Every morning when I look into the mirror I see pieces of my mother — glimpses of her features in my eyes, my hair, my cheekbones. People have been saying since I was a child how much I looked like her.
She was a beautiful woman. I should have been happy.
Instead I only ever heard an accusation: that I looked like my mother and must therefore be the same as her, that I was destined to grow up and repeat all of her mistakes.
It’s why I don’t usually tell people the truth about my mother when they ask about her. There’s a reaction to a childhood like mine, one that follows you no matter who you become as an adult.
My mother became a drug addict when I was 6 years old. She smoked crack. She shot heroin and cocaine. She took them together sometimes and she never got better, and when I was 31, she died.
Living with an addict meant that my mother sometimes left me alone in alleyways while she visited her dealers.
It meant that just about everything I owned — dresses, jewelry, musical instruments — she eventually stole and sold.
It meant that at 8, my responsibilities included feeding and caring for my toddler brother and checking my mother’s pulse to make sure she hadn’t overdosed.
It meant that there were times I had to put my body between hers and my brother’s when she came at us, crazed from dope sickness, because I was the older one and could take her kicks and punches more than a 2-year-old could.
It meant I had to lie to keep my brother and me out of foster care, but that I felt guilty and sinful for lying all the time. Back then people thought I was shy because I was so quiet. But the truth was I didn’t trust anyone. I didn’t trust myself. If I opened my mouth I might start screaming and never stop.
My mother’s first forays into addiction coincided with the mid-1980s, which marked the height of the war on drugs and the peak of the HIV epidemic. It was during this time that incarceration rates for drug offenses ballooned. However, this was disproportionately applied to minority populations, with black people imprisoned for drug possession at much higher rates than white people despite white people using drugs as much as or more. (No doubt my mother’s whiteness helped her to largely avoid prison.) In 1988, the National Narcotics Leadership Act was passed, which mandated the implementation of a national anti-drug media campaign geared toward youth.
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And so my classroom was graced weekly with police officers preaching the tenets of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, program, there to let me know in so many words that drug addicts were the worst sorts of human scum. Later, it was my Catholic school classmates wishing aloud that IV addicts would die of AIDS and condemning them to burn in eternal hell. In seventh grade I transferred to a new school in my own neighborhood. My mother was a notorious figure there — she bought and sometimes sold drugs on local street corners. Peers pantomimed shooting up when I walked by them in the hallways; they pushed me into corners and grabbed my arms to mock-check for track marks.
Even after my mother’s death, I still experience the fear that I will eventually be called to account for her. Every holiday and each introduction to someone new carries with it this risk. It is inherent in the kind of innocently intended questions people ask during first dates or by the water cooler at work. What does you mother do? Will you be going home for Christmas? Do you miss her now that she is gone? Sometimes I hedge. Sometimes I lie outright. What I don’t do, most of the time, is tell the truth about her. That tends to put a damper on the conversation. Worse, it might make the listeners reach negative conclusions about my own character.
This was not the relationship one was supposed to have with her mother. What did it mean for me that I had been deprived of the positive elements of what was purportedly the most fundamental of all human relationships, the one that was meant to set the course for my own development?
These questions led to an enduring sense of alienation, even as statistics assured me I wasn’t alone. More than 8.3 million children (roughly 12 percent) of all children in the United States live with an addict. In 2004, the journal Child & Family Social Work published “Living With an Elephant: Growing Up With Parental Substance Misuse,” a paper that found that the sons and daughters of addicts were frequently raised in a “conspiracy of silence.” Children learn to keep their parents’ addiction a secret for reasons that range from avoiding the interference of authorities to becoming a target of the stigma that taints addiction themselves. This conspiracy prevents them from finding the support they need to become more resilient to the long-term impacts of traumatic childhood experiences.
Those impacts are grim.
The children of addicts are more than eight times as likely to become addicts as children of non-addicts. We’re more prone to depression and anxiety. We are at an increased risk of developing or contracting a range of other health conditions later on in life, including heart disease, cancer, liver disease, and sexually transmitted disease.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, one of the largest investigations ever conducted to gauge correlations between traumatic childhood experience and adult well-being, found that of 17,000 surveyed who had shared a childhood home with an addict, up to 27 percent experienced one or more of these adverse health effects.
In a society that shuns and scorns addicts, their children tend to be written off as the tragic byproducts of their home environment, doomed to follow the cycle. My mother felt this stigma too. She internalized it and later projected it onto her children. She used to tell me that it was foolish to aspire to higher education. “Children from families like ours don’t grow up to go to college,” she said.
There was more than a kernel of truth to my mother’s words.
As noted by an article in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol in 2003, children of addicts have “a decreased likelihood that they will be able to acquire good skills for emotional regulation and social interaction, to form stable and supportive relationships with caring adults, and to access the kinds of consistent stimulating encounters that facilitate knowledge and bolster achievement.”
However, while many statistics portend a bleak outlook for children of addicts, they fail to tell the whole story. Overall, the majority of children of addicts — in some studies, as many as 75 percent — do not grow up to become addicts. Even so, we never fully escape from our pasts.
That I have managed to not develop an addiction to drugs and achieve the successes I have is probably largely due to the stabilizing influence my grandparents had on me after they took over much of my rearing when I was 8. Without this support, I would likely not have been able to overcome the crippling effect my mother’s behavior and society’s view of her had on my own self-esteem.
“Commonly what we have been finding in the children [we work with] is a negative impact on their sense of self-worth,” says Anna Morgan-Mullane, the vice president of mental health services at Children of Promise, a nonprofit in my hometown of Brooklyn that offers recreational programs and mental health services to children of incarcerated parents.
According to Morgan-Mullane, 60 percent of the more than 350 children the organization works with have parents who are serving time because of drug-related offenses.
“Race significantly impacts policing and arrests, specifically for those residing in disenfranchised communities,” says Morgan-Mullane, who explains that many of the parents of the children in this program (93 percent of whom are black and 7 percent Latino) do not have access to rehabilitation in prison and often relapse shortly after they are released.
“Offering recovery options [for parents] would address the root of the problem,” Morgan-Mullane told me. “We can say for certain that our population does not [have access to] the same level of rehabilitation or recovery opportunities as those who are in more affluent communities.”
In the meantime, Children of Promise allows its participants a venue where they can explore their fear, anger, and insecurities, and offers services for helping them achieve their ambitions.
“We help normalize their experience while also keeping them engaged so they are not pulled into criminal behavior,” says Morgan-Mullane.
There is a hierarchy to addiction in America. Some vices are more acceptable than others, and nothing is more shameful than a crack smoker or a junkie. My father is an alcoholic, but when I talk about that I get nods of sympathy. I get commiseration.
When I talk about my mother, people get uncomfortable — an awkward shift in the chair, a blank stare, an abrupt change of the subject. Even my father has enforced this double standard. He let me know repeatedly: Being an alcoholic is much better than being “a worthless junkie.”
What he did was legal. He was a white, middle-class man. He could walk into a package store and buy his drug in the open, and so he evaded the stigma that shadowed my mother from the moment she picked up her first needle, when she began to lie, to steal, to sometimes even prostitute herself for a fix. I remember feeling ashamed. I remember feeling reluctant to tell anyone what was going on for fear I would be shamed as well.
In many ways I’m lucky. I appear undamaged, at least on the surface. I appear “normal” enough that people who meet me as an adult often automatically assume I had an altogether different childhood experience than the one I lived through. After all, I am sober and drug-free. I’m white. I’m well-educated. I have good teeth — this is something people have actually remarked on when responding with incredulity to how I grew up.
I attended schools on scholarships and often made the dean’s list. More recently, writing as a reporter and columnist with a progressive and populist bent for a financial news website with a largely libertarian-leaning readership, I have often been charged in the comments section of my articles as coming from a privileged background — likely the product of a rich liberal family, a woman who was undoubtedly raised on pony rides and piano lessons. I have lived my adult life in a world where the subject of addiction is discussed in the abstract, as something that affected “other” people. Not the kind of people who would be in an honors class. Not the kind of people who command the attention of an audience. Not me.
Now when I look in the mirror, my feelings about resembling my mother are more mixed. The years and her death have softened my outlook.
My mother’s behavior was often monstrous, but she was not a monster. She was a human — a mentally ill woman who struggled with her own demons. Before she was an addict, she was someone who tucked me in every night and told me bedtime stories. She was someone with her own loves and dreams that turned to dust and whose misery afterward was so strong she would do anything to ease her pain.
I often think that if she had lived in a more supportive society, she could have gotten the help she needed. I would have gotten my mother back. I don’t know. I didn’t live in that kind of society. I still don’t.
Drug addicts do not exist in a vacuum. She was someone’s sister. She was someone’s daughter. She was someone’s mother. She was my mother.
Laura Kiesel is a Boston-based writer whose articles and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Guardian, Salon, and the Street. She is currently completing a collection of personal essays, The Drug Addict’s Daughter. You can follow her on Twitter @SurvivalWriter or like her on Facebook.
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