I am deeply proud of my blog and my book. Those represent my story and in a way, they are living beings to me. But I don’t think I’m brave for sharing them. By sharing my writing, I get only good things in return—emails and texts with words of great support and kindness, interviews with amazing people, invitations to speak and receive awards. But the ones who share the “uglier” stories—stories about heroin addiction, for instance—they risk attaching themselves to a potentially hurtful stigma. A parent brave enough to talk about his or her child’s drug addiction risks judgment (“What did they do wrong that made him become a drug addict?” Answer: In many cases, nothing.). A young ex-addict courageous enough to share his story risks people turning the other way—both on the street and in his life. Even I admit, part of me is scared of people who get mixed up in drugs.
Right now I feel heartbroken for a young man’s family who will need to bury their son, brother, and friend before he had a chance to live his life. I feel overwhelmed by a drug epidemic that is killing our youth, or at best, limiting their potential and their happiness. I feel scared for my own children and for the students I will teach next year. And then there’s that pride and appreciation I feel for people like Mike. People who have pulled themselves up from life's depths and found the courage to talk openly about a problem as ugly as drug addiction. Clearly those stories can’t save everyone, or even most people who fall, or jump, or tiptoe into the deadly grasp of drugs. Those stories can't comfort families who have lost a loved one, or families who know they are in the turbulence that will likely lead to that loss. But those stories are the only place I find hope in tragic moments like this one. Because I don’t know what it’s like to try opiates for the first time or become addicted to them. But I believe that the people who can best lead our communities to the bottom of this seemingly boundless problem are those who do. And those who have the strength and the courage to have an honest conversation about it.
Rest in Peace, M.A.