“It’s not really a shock.” When a famous person dies from causes related to drug or alcohol addiction, this, or something similar, is one of the more common responses people have. While there are plenty of crueler things people can and do say, this bored and blase lack of surprise over the death of a human being tends to bother me the most.
That is because my father is an addict. He’s been an addict my entire life. And to not be shocked by someone’s death at the hands of addiction would mean I would have to have to reached some sort of placid acceptance that my dad will also inevitably suffer the same fate—that his getting “better” is out of the question.
If you love someone who’s an addict, what do you do? … There is no right or wrong way to behave, because we’re not born with a handbook on how to be when someone we love goes nuts.
I read and heard a whole lot of “It’s not a surprise” type of responses this weekend, when the news of Amy Winehouse‘s death spread. I was at brunch when I found out, sipping a mimosa and scrolling through my Twitter feed on my phone when I saw a friend had posted the news. I gasped audibly and my hand flew up to cover my mouth. I was shocked. I was surprised. But how could I be? Winehouse had been battling drug and alcohol addiction for years, having gone to rehab as recently as May, and canceling her tour following a disastrous performance in Serbia. But she looked a little healthier these days, didn’t she? Gone was the fried blond hair. She had divorced Blake Fielder-Civil, a ongoing bad influence if you ask me. She was working on her third album, finally! Surely so much talent wouldn’t go to waste.
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About a month and a half ago, my dad was in the hospital for two weeks, for reasons directly and indirectly related to his addictive behavior. He’s been in the hospital many times over the years, for varying lengths of time and degrees of seriousness, but there’s always been a feeling present in my gut that he would make it out okay. Even this last time, when I had to sign power of attorney forms so I could make medical decisions on his behalf, since he was on a respirator and couldn’t make those calls himself. Being given that kind of control over another person’s life is a terrible feeling, though there was a certain solace in knowing that I would at least make betterdecisions than he would, if it came down to it.
While he was on the respirator—he was kept unconscious while a machine breathed for him—I thought a lot about what I was going to say to him when he woke up and was lucid. The first would be, “I love you.” But maybe this time I could convince him to at least somewhat get his s**t together. Maybe hearing about how scared and infuriated I was to be put in the position of having to make medical decisions for him would convince him to take some small strides towards a happier and healthier existence. Unlike Amy Winehouse, his addiction is complicated by the fact that he suffers from chronic pain—going cold turkey “sober” is an impossibility. But he also takes substances he shouldn’t and abuses the ones he needs; he makes irresponsible and dangerous decisions and can be terribly unkind.
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He can also be wonderful. He is brilliant and funny, and at his best he is compassionate and easy to talk to. I have, at various points, tried the tough love approach to dealing with him. “Stop doing ______ or I’ll stop speaking to you.” I’ve gone six months, a year, without contact and in that time his situation either did or didn’t improve, but for reasons completely unrelated to me and my absence. This “Intervention” approach advocated on the popular TV show doesn’t really work on him. It very often doesn’t work on addicts because for many, the only rock bottom they can imagine isn’t losing their family, friends, or career—but losing access to that which they’re addicted. So, if you love someone who’s an addict, what do you do? I don’t think there are any rules. There is no right or wrong way to behave, because we’re not born with a handbook on how to be when someone we love goes nuts.
The person who suffered the most during our periods of disconnection was me. I missed him. So, when he left the hospital this most recent time, I didn’t consider the usual ultimatums. Instead, I told him how I felt, what I wanted to see him do, and told him that all I asked was that he consider what I had to say; that no matter what he did, how he chose to proceed, I wouldn’t turn my back. What I didn’t say was that I wouldn’t stop pushing him to make better decisions, even as I stood by while he made poor ones. That the best surprise in the world would be to see him take strides in a positive direction, to see him make the most of the life he had left.
And that the worst surprise, the one I refuse to entertain—especially to such a degree that it doesn’t come as a shock—is that what happened to Amy would happen to him.
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Original by Anonymous