Until we get to the root causes of addiction and mental health, addicts (who, at heart, are pure like everyone else) will continue to be plagued by long-lasting, life-sabotaging habits.
“Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Proving nature’s laws wrong, it learned to walk without having feet. Funny, it seems to by keeping it’s dreams; it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else even cared. You see you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete had damaged petals. On the contrary, we would all celebrate its tenacity. We would all love it’s will to reach the sun. Well, we are the rose – this is the concrete – and these are my damaged petals.” —Tupac Shakur
Parable of River Babies:
One summer in a small village, all the people gathered for a picnic. As they shared food and conversation, someone noticed a baby in the river, which was struggling and crying. It was clear the baby was on the verge of drowning and facing imminent death if someone did not act swiftly.
Without thinking twice, someone promptly aborts everything to jump into the river and save the baby. Everyone’s heart had been racing in panic and confusion, rush to ensure the baby is safe. Just as things start to calm down, they notice another screaming baby in the river. Again, someone jumps in to pull the baby to safety.
Soon, more babies were seen drowning in the river and all the townspeople were pulling them out and the entire village was involved in many tasks of rescue work: pulling the poor children from the stream, ensuring they were properly fed, clothed, housed, and integrated into life of the village. While not every baby could be saved, the entire village spent all their day trying to save as many as possible. As everyone kept busy in the recovery efforts, two townspeople started to run along the shore of the river.
“Where are you going!?” shouted one of the rescuers, “We need you here to help us save these babies!”
“Don’t you see?” They cried, “If we find out how they are getting into the river, we can stop the problem and no babies will drown! By going upstream we can eliminate the cause of the problem.”
“But it is too risky,” said the village elders, “It might fail. It is not for us to change the system. And besides, how would we occupy ourselves if we no longer had this to do all day?”
This parable explains the modern industry of human services. Another version would include someone jumping into the river and teaching the babies to swim. While it is fair to say that everyone in this situation is doing their absolute best to fight the problem, real change is only going to happen once we find out the core problem to eliminate more from falling into the river.
Is there some mysterious illness in these children? Had the shoreline been made unsafe by a natural disaster? Was some hateful person throwing them in deliberately? Or was there an even more exhausted village upstream that had been abandoning them out of hopelessness?
Just like with addiction and mental health, we can fix all the presenting symptoms, but there will never be long-lasting change until we can get to the root of the problem. Everyone is innocent and pure at their core.
The “Bad Person” Argument:
“She just pops them out and then we end up paying for them,” complains a clinician during a staffing session at a mental health facility.
“She just does this to get more drugs,” cries another in agreement.
This aforementioned client has just been admitted as mentally unstable and “just pops them out” refers to self-inflicted knife wounds in her abdomen in a desperate attempt to legally obtain narcotics.
Without any background, experience, or education in this industry, any group of outsiders could unanimously agree that this behavior is not “normal.” But the behavior and actions are not the questions we need to ask in this industry; rather, the question should center around what is leading to this behavior?
Is it a choice? Is she just a bad person?
Would anyone, with a rational mind, “choose” to intentionally penetrate a sharp blade through their midsection just to score some drugs? Does anyone truly believe that jamming a knife in your stomach is the best available option?
This “choice” theory is still largely, and openly, debated in society. Despite the immense volumes of advanced evidence of addiction and mental illness, the stigma survives. The medical and scientific communities have proven these diseases through a plethora of research, studies, brain imaging technology, along with the work of the top neuroscientists in the world. Yet, the public disagrees.
Shall we debate whether or not the earth is round, the rotation, and how it orbits the sun? Shall we debate how fish do not need to be immersed in water to survive and that is their choice?
Why, as a society, can we not accept the overwhelming evidence regarding mental illness and substance abuse? This stigma we create and support is preventing people from receiving their inalienable human rights.
Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the declaration of Independence states:
“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness”
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, right? Well, stigma destroys life; it doesn’t preserve it by any means. Where is the liberty, or freedom, for those who can not afford treatment or are a part of a corrupt system of workers with misleading information? How can one pursue anything that resembles happiness when they are putting a knife through their abdomen just to get a pill that makes them feel “normal” for a few hours.
The stigma creates shame and disgrace within each individual. Despite being “created equal and independent,” society trains us how to act, talk, dress, express, behave, think, etc.
And for some of us this doesn’t feel right.
There is a lot of love in the world, but the world doesn’t seem to want everyone to feel this way. The world wants us to pretend. The training that takes place by society is nothing more than putting on a mask to hide ourselves from the world and conform to how others think we should be.
We know there is more to this pretend world in which we are living and we find it privately—with booze, drugs, food (eating disorders), gambling and other compulsive activities that help alter our consciousness momentarily. The rush of the activity or the substance allows us to numb our true feelings, so we don’t have to deal with them—which is what we always wanted.
Then we wake up in the morning and put on our mask before opening the door.
As the case of the woman with multiple stab wounds was being reviewed by these “medical professionals,” it reminded me of the first time I was able to see beyond someone’s mask.
In discussing this topic, more specifically the stigma associated, we always run the risk of being viewed as an apologist or excusing the behaviors of the addict. The behaviors are not being pardoned by any means, but if there was no stigma with substance abuse and mental illness, people would be more willing to ask for help before some of these significant consequences began to surface and this destructive cycle could slowly disintegrate. Because today, asking for help is still largely considered a weakness, whereas the truth is that it is an incredible strength for one to acknowledge that they are in need of the services of another human to help them pursue a life of freedom and happiness.
Seeing Behind the Mask:
The first time we see beyond the mask is done so without a conscious effort – it just happens and we observe. I want to share a story about a woman who has just had her eight children taken away from her for neglect and abandonment. Emotional and physical abuse was a part of the daily routine. The children would be forced to kneel down in prayer before she threatening to beat them if they told anyone she had been drinking.
“It’s just a little cut, get over it!” she once yelled at her two-year-old that recently fell on an empty beer bottle. Unable and unwilling to do anything for the child, the 14-year-old daughter had to drive the toddler to the ER for surgery.
In another incident, the woman fell and passed out on top of one of the kids. The other seven children all worked together to get her off, preventing the infant from suffocating.
The oldest daughter took care of the children with what she had to offer. She cooked Ramen noodles on the grill in the freezing temperature as it was all they had to eat. The kids rarely attended school and when they did usually were welcomed to harassment, beatings, ridicule and bullying.
Where was their father during this time?
Well, he was actually a doctor and a well-respected man in the community. But behind closed doors, he was an abusive alcoholic that lashed out daily beatings to his wife. While she was pregnant, he once dragged her across the room with a belt leading to a miscarriage—with the children burying the dead fetus in their back yard.
Around age 40, the father died of a heart attack, leaving the family in the hands of their alcoholic mother and eight children—most of them under the age of 10. This woman was left with a healthy inheritance, but spent it primarily on booze. And when the money train stopped, the next train that came in was by the state department taking away her children to foster care.
She would call and harass the foster parents, but never took time to see them or get to know them. The kids moved on with their lives not giving her any sympathy as she was the monster who destroyed their childhoods. However, the oldest daughter continued to see beyond the mask. She continued to go back to the house and help her mother. She chose to believe there was more to this monster than what was being presented. In turn, the oldest daughter received the most abuse but continued to care for her and spend her young adulthood showing love.
The drunken woman continued the emotional abuse, creating permanent psychological damage to her daughter—the only one who ever showed her love.
Unknowingly, this unconditional love and compassion of this child is what recovery is all about. People do not need to be kicked when they are down, they need someone to see beyond the behaviors. They need someone to tell them “you are a good person, but this disease is preventing you from being that beautiful soul. We just need to remove this barrier.”
Because what you will not know is that when this drunken woman was seven years old, she was babysitting her 5-year old brother before watching him get hit by a truck and killed. From this point on, she was blamed for his death. A 7-year-old does not have the mental capacity to understand this is not true. A 7-year-old cannot tell if Santa Clause is real or not, how are they supposed to know the blame is not true when her parents label her as a killer, irresponsible and bad person? On top of that, both her parents were alcoholics that immigrated from Ireland and faced immense discrimination during the 1920’s on the east coast.
So beyond her mask is a pair of alcoholic parents that were verbally and physically abusive to her. She was blamed for the death of her sibling since she was seven. She married a well-respected man who was loved and adored by the community, only to have this same man beat her within an inch of her life when he comes home from work.
Her husband was glamorized in public, while she was ridiculed. Her upbringing had trained her that you do not mention these things, so she buried it away, put on her mask and turned to alcohol. She began to believe all these things about her to be true, turned people away from her and “chose” booze instead of her kids
At seven years old, we are innocent. Imagine back to a happy time when you were around that age. Getting ready to do something you love to do (in her case, dance class) and then to watch your 5-year-old brother wander into the street and get hit by a truck and killed. Life changes just like that. And then to be blamed your entire life for this without anyone ever letting you know the truth. Then the trauma continues to come in waves and waves, while others stand by at the dock pointing and ask:
“Well why doesn’t she get out of the ocean? Those waves are too high.”
So she lost her way, but how does the story end? When did she get out of that mess? The popular feel-good stories tell us the incredible journeys of those who overcome, get better and find their way in the world. How does this one end?
The truth is many of us with mental illness and addiction suffer until we die. We die thinking we are monsters. We are all lost, but rarely found.
This story is not unique, but unfortunately, the norm in mental health and addiction. We observe and judge the behavior without taking a look beyond the mask. The behavior (mask) is going to stand out.
And the uglier the mask, the longer-lasting impact it will have on us. We treat those with the ugliest masks, the worst. We use it as a guide as to determine the evilness of the person inside. And until we can consciously look beyond the mask of each person effected by mental health or addiction, the situation will never improve.
I remember this woman’s funeral quite well. Her adult children all arrived from out of town, had not been around for years, but made their grand entrance for the spectacle. You could sense the anger and negative energy in the room.
“She is going to burn in hell,” was the common theme among these kids who had not seen her in years and never really took a peek behind the mask. They never really knew their own mother. They were all in foster care before they were five years old, but made an appearance at her funeral to wish her well spending eternity in flames.
But the oldest daughter always stuck around, caring for her mother as she watched her slowly drink herself to death. Continuing to care for her mother, no one quite understood what made her return day-after-day and take on the abuse. They questioned her mental stability, courage and strength.
While they thought she was weak and pathetic, they missed out on experiencing the strongest and most courageous person in their lives. This level of unconditional love could not be broken. She did not listen to what others said about her, no one could prevent her from loving this “monster.”
Every day, people would expect her to stop showing up, stop caring, stop loving and stop trying. She saw something no one else saw. And if you haven’t been there before, there are no words in the world that can be said to make you understand. And if you have been there before, no words are needed and you already fully understand everything.
The daughter never heard the words, “I love you,” or “I’m sorry.”
There is no storybook ending. The woman died without ever saying goodbye. But, this woman did get what she always desired—to believe she was a good, worthwhile human. She had finally received her life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. This woman finally felt loved for the first time in her life during the last few years.
While the daughter may not have noticed this new unconditional love was reciprocal, I did notice. And it changed me forever.
I saw it in the mother’s eyes and I know the daughter was right all along.
I know so because the drunk lady is my grandmother. And when I was nine-years-old and visiting, I was begging for a football. It’s all that mattered to me. I had to have it, I was impulsive, I needed it. Now, remember, my grandmother is this same, nasty old drunk I’ve been talking about for the past few pages, but she saw that I truly needed to have this football.
My grandma saw I needed it and she understood. She didn’t drink that day for the first time in nearly 45 years, because she gave me her last seven dollars to buy that football, which I still have today.
That was my Grandma. And the oldest daughter was my mother.
I love you Grandma. Mom, you are my hero.
Unedited Photo: Flickr/jiunn kang too