I waited on my mama to make her appearance at our annual Memorial Day family reunion with a nauseating mixture of need, anxiety and dread. When she arrived I blinked and shook my head like a battered boxer in an attempt to adjust and refocus her.
It was a clear, warm day in May, but my mom looked like a November Jack o’ Lantern; sunken, yellow and extinguished. Her ill-fitting bibbed overalls were childlike, but her face, wrinkled and pockmarked, was old and tired. Her hair was thin and stringy and her dry and cracked hands shook as she lit one Native Spirit cigarette after another.
Her appearance that day was in stark contrast to the woman who upon entry to this world was aptly named Starr. She was no longer the beautiful person with the bright blue eyes that twinkled and danced like lightning bugs in a summer sky nor was she the mom whose mega-watt smile would spread across her face when she hugged me and whispered, “I sure do love you, So-So!”, in my ear.
That’s the mama I have frozen in time in framed pictures smudged with my fingerprints from where I try to feel her one more time.
My mama was sick. My mama was dying.
However, my mom’s illness didn’t come with brightly colored lapel ribbons or 5Ks to raise money for a cure. When my mom was in the throes of her disease, people certainly didn’t bring casseroles and pound cakes to take some of the burdens of life off of us.
That is because most people, including me, believed that she chose her sickness.
It was her choice to snort lines and shoot up her veins over helping me with my homework or going to my volleyball games. It was her choice to love Tylox, Dilaudid and heroin more than my brother, sister and me.
It was her choice to be a drug addict.
It is easy to understand why I thought that not choosing drugs was simple. I grew up in the ’80s when Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign was ubiquitous.
Until recently, substance abuse was seen as a disease of choice or a lack of control; one that only affected criminals and degenerates. However, in 2016 Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, released “Facing Addiction in America”, a landmark 400 page report that states that addiction is a chronic brain disease; not a moral flaw.
Much like the 1964 surgeon general report on the health impacts of smoking changed the public and government’s perception on tobacco use, Murthy wants his report to be a cultural call to action in combating the substance abuse epidemic and the misconceptions that surround it. An estimated 20.8 million people in the U.S. are living with a substance abuse disorder. That is 1.5 times the amount of people living with all cancers combined.
However, we do not invest the same amount of attention or dollars to addressing substance abuse.
Furthermore, Charlotte, due to its proximity to I-77, I-85 and I-40, is becoming a “hub” for heroin trafficking. According to the 2016 WCNC report “Heroin use in Charlotte”, Charlotte’s heroin hotspots are in more affluent communities surrounding SouthPark and the Arboretum.
And, that’s the real lesson, addiction simply does not give a damn what your last name is, what neighborhood your house is in, who you voted for in the election or what you do for a living. Yet, those suffering from this disease and their loved ones feel ashamed and embarrassed. The stigma surrounding addiction is suffocating.
I spent years believing that my mom simply chose to be a drug addict; that she loved opioids more than me. I don’t believe that anymore. I just wish that I would have had a chance to tell her that I never stopped loving her, and that I never gave up hope that she would one day be that golden woman who made my soul dance.
Photos: Toby Talbot/AP/Charlotte Observer, Sosha Lewis