I remember the first time I thought my dad overdosed.
I was eight years old and home alone. I pushed him over and sat by his side until he eventually threw up. When I saw that he was going to be okay, I got up and went into my room, and we never talked about it.
Growing up, I saw very few examples of Black love outside of the home of Cliff and Claire Huxtable, or even the acquired loves of Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wade. I grew up in a community where black girls like me were expected to be second-class students to the white kids in the classroom, where we were more expected to be a teen mom, strung out on drugs, a high school dropout, or standing on street corners to make an extra buck. I grew up in a family where women stood by their men, not because they were weak, but because they were in fact strong and determined to hold a family together. I have a mom who I adore more than life itself, a mom who made every sacrifice for me to have as healthy of a life as possible with minimal reward for her. She's someone who I always commended for her courageousness, and most importantly, her huge heart. She is undeniably my best friend, the one person whose love I truly can't live without.
I don't remember my dad ever telling me he loved me, but in my heart, I at least felt he did.
I remember working hard in school, determined to not become a statistic, or a byproduct of a society formulated to destroy black people through systemic oppression. That's one thing he did stress: Education. Education was everything to me, and it gave me the wings to dream outside of the confines of my situation or my scenario. My dad was stubborn as an ox, but one of the smartest people you'd ever hope to meet. And it was that faith in him, in understanding that behind those eyes was someone whose intellect I wanted to mirror, that kept me when I realized his alcoholism was coupled with drug use.
When the news broke of Demi Lovato's hospitalization after an apparent heroin overdose, I felt my body freeze.
It was a feeling I knew all too well, one that's riddled with doubt, fear, stress, questions, and prayers. You remember, just days prior, them being okay, and then, this. I scrolled down social threads, reading comments that ranged from prayers and concern to judgement and doubt. How could she just break her sobriety after six years? Doesn't she want better for herself? Why wasn't anyone there to stop her? Doesn't she love herself? I knew in that moment that people just wouldn't understand.
First things first: Addiction is not a choice, it is a sickness.
Repeated drug use leads to brain changes that alter the person's self-control and more or less forces the urge to take drugs. As the brain alters itself, the high feeling diminishes, which is why there is a constant need for the "next" hit. For some reason, people have an idea that one can just put a drug down and resume life normally, almost as if drug usage is a daily choice like which pants to wear or what TV show to watch. I don't know anyone who makes a constant decision daily to hurt themselves and those around them. Most times, I'd talk to my dad the next day, asking what he remembered from the day before. His blank stares proved that it was a blank page in his book of memory, a memory only those who felt his impact would actually remember.
Addiction is not a linear thing — there is no clear beginning, middle, and end.
Like almost anything else, relationship patterns and retention rates for prison systems come to mind, those who have had a previous addiction are inherently predisposed for it to happen again, easier than someone who may not have previously had one.
There can be periods of time where everything is up, and other times where everything is down. There can be moments that it circles back around, and other times it just feels like it's fleeting. I remember moments in my life where it seemed like my dad and I were finally mending our relationship: Laughing, joking, hanging out, almost like nothing had ever happened. Then the next day, he'd become someone I didn't recognize but knew all too well: Argumentative, violent, and self-serving.
The person who would leave me in the car and go into buildings for hours at a time, the person who wouldn't come home and then would text me the next day, the person who would knock everything off the walls when he did come home, and I'd wait until he went to bed before picking everything up and hanging it before the sun came up.
To explain love to someone has always been a hard thing for me, mostly because I undeniably know what it's like to love someone for better or for worse. It normalized trauma for me, making me feel like that type of ride or die love was healthy or commendable. To love someone in spite of themself, in spite of apologies you will never get and time you will never get back. To love someone, just hoping that this time, the high lasts a bit longer, and if they fall, they won't be down as long.
While I have no authority to speak on behalf of every person who has ever had a family member suffer from addiction, I have learned a few things along my journey. First, programs and counseling for the person are stepping stones, but they are not an end-all-be-all. These are programs that are put into place to help with sobriety, but also for people to learn healthier coping mechanisms and, hopefully, how to identify triggers.
Passing judgement on someone who is struggling, whether you think they are trying to help themselves or not, helps nobody.
Condemning someone who has previously gotten help but who has relapsed is also not helpful in any situation, and is no more likely to yield results. Also forgetting the grieving of family members, or the questions of why we "allow" someone to do this to us, is completely dismissive. I'm willing to bet my money on an idea that nobody wakes up wanting to be addicted to a substance, and no family member wakes up hoping they stay that way. We don't "allow" people to be who they are, but we would rather be supportive guides than the alternative, and in Demi's case, I feel the pain on both ends of the spectrum.
Addiction is never a pretty thing, but idealizing some happy fairytale or wondering how a person could relapse isn't just unrealistic, it's totally unsympathetic.
When I have felt pain and anger, I have practiced love onto others and onto myself. I have understood what a peace that surpasses understanding looks and feels like, and I extend that onto others as I pray for their healing and wellbeing. I practice an idea of selflessness and support, and encourage those to the best of my ability without risking my own personal health or safety. While I may never have those childhood memories I once wanted, or even the father that came to every game and showed healthy love, I've learned how to love myself to not become a byproduct of my past.
I've learned what it's like to be a beacon of God's light in a world filled with pain and turmoil, and what it means to not hold judgement towards the people in my life still working to get it right.
My heart goes out to Demi and her family, and for all those who were quietly reminded of their own past during this moment.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, text Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or click here.