Empathy for the Demonized

“Of course, some people who took these drugs developed a problem, Portenoy acknowledged, but people who became addicted tend not to be genuine pain patients. ‘In these cases, there were pre-disposing psychological, social, and physiological factors… some people simply have addictive personalities. They can’t help themselves. Give an individual like that morphine, and she may very well abuse it. But that’s a reflection of HER proclivities, rather than any inherently addictive properties of the drug'”- Dr. Russell Portenoy, professor of neurology and neural science at Cornell University.


“(Drug) abusers aren’t victims; they are the victimizers” Richard Sackler


It is spring 1994. I’m out to lunch with Uncle Jerry, my eyes cast downward as he asks me how I’m doing. Unlike others, I know my uncle Jerry is genuine whenever he asks me that question. He truly wants to know.


Uncle Jerry married my Aunt Deb, my mom’s youngest sister, four years ago. And since I first met him when I moved to Seattle in November of 1990, he’s become part of the small clique of adults I trust. Indeed, Uncle Jerry is my favorite. He is a bit of an oddity. A fully mature and responsible adult, he respects the input of children and teenagers. Uncle Jerry listens thoughtfully when I speak, not interrupting me.


Most importantly, he shows genuine interest and respect for my feelings and opinions…just like my Mama used to before crack destroyed our comfortable life and close relationship. The fact that my relationship with Uncle Jerry mirrored my old connection to Mama made him near and dear to my heart. So when he asked how I felt that day, I gave him the unvarnished truth.


“You know I’m just really sick of her,” I said flatly, referring to my mother.

“I don’t understand why she can’t get herself together. The Navy sent her to rehab. She’s had help with this. But she just won’t stop using it! Why won’t she stop? If she REALLY loved me and my sisters and Grandma? She wouldn’t be doing this to us! She would!” I snapped.


Uncle Jerry didn’t nod, shake, or suck his teeth. He betrayed no emotion as I spoke. Instead, my uncle listened silently as my torrent of rage and resentment towards my mother spilled out. When I paused, he asked me a question.


“Is that all, Danielle?” He usually called me by my given name Danielle, instead of ‘Dinky,’ the dreaded nickname my Uncle Jay gave me on my first birthday. My entire family uses my nickname liberally, despite me telling them how much I hate it.   Chalk another point up on the board for Uncle Jerry!


“Yeah, I guess that’s all,” I replied. Though Uncle Jerry is as cool as a cucumber, my words have crossed the line. They aren’t respectful. They definitely aren’t fulfilling the biblical commandment that Grandma loves repeating: “Honor thy mother and father, so that thy days may be long upon the earth….”


If I was talking to anybody else that day, my monologue would have been interrupted by a sharp slap for my disrespect. But I was talking to Uncle Jerry, who doesn’t believe in hitting or yelling at children. So instead of hitting me or getting loud, he asked me another question.


“Danielle, have you heard of dopamine?”

“No, I replied, looking at him quizzically. “What is that? Uncle Jerry brightened up. And over the next hour, he explained to me brain chemistry and the impact that controlled substances have. Uncle did not approach my mother’s addiction to crack from a moral perspective. He explained it to me purely scientifically, detailing the neurological impact of crack cocaine in a way that I could understand.

“So, Danielle,” he said after he broke it down to me, “It isn’t a question of whether or not your mother loves you. It’s not a question of how much she loves you, your sisters, or her mother. Because the person who is acting this way right now and doing these things is not your mother. Your mother has a sickness, and it is a sickness that overpowers her will and everything else. When she lies to you and disappears when she is out there using? That’s not your mother. That is her illness and her addiction. Please think of it that way and try to separate the two. He paused.

“I know it’s easier said than done. But I promise you, sweetie, it is NOT a reflection of her love for you or your value.”


I was rigid as I took his explanation in. Uncle Jerry gave me clarity about my mom’s struggle that had not occurred to me before. Did it take away the pain altogether? Absolutely not. I still wanted my mother to be clean and for life to return to how it had been before she started using.

However, I now had a different perspective on my mom’s addiction, backed by data. It wasn’t Diane, my Mama, that wanted to be this way. Nor were her actions driven by malice. She wasn’t victimizing me or my siblings or grandma in everyone else in her life intentionally. Her brain had been exposed to a powerful mind-altering substance that hijacked her nervous system. It wasn’t about character flaws, weakness, or a lack of morality. It was a controlled substance and brain chemistry. In giving me this understanding, my Uncle Jerry laid the first brick in the road to forgiveness and reconciliation I’d eventually take with my mother.


I look back on that conversation now, at the angry and hurt little girl sitting across the table from her uncle. I can understand my feelings then and forgive myself for my harshness. After all, I was a child. What is harder to comprehend, however, is that as a society, we still tend to view drug addiction like my wounded and enraged 13-year-old self did.


When I hear the way people fighting addiction are labeled and viewed with scorn, it’s no surprise that we continue to fail so miserably to treat addiction and give people the abuse the support they need to get and stay clean. We treat it as if it’s a matter of will. We criminalize and vilify people as moral failures and worthless human beings due to their addiction instead of viewing them as struggling souls in need of help. And believe me, if there’s anyone who knows the roller coaster of addiction and watching someone you love be consumed by it, it’s me. But even in that, I was able to be taught and see it as an illness that I needed to understand and extend empathy for.


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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

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