Reframing the addiction as a disease helped me understand that my father didn’t want to hurt himself or my family.
Every time I talk to my dad about his experience with addiction, I come away with beautiful—although sometimes painful—new insights. Listening to him talk about his longtime struggle with opioid addiction has taught me not only about the complex and labyrinthine nature of addiction itself, but also about love and forgiveness.
The most important thing I’ve learned is that no matter the struggle, there is a person who deserves real compassion—before (or under) the addiction, before (or under) the trauma that may have caused them to use drugs, before (or under) the pain and suffering.
I’ve seen prison time, loss of custody, and disease take hold as a result of addiction, and yet I can see the other side as well. While everyone’s experiences are different, here’s what I’ve learned from my father and his experience:
- People with addictions don’t want to be addicted
Within the dark void of addiction—and its loneliness, shame, powerlessness, and disaster—it can be hard to really see the person who is suffering. This is true both from the outside and if it’s yourself you’re looking to find. It’s also hard to accept that someone isn’t making an active choice to suffer (and cause suffering around them). They may have made a choice to pick up a drug, but addiction is an actual disease, and its grip is real.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to.”
Reframing the addiction as a disease helped me understand that my father didn’t want to hurt himself or my family. And in talking frankly with him today, it’s very clear that he knew he was suffering, but he simply couldn’t figure out the steps to get out of it. It took so much loss before he got himself into recovery, and that’s something I stay compassionate about. I think this empathy can go a long way in both understanding your family’s narrative and forging a path toward potential forgiveness (and maybe even advocacy for others).
- Addiction doesn’t magically disappear
On a trip to see my dad recently, I was taken aback when he said, “I still get cravings.” Although I know—I mean, rationally—that just because someone is in recovery doesn’t mean they won’t feel temptation or relapse, it’s harder to hear it from your parents. It’s scary, yes, but it’s also just sad. On my end, I wanted to say, “But you’re okay, right?!”
I held my tongue. Instead of seeking comfort from him in his truth and struggle, I decided to simply listen—as an adult, as a human. As a child of two people who have struggled with addiction, I have learned to see my parents as humans, and part of that is constantly reminding myself to actively choose to listen and find compassion in their story. It’s not always easy—and some will argue that this isn’t fair to the child—but it’s what has worked for me.
I asked my dad, “So when do these cravings happen? Is it often?” And I simply listened to what he had to say. I learned about the mechanics of his addiction, how he manages it, and what he feels in those moments.
That illumination has given me insight and compassion, and even though it’s hard, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s enabled me to treat others as human beings and advocate when and how I can. It also helps me to see my dad fairly.
- Hardship often creates beauty and wisdom
Although there’s no way this can be true for everyone, and although it’s almost a cliché, sometimes our suffering can yield something beautiful—even when it’s not our intention.
Sitting in my dad’s house, I watched him pull out notebook after notebook filled with song lyrics and poetry. Most of these poems were about his addiction, and the sadness, loneliness, pain, and self-questioning it caused. Some of the poems were about finding a divine source, or fighting past the pain. Some weren’t so positive. Reading his words surprised me. I’ve been an active poet for years, and yet I had no idea how prolific a writer my dad is, and how he uses writing to cope with trauma as well.
Reading his words connected me to him, but it did more than that: It proved that even in our darkest moments, humanity has an uncanny ability to try to cipher that pain into something bigger than ourselves. This is not just a mythology we tell ourselves, though. It’s real: Just look at the many writers, for example, who lived with addiction throughout their lives.
I am grateful to see the so-called silver lining in these insights, but it only underscores the real tragedy of addiction: that far more people with substance use disorders are misunderstood and underrepresented, and that their stories, when told, are told poorly and without nuance. There is grief and hope in addiction. There is recovery and there is relapse, and there is everything in between.
There is access to care for some and a desperate lack of access to care for others. There are abstinence-touting programs and there are clean needle centers. Addiction is a huge issue, with no one story or approach or outcome that represents everyone’s perspective. But as someone watching from the outside, as a family member, it’s my goal to listen, be compassionate, and share what I’ve learned in a way that makes space for some good.