On Monday I had the honor and the awful task all in one, of giving the eulogy for my beautiful younger cousin Meaghan.
Like many before her, she suffered from a terrible disease called addiction. Writing her eulogy was one of the more difficult tasks I've ever undertaken.
As many readers of this column know, about once a week I sit down and offer my analysis of what's transpiring in the world. Sometimes I use humor, fictional settings to prove an overall point and at others, I simply articulate my argument and let it rip. Today, I am gonna let it rip.
Addiction is a disease that some people have a problem calling a disease. Understandably, people have a hard time looking at the actions of an addict and attributing the same sympathy as they would for someone who has cancer or something as equally horrific. The argument can seem valid when stated like this, “People choose to do drugs, people don’t choose to get diabetes or cancer.”
When pontificated like that, sure, no argument here. The act is certainly an act of self-involvement, unlike any other disease that naturally and tragically manifests itself through someone’s body. But let us look at it from this vantage point. How many people actually make the "choice" to become an alcoholic or addict? I mean, is it truly a conscious choice to destroy one’s life, completely counter to our natural human instinct, which dictates we try and live and thrive? I would argue, no -- no one makes that choice. And medical opinion is clearly on my side here.
Another bias against people hooked on illicit drugs is the concept of where they live or what nationality they might be. In the 1980s, the image of a “crackhead” was most notably an African American male in the projects of New York City. Today, the image of an “oxy-junkie” or heroin addict is much harder to define, and this is good. When the oxy epidemic started about 10 years ago, a lot of media in the greater Boston area focused their attention on South Boston and Charlestown. In my opinion, this halted proper discussion and reinforced negative stereotypes people had about those two neighborhoods -- and did not cover the true problem of the epidemic.
For example, if a person living in say, Wakefield, saw coverage of the oxy epidemic, which included people robbing pharmacies, overdosing or doing other nasty things that are affiliated with addiction, what would they think of it? Would they recognize this problem for what it was? Or would they view it as something they are removed from? Subtly, how could they look at the epidemic any differently than their former opinions about two neighborhoods that already have a colorful criminal past? It would be easy for that person in Wakefield watching the coverage to assume it is simply an “inner city” problem or people from Charlestown and Southie are just “born crazy.”
But, here is what made this horrific epidemic a truly genuine nightmare. Although the media initially tried to format the oxy epidemic into a crazy Charlestown or Southie issue, because it draws better ratings and is simply easier to report on that way, that same person from Wakefield started noticing that his daughter or son was acting strange. Money missing, erratic behavior, etc. was becoming commonplace and, at times, seemed eerily similar to the symptoms he or she heard on the news about the “crazy people” in the city. Eventually, the problem was realized and hopefully they sought help and didn’t have to endure what my aunt and uncle are enduring this morning.
Another common misconception is recovery for heroin addicts is impossible or even still a taboo subject. Most successful people who recover from that fight try and hide the fact it was ever a part of who they were. People in certain professions will try and distance themselves from any association from the nasty drug of oxycontin or heroin. I know what this stigma is like, having felt it on many occasions around so many so-called "successful people.” Understably, if one has not had to deal with a heroin addict, it would be easy for them to have a negative opinion, because how many people who are deemed “successful” by society have actually been known to be a former addict in recovery?
Because of this stigma, people in recovery will try and distance themselves from their past because of the fear of what colleagues may think of them and fear of possible professional advancement. But as a society, we must continually progress -- nobody should ever be ashamed of battling addiction and overcoming it. In fact, the story should be told, if the person feels comfortable, so that struggling addicts and unaware or biased adults can see that recovery from a nasty fight from heroin is possible.
As some of you know, I had the pleasure of serving Charlestown as the mayor’s liaison for the past four years. Because of being associated with the mayor of Boston, I was able to meet some famous politicians, athletes and other assorted high-profile individuals. Moreover, I worked with many successful lawyers, developers, marketers and successful professional people who, like myself, were working hard and trying to take the career or life to the next level. Often I would attend corporate parties where alcohol flowed faster than the conversation. When offered, I always politely declined and at times, some people demanded why they never saw me drink at any of these events, even though “I was so young, and seemed like someone who would love to drink.”
Usually, I took the politically-correct high road and just said I had to drive or some other excuse to avoid the topic. But, when I wanted to liven up the sometimes boring small talk at these events, I would say flat-out that I wasn’t drinking because I’m in recovery and used to struggle with an addiction to heroin. Most people were nice and supportive, but occasionally there were some rude responses. One particular occasion a person asked “if the people of Charlestown and the mayor had known about my ‘bad’ past” and if not, “did I ‘lie’ in the interview process to get the job?” To which I stated, “maybe, I’m not sure, but hopefully they don’t. I do not want them as intrigued about my past as much as you are because it is already hard enough to walk down the street.”
The point of this whole column is this: being in recovery is not a bad thing and you can be successful after a battle with heroin. Here is what this former addict has accomplished: Former Charlestown liaison, I have a successful DJ business, I'm a condo owner, I drive a nice car, I'm an elected delegate for the historic 2008 Democratic National Convention with 92 percent of the vote, I'm a published writer and there is more to come.
Someone once told me that since I work in a political environment, shouldn’t I "hide" what I was? Or what if I wanted to run one day, wouldn’t this hurt my chances? Maybe it would, but I don’t care. I am not ashamed of what I was. I have a disease and fight it every day. I am very successful while fighting it and have a good life. There is hope and a light from all the pain. I want people to see that a local successful public person can win this battle and join all of the other "successful" people.
That was for you Meaghan!