Modern Love

There is a program on National Public Radio that does a spectacularly good job at deconstructing a word most of us feel we can confidently define: love.

In one episode Jason Alexander narrates his love for the family goldfish. The loss of someone close to him has forged his affection for this swimmingly simple little golden fish. Its presence represents an escape, and an embracing, of the crumbling reality of existence.

Can love be tempered by unpleasant realities? The program would say yes. Most of us, especially those of us with decades of life behind us, would agree.

We all have our own “modern love” story. Mine would be about my daughter, who many might describe as hard to love.  They would be wrong.

Admittedly, she was hard to snuggle.  She preferred the plastic embrace of her car seat. The car seat could be parked far from me: she was happy with any room, any corner. She tracked me with her eyes, but she tracked other things with equal interest. I took to forcibly putting her in a snuggly and walking up and down the street with her.

Glowering was also a specialty. She was a beautiful blonde baby with fat pink cheeks, green eyes, and a perma-scowl. Her mouth, right from the get-go, had a natural down turn to it. Glowering with the addition of defiantly crossed arms came later. When asked to give her name during her kindergarten interview she stood up, turned her chair backward to the teacher, crossed her arms, and sat down. She remained that way for the entire interview.

My husband and I remained enamored. (Why should she perform tricks like a trained seal? Maybe we have the next Hillary!) We affectionately nicknamed her “little black cloud.” We would mimic her mood in a dreary Eeyore voice – desperately trying to add some EB White levity to our situation. Sometimes we would just mime a “brewing storm”  by circling our fluttering hand over our weary heads.

But of course at this young age it isn’t about them loving you. It’s about you loving them.

Loving her could be exhausting. It wasn’t easy for my daughter to accept love. She appeared to weigh it, to quantify it – to find it lacking. She was often displeased. I came to see it as her natural default button. She screamed about sitting in the cart at the grocery store. She screamed at her older sister to claim the best barbie. She screamed if she could hear you chewing during dinner. She screamed for the last cookie, to hold mommy’s hand, to find the most Easter eggs. She screamed over minor transitions. It was relentless. Her ability to express love was buried under an itchy blanket of sensory issues, fear, jealousy, and an unshakeable sadness.

But she loved us too. It was apparent in the way she would fit herself to your side when watching a Disney movie. And in the occasional half smile with tilted head. In the way she kissed her dog’s bearded face. And the gifts of found flowers or crayoned pictures.

So, yeah, love is not only tempered by unpleasant realities… in can grow in them. It may even grow hardier. We are living proof.  We are the dandelions of love.

“A Bitter Pill.”

I hate idioms….cutesy tidbits of advice that fashion themselves as sage life lessons. You’ve heard them; “it’s a blessing in disguise,” “it takes two to tango” and the ever popular, “let sleeping dogs lie.”

You know what? It’s not always a blessing. And one person alone can perform quite a destructive tango. And let sleeping dogs lie? That’s just a lame excuse for not “getting your hands dirty.”

But I have to admit idioms have their place. There was a time when I relied upon them for their simplicity. Caring for an addict can turn the highest functioning brain into unstable mush. Rational thought processes become clouded by lies, self deception, and blind worry. So you adapt. Part of your mind shuts down and does not allow the conscious brain to record one more crippling incident. Another part goes into hyperdrive and busies itself with layers of extraneous nonsense; so much so that sleep can become a luxury. And then there is the imaginary brain. In order to spare whatever functioning grey matter you may have left you simply believe the lies you tell yourself. And the lies being told to you.

Of course none of these behaviors are symptomatic of good mental health. But what else can you do? Try to make sense of your daughter face down in watery ditch in a blue shiny party dress? Try to accept the presence of a hypodermic needle in the side pocket of your new black leather handbag? Believe in the sincerity of the two men who arrive in the middle of the night and roll your bloodied incoherent child onto the soft colored pea stone that comprises your driveway?

This is what you do. You chant an idiom. It becomes a very effective mantra.  Something like:

Tomorrow is a new day.
One step at a time.
Relapse is part of recovery.

Another that has helped is “detach with love.” I have to admit it is hard to detach without feeling anger or pity. Detaching with love is difficult. It feels like not caring. But if you recite it with added inflection on the word “love” – then it almost works.

My all time favorite idiom is “don’t get sucked in by the tornado.” It is very hard to not be reactive. You want to fix the issue, defend yourself, or argue a point. But you can’t win with someone who is actively using. While the world around you is starting to blow hard you calmly recite “don’t get sucked in by the tornado.” Over and over and over again. It’s a form of detaching with self love.

Pretty Rat Cage.

There is a popular TED talk by Johann Hari that has received nearly five million views. In it he reports that after three years of extensive research he is convinced that we are incorrectly addressing addiction treatment. Instead of using punishment as a deterrent we should be saying “I love you.”

I wish I could have said I laughed. Instead my breath died in my throat. Of course I take this particular TED talk a little more personally than most. The premise that a lack of love had somehow been the missing ingredient… well, let’s just say I took umbrage.

Hari bases his conclusion partly on research done in the 1970s by Professor Alexander of Vancouver. Alexander recreated an experiment done earlier in the century that showed caged rats consistently chose heroin laced water over fresh water. In Alexander’s experiment the rat cage was outfitted like a rat “park.” They had room to exercise, ate good food, and had females to fraternize with. The result? The rats hardly ever touched the heroin water. The conclusion? Addiction is about your “cage.” (If only we had prettier more loving cages….)

I venture to say that such a conclusion is over simplified. If this were true the poor would be more likely to suffer from addiction than the rich. (This, by the way, is categorically untrue.) And, from personal experience, if loving an addict cured addiction – well then my daughter would be well. There are thousands of us who love our sick children – love them unconditionally! – and they remain addicted.

However, I do believe that self love is lacking. Parents of addicts report a higher number of children that suffer from low self esteem, personality disorder, social anxiety or depression. I have also heard parents say that these children were uncharacteristically giving…almost to a fault. And that they naturally gravitated to connecting with the “underdog.” Addicts themselves nearly unanimously acknowledge feeling uncomfortable in their “own skin.” They report feeling “different,” “misunderstood,” or “alone.” Hari cites this as failure of social engagement – a result of our bigger homes and social media interactions. But here again I beg to differ. We have always had addicts, even when we had closer knit social circles. The social disengagement is more likely an internal process, not an external one.

I have three children, only one of whom suffers from addiction. I told each one of them that they were important, beautiful, and loved by me. My middle child did not believe me. I could see it in her eyes. When she slept at night I would sneak into her room and whisper these things again into her ear. I was hoping that somehow, just somehow, my words would imprint themselves on her unconscious brain. I was singing her love songs.

HL 3956 just passed. (Hallelujah … and what the hell?)

In Massachusetts we have a legal act called a “section 35” which allows a family member, or police officer, to involuntarily commit a substance abuser to a treatment facility for up to 30 days. We are fortunate to have such a process (as it is not available in many other states).

Getting a section 35 granted is not the easiest of propositions – and it should not be. You are, in essence, denying someone their civil liberty.  One must arrive in court armed with evidence that the person you seek to commit is of “immediate danger to themselves or others.”  If successful in convincing a judge of this fact, a warrant is then issued for the addict to appear in court.  To successfully win their commitment the petitioner must then best the addict’s court appointed attorney, and convince a doctor that harm is surely imminent.

I have done this four times. I am, I suppose, a seasoned section 35’er. I am also seasoned to the flaws in the system.

Four times my child was civilly committed. But only two times did she receive any treatment. Twice there were no treatment beds available at WATC, the state supported Women’s Addiction and Treatment Center. So my daughter was handcuffed and sent to MCI Framingham. MCI Framingham is the highest level security prison for women in Massachusetts. I watched as she was dragged from the courtroom, shoeless and shackled, screaming “Mom please don’t send me there…. they will not help me! Mom please!”

Lucky for me I was able to lock her pleas into a small little compartmentalized part of my brain. A part of my brain that has been built over the years to accommodate the unpleasant lies of addiction.

However, the addict isn’t the only one who lies.

At MCI my daughter was held with women who had plotted to kill their in-laws. Women who had strangled their children. Women who had stabbed their boyfriends. Women who had committed arson. Women who had committed insurance fraud. My daughter was not guilty of a criminal offense. But she was subject to roll calls, solitary confinement and body cavity searches.

Now here’s the thing – when men are sentenced to treatment and there are no available beds, they are sent to Bridgewater Correctional Institute. Bridgewater is a minimum security prison where addiction treatment is immediately provided and is similar to that received in a hospital.

What about Framingham? Did they provide equal access to treatment services ? No, they did not. The first three days of detox are spent in a single room with up to five other women. Detoxing from heroin includes severe diarrhea, hypertension, rapid heart rate, muscle spasms so large that you are often unable to stand, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and impaired respiration that makes you feel like you are underwater. Now experience all of these things together in their most extreme form. And don’t forget you are with five other suffering women. And one toilet. And a guard who doesn’t give a shit.

This is the beginning of the MCI Framingham “treatment” plan. And also the end of it. There is no counseling. There is no medication assistance (either with detoxing or maintenance). There isn’t even an AA group to attend. Women who are civilly committed for the purposes of having their substance abuse treated are incarcerated, ignored and discharged.

So the legislature finally addressed the issue in January 2016. The scramble is now on to increase the number of acceptable treatment beds. But there shouldn’t be a scramble. The ACLU won a successful lawsuit against the state a year earlier but no discernible progress had been made.

We are told the problem is solved. But is it?

If we fix the problem should we not ask why the problem existed in the first place? Lasting change can not occur if we do not question the conditions that allowed it to flourish.

Questions that keep me confounded include the disbelief, that in 2016, we still treat men with more respect than women. Or that the prison staff themselves, year after year, found the treatment of civilly committed women acceptable.  How could a judges remand for substance abuse treatment be blatantly disregarded? Are we unable to address injustice in our culture without the sword of the law? What happened to compassion? Why is a bucket and a cement floor okay?  Why?

Broken Things Have Value.

I have a set of flawless china. It is Lenox and it has a silver rim like a lucky cloud.

I also have a morning coffee cup. It’s crazed from being microwaved just a little bit too much.  There is a chip that serves as a reminder to not sip on that side. When the handle breaks I will, most likely, glue it back on.

Sentimental? Not really.

I have been thinking about broken things a lot lately. How my daughter’s journey has introduced me to the fractured and hidden members of our society. I have been inside too many psychiatric hospitals, too many jails, too many police stations, too many emergency rooms and too many detox centers. I have seen too many people cry.

But now I can hold these experiences in the palm of my hand like an old coffee cup. They are no longer things that happen to other people. And I can see that they have added value to my previously flawless life.

Three years ago I noted in my journal the incongruities that were becoming our norm:

“I had to pick my daughter up from an in-patient psych ward this morning. She looked just beautiful in a black tee shirt and old jeans. Her blonde hair hung in a long braid over one shoulder. I could barely see the bruise on her cheekbone. As she gathered her things to go she insisted on saying goodbye to Carl. She knocked on his door on her tippy toes, and said, “Carl come out.” “Carl, come out and say goodbye to me.” And she waited patiently. I was expecting a young boy…. but an old man came out. Wizened, beaten down, shuffling. She gave him a big, big hug. And I just didn’t know what to do with the feeling.”

Somedays I still don’t know what to do with all the feeling.  But I know I am the better for it.

But your husband might run for office.

The key word in this sentence is “but.”

(Because my husband is not going to run for state office!)

These words were said by a well intentioned family member. It was a warning that having a known addict as a child would most certainly preclude any future political appointments.

So secrecy, or discretion, is key.

The problem with secrecy is that it doesn’t invite change.
Your “problem” remains hidden – swaddled in shame.
Addiction is one of the last frontiers to be openly, and honestly, discussed. It used to be common to deny a relative’s homosexuality. (To put them in the proverbial closet!) Thankfully those days are behind us. Many parents will proudly introduce you to their child and their child’s partner. But not many will freely admit that someone in their home struggles with the disease of addiction. However, numbers don’t lie. And the alarming number of young people overdosing across the nation is testament that the problem is right here…. and right there… and over there. It is no longer expedient to be discreet.

As for politicos with addicts in the family… I can think of quite a few. In the recent primary debates Carly Fiorina spoke of the loss of her step daughter to addiction. Ted Cruz’s sister overdosed. Jeb Bush’s daughter smuggled crack cocaine into her rehab facility. Donald Trump’s brother died of alcoholism. And how about those who suffered from the disease of addiction themselves? Our very own mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, is in recovery. Our nation’s Drug Czar, Michael Botticelli, is in recovery. Former President George Bush freely admits that he had to give up alcohol because he couldn’t control his use.

And what about the first lady Betty Ford? In the words of Barbara Bush, “Betty transformed her pain into something great for the common good. Because she suffered, there will be more healing. Because of her grief, there will be more joy.”

Now that’s worth talking about.

Nonsensical, part II.

The addict isn’t the only member of the family to act completely irrational. So does the mom. Alarmed by a gut feeling that something is “just not right” the mother becomes an insanely overwrought junior detective – searching rooms, tracking cellphones, eavesdropping and spying on social media. But the truth is not easy to uncover- because the addict is a very convincing liar. (And, let’s face it, a big part of the mom wants to believe those lies.)  The disease requires the addict to hide their spiraling use. And this requires lying. A lot. In fact there is a saying in the community that “if an addict’s lips are moving…they are lying.” I never liked that saying. I still don’t. But the sad fact is that once this drug has claimed your child, they are no longer your child.

Then the really irrational behavior begins. What mother would ask their sick child to leave their home? What mother would show them the door when it was beginning to snow? What mother would watch their child walk down the driveway with a sad trash bag of clothes thrown over their shoulder? And no money in their pockets? With the realization that they may never see their child again. With the realization that their baby would seek that drug wherever, and from whomever, they could? And with the very real possibility that they might die frozen and alone?

Me, that is who.

There has to be a better way.  We have to find a better way.