A unique perspective on the world from a small town girl turned big city nurse. Now a grandmother to 6 gregarious, resplendent boys and 5 endearing, magical girls, she strives the make the world a more understanding, pleasant place to experience this intense thing called life.
As I left work and headed to run errands amid the Covid pandemic, I slowly put my mask back on that I had been wearing all day as a nurse. Usually I resist putting it back on, because of breathing, claustrophobic & dizziness issues. This time however, I welcomed it. Because today was another highly emotional day in the life of a mom of an addict.
My son is an adult, but the devastation on our family the last two years has been palpable. His two little kids abandoned from their daddy, his ex-wife forced to sell their beautiful new home, and his business that most of the family worked at- was gone. He had one attempt at rehab and it seemed to make it worse in the sense that it gave him the impression that all rehabs were scammy like that one.
Today, though was another rough one for this mama. He had sent pictures of himself to me after not seeing him for 5 months. To say I was shocked is an understatement. My once buff, stocky, six foot 240 lb. son looked like a little old man who hadn’t eaten in a month. I, of course, had to torture myself all the more by pulling up his old pictures and making a split screen to show the drastic difference that the toll of drugs has had on his body.
As I walked into the grocery store, the images of these pictures pierced my mama heart so deeply, my eyes stung with tears. I felt my face scrunch up and my body become weak. But I still was able to push my cart around with my mask pulled up to under my eyes, and no one knew the difference. I can mourn my son while he is still alive, amidst other shoppers who wouldn’t have a clue what I am dealing with. I can walk around and grab the milk and eggs and wonder if my son is eating today. I can basically buy anything I want while he struggles to get a few dollars. I can feel guilty for not paying his phone bill this month, even though it seems to not do any good because he doesn’t call in for his court hearings anyway.
Nothing with addiction makes sense. You’re either tough loving them or your enabling them. They’re either going to die, or they’re going to recover. You feel powerless for the outcome, paralyzed in fear and confused as to what is the right thing to do. Most of all, you have deep sense of sadness for your child that you once knew, is gone.
My struggle with my son’s addiction is mostly a secret anyway except to family so I literally wear a mask a 24/7. But now, with the current covid precautions and the masks, I can still have my complete daily or weekly meltdown while doing errands and no one is the wiser. I arrive home with my tears dried, my eyes just a little red and my mood lifted just enough to get on with my nightly tasks. This is a day in the life of an addict’s mom. – Samantha Waters
Zero. What an awful number. Especially if you’re staring at it, in blaring red neon on the heart machine. I was sitting next to my 86 pound dad in the hospital, listening to the slowed beeping of the machine. His gaunt, pale, sunken face haunted me, but it still didn’t stop me from climbing into his bed with him, knowing I would never get the chance again. The COPD he had battled for years had finally overtaken his lungs, causing him to go into unconsciousness when they wheeled him into the emergency room from the ambulance, a few days prior. The nurse had said, it was only a matter of time, until he would slip away. She soon came in the room and said it was time, he was ‘ready’. She left my mom and I to be with him. My sweet mama, stricken with her second bout of lung cancer, sat on the chair with her colored scarf covering her chemo ridden scalp, seemed nervous; scared. She didn’t know quite what to do. I laid my head on his chest and watched his lifeless body slip away as I stared at the machines. I told my mom to come over and say goodbye. Suddenly, I heard his heart beating again with my ear that was on his chest! I said, “He’s alive! Go get the nurse!” My dad raised up his right arm, as if it was once last flailed attempt to beat this disease, then dropped it to the bed. He was gone. Years of smoking would take his life and then my moms just 4 months later.
So why then, 12 years later, were my oldest daughter and I, standing in a convenience store, on an Indian reservation, in the middle of December, waiting in a long line of people who were all there for the same reason? To get a carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes for half the price. It was for my son, of course-isn’t everything? He was in his first rehab-out of state. Remember, life with an addict has you doing things you never thought you would. Your standards drop bigtime as you celebrate small victories that are unexplainable to regular people with regular problems that don’t involve substance use. As it was, we were actually thrilled to have found these cigarettes for him because we had searched online on how to send some directly to him. Apparently that’s not an option, it’s illegal or something. So that kids can’t buy them online.
Turns out that even though both your parents died of lung related diseases-directly as a result of smoking all their life-the shock of finding out that your kids smoke, has completely worn off when you realized your son is a heavy IV drug user. To ‘Only Smoke” is HUGE compared to THAT dark world. We were thrilled to be able to do that for him, as long as he was in rehab, and they were allowing cigarettes to help with the absence of the drugs.
My son finished that rehab for a total of 72 days clean. Almost a miracle in the world of addicts. But as naively “first-timers to rehab” we were, we were shocked when it didn’t “cure” him. Our healthy brains could not wrap around this non-linear course of addiction and recovery. With any other mistake or unfortunate event such as a fire or earthquake, you process the shock, clean up the damage, and rebuild. What we didn’t know then, is that fire and and inanimate objects don’t have ingrained trauma or other mental health issues that continually fight against the rebuilding. Habits are engrained in humans to create safety and order. In the ADD, addicted brain it is no different. The path of least resistance, even after a break, and a few good counseling sessions, is to go right back into the fire. That evil, disintegrating , rabid fast burning fire that has shattered so many people and families’ lives. Do you run into it to save them? Or stand there in utter horror, hoping and praying that they walk out with most of their faculties intact…..
"All Addictions are attempts to regulate internal emotional state"
Rob Waters January 10, 2019
Dr. Gabor Maté, a well-known addiction specialist and author, spent 12 years working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a neighborhood with a large concentration of hardcore drug users. The agency where he worked operates residential hotels for people with addictions, a detox center and a pioneering injection facility, where drug users are permitted to shoot up and can get clean needles, medical care and counseling.
Born to a Jewish family in Budapest at the time of the Nazi occupation, he and his parents migrated to Canada, where he earned his medical degree at the University of British Columbia. Maté, whose personal experience informs his work, is known for tracing substance abuse problems to trauma that often starts in childhood and spans generations.
His work has been acclaimed, but a Psychology Today columnist suggested that his theories are reductionist and unsupported by data — a contention Maté disputes.
Amid the severe opioid epidemic in the U.S., Maté recently visited Sacramento, where he conducted workshops with addiction specialists and families affected by addiction. California Healthline contributor Rob Waters caught up with him there. The following interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: A big part of your book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” is about how you came to see that childhood trauma and pain lie at the root of addiction. Tell me about your insights.
Downtown Eastside is North America’s most concentrated area of drug use. In 12 years, I worked with hundreds of female patients, and every one had been sexually abused as a child. Men were physically, sexually and emotionally abused, suffered neglect, were in foster care.
Thirty percent of people there are native Indians, what we call First Nations people. For generations, the government abducted their children and sent them to residential schools. Parents were barred from seeing kids. Kids were physically and sexually abused by teachers and priests. Tens of thousands died. Because of multigenerational trauma, native communities have high rates of sexual abuse, violence, addiction and suicide. It’s the most addicted population in Canada.
All addictions — alcohol or drugs, sex addiction or internet addiction, gambling or shopping — are attempts to regulate our internal emotional states because we’re not comfortable, and the discomfort originates in childhood. For me, there’s no distinction except in degree between one addiction and another: same brain circuits, same emotional dynamics, same pain and same behaviors of furtiveness, denial and lying.
Q: You were born into a Jewish family in Budapest during the Holocaust. How did that affect your life?
I was born in 1944, and two months later the Germans came in. Hungary then had the only population of Jews in Eastern Europe that hadn’t been annihilated. Now it was our turn. My mother had a stressed pregnancy. My father’s away in forced labor; she doesn’t know if he’s dead or alive. When I’m 5 months of age, my maternal grandparents are sent to Auschwitz and gassed to death. My mother is 24, terrified and depressed. In October, they start killing Jews in Budapest, taking them to the Danube and shooting them.
When I’m 11 months, she gives me to a total stranger. She said: “Please take this baby out of here because I can’t keep him alive.” I didn’t see her for six weeks. In a child’s mind, that’s abandonment. I got the template for addiction: a lot of emotional pain, which I suppressed.
Q: You write about your own addictions — being a workaholic and binge shopper of classical music, once spending $8,000 in a week on CDs.
I was not addicted to substances but I might as well have been. I couldn’t stop myself. I lied to my wife. I lied to my kids. It doesn’t matter which addiction you’re looking at; it’s the same dynamics.
Q: Last year in the U.S., an estimated 72,000 people died of drug overdoses, most from opioids.The U.S. penalizes drug use harshly and has the largest prison population in the world — 2.3 million people, almost 1 percent of the adult population. Meanwhile, 90 percent of people with substance use disorders in the U.S. are not getting treatment. What’s your take on this approach?
The more pain you cause people, the more you shame and isolate them, the worse they’ll feel about themselves. The more suffering you impose, the more you strengthen their need to escape. If you wanted to design a system to maintain drug use and enhance the profits of the illegal drug trade, I would design the system you have.
Q: Let’s talk about the science. How does trauma in the early years of life affect brain development and predisposition to addiction?
Studies show that early stress affects both the nerve cells in the brain and the immune systems of mice and humans and makes them more susceptible to cocaine as adults. If you look at brain circuits implicated in impulse regulation or stress regulation or emotional self-regulation, all are impaired in addicts.
Q: Why do you think the opioid epidemic exploded in the way it has in recent years?
On top of the childhood trauma and the profound social and economic dislocation so many people experience, most physicians are completely uninformed about trauma and don’t understand how to address chronic pain or treat addiction. Hence they have a propensity to prescribe opiates all too quickly without looking at root causes or alternatives. Most people introduced to opiates in recent years started on medical prescriptions. When these are stopped, they turn to illicit substances. All this is greatly exacerbated by pharmaceutical companies’ well-documented drive to induce doctors to prescribe.
Q: Critics like psychologist and addiction specialist Stanton Peele say you’re proposing a reductionist vision in which abuse history and biochemical changes to the brain inevitably lead to substance abuse.
Peele totally misconstrues my argument. Nobody’s saying that every traumatized person becomes addicted. I’m saying that every addicted person was traumatized. There are other outcomes of trauma including cancer, autoimmune disease, mental illness — addiction is only one of them.
Q: You write with compassion about the people you worked with. But you also write about them as broken people who rarely seem to recover. What good are you doing?
If somebody had cancer and pain and you couldn’t cure the cancer, what would you do? Would you say, “I’m not going to help you any more”? Or would you try to ameliorate their suffering? The essence of harm reduction is you reduce the harm. You don’t impose abstinence. If they choose that at some point, I provide whatever support they need.
I woke up today shrouded in worry & dread. Wishing for so many “things” that I want to happen to me and those I love. Things that would surely calm my riddled heart of chaos. While watching the planes go to and from the airport and seeing my little doggie without a care in the world, I realized that although those planes LOOK like they’re in a straight line, it’s only because they are so close to their destination. They are coming in for the landing or just taking off with high hopes and lots of turbo.
Yet, while in the air, they are tossed to and fro and veering off course many times.
What if they gave up midair, saying “to hell with these clouds, I can’t see where I’m going”.
Just like the plane’s journey mine and my kids’ are also riddled with turbulent clouds at times, spilled drinks, vomiting, fear, confusion, blankets.
I realized that most of the “things” that I want are long-acting things.
Most are actually out of my immediate control. Sure I can do all the prep work & hustle in all directions trying this way and that way to pull people and circumstances my way. Wanting immediate results!! But my work must end there. At some point I have to give it up and just love the journey without regard to the possible outcomes.
Holding space- giving grace.
I can still align myself with the highest vibration possible.
I can still give unconditional love and support. But ultimately others have their part to play too. I can’t force someone to hire me. I can’t take away my kid’s problems or pain. I can only fly steady.while appreciating the many experiences and blessings I have NOW!
My day turned out to have a lot of turbulence- locked out of my house, phone dead. Wouldn’t charge. Stuck giving plasma for an hour with no book to read or phone to look at lol (that’s torture). Bombed one interview. But I also rocked another interview! I was pretty much offered a position that I didn’t even apply for 🤞🙏(we’ll see on Friday) And I was touched by the kindness angel 😇again, who always seems to rescue me. ❣️✨❣️✨❣️✨ Life is sooooo full of blessings if we can look past the turbulence.
For all those who see the purple banners during overdose awareness month or see the videos of people with substance abuse disorders passed out and you scroll on by thinking, “I’m sure glad that doesn’t affect me, I’m glad I taught my kids better” or “someone should have gotten them some help”.
I applaud you.
I truly do.
I am so glad that you have never had to watch your beautiful child turn into someone you didn’t know.
I’m so glad you’ve never had a call from the inmate phone system asking if you’ll accept the charges.
I’m soooo glad you’ve never had the experience of watching your 28-year-old, 240 lb son thrash around in the back seat sweating, then freezing, begging his own mother to please take him to get drugs to stop this sickness, as you’re trying to take him to rehab.
I’m sooo glad you’ve never had to see a dad in a restaurant with his kids & have your heart ache so deeply that your son isn’t with his kids, that you go out to your car and burst into tears.
I’m so glad you don’t have to sit down at a delicious meal & feel a twinge of guilt knowing your child hasn’t eaten for days & wondering where he even is.
I’m so glad you’ve never had to see your precious grandkids celebrate a birthday & not knowing the words to tell them that their dad has a progressive illness that teaches him lies that he doesn’t have to be a dad & that’s it’s NOT because they are not worthy of love.
I’m glad that you would never tell a dying lung cancer patient that they shouldn’t have started smoking, and they should just get over this pesky illness that’s inconvenienced everyone and just get a job!
I truly am. Because I wouldn’t wish this nightmare on anyone.
I would never want anyone to lay awake at night, unable to stop the tears, wondering what they could have done differently.
I’m very glad you haven’t ever got THE CALL.
I’m very glad that you taught your kids to make better choices, & that you’ve never broken the speed limit or took a drink, or had something so traumatic in your life that you just needed to get through the pain for a minute… And if you did, luckily you were able to stop or walk away with any devastating effects.
Great genes, or coping skills!
What about helping teach those to others?
Obedience to all the laws and principles is great and admirable and yes it does make for a safer and all- be- it more productive life.(I mean who doesn’t want to be perfect) but not if it makes us look down on others who-for whatever reason didn’t go down that ←→ path.
This problem IS everyone’s problem.
Addiction affects every aspect of society, whether directly or indirectly. From the homeless to the prisons to the overwhelmed court system with possession charges taking up so much time. Stringing people through the system costs taxpayers almost $100 k per inmate.
I don't want one more parent to have to bury a child due to drugs or alcohol, but the only way that's going to happen is if we ALL take on this epidemic as our problem, & truly make an effort get rid of judgements and stigmas which bring MORE SHAME to all involved.
Shame and embarrassment are keeping people from seeking treatment.
We need to create practical affordable solutions for all- while eliminating the waste & fraud in treatment.
Even if that means opening our mind up to alternative treatments such as Harm reduction.
The death rate is frightening and it IS AN EPIdemic as it affects the core of the family structure, jobs, crime, the jail system, and little kids who grow up with the stigma of a parent in jail or who has died.
If you don’t have any idea how to help, how about start with the words we use, such as junkie, tweaker & worthless. These are shaming and hurtful to the families & children of addicts. And don’t forgot, under that hardened core of a dysfunctional chaotic addict, is a person in pain with zero healthy coping skills. The least we can do is not to add to it.
Or what about not arguing about insulin needing to be free. Maintenance meds are not usually free to anyone, but AED paddles and Narcan to revive-not treat, are free to EMTS.
Other people in pain aren’t the enemy.
It’s going to take all hands on deck to help stop this nightmare, just like the virus grabbed everyone attention. This epidemic existed long before that and will continue after. Most of the typical solutions are not working anymore, and needs to be revamped with new attitudes and ideas. These ideas must start with compassion not disgust. Not sarcastic answers and opinions on why they started.
Please offer your compassion and time. Even if you don’t understand how it progresses to such a dysfunction of incarceration or homelessness, you can still give HOPE to a suffering addict or a kind word to the family of a person with a substance use disorder.
You can give that struggling person on the corner, a $5 McDonald’s card to let him know that -yes someone does give a damn- today…