Name: Milissa Burkey
From: Bonney Lake, WA
There is no denying that addiction is absolutely a crisis facing our nation today. It is one spoke on the completely misunderstood, mistreated and misdiagnosed (or completely ignored) wheel of mental health. When we talk about mental health, it seems an abstract concept; something doctors and professionals will eventually figure out how to address. But, for those who suffer from or have a loved one who experiences addiction, this conversation is very close to home.
My partner and I have been together almost ten years, and during that time I have seen the effects addiction can have on a loved one first-hand. Any mention of his mother immediately brings up a wall of emotions he tries hard to pretend don’t exist; anger, disappointment, neglect. But, truly at the root of it all, a deep sadness and longing for a relationship that he should have been able to count on. I once asked him when he first realized his mom was an addict and he responded, “I don’t remember when I noticed, but I do remember the day I stopped caring. I was in 5th grade and having an, ‘I need my mom’ moment, but she wasn’t there. That day, I realized I could never rely on her, and I never did again.” The rest of his childhood is littered with stories of his mom drooling at the dinner table because she was so strung out, not having money for essentials because she had spent everything they had, and being left alone with his siblings for extended periods of time until, when he was 16, she and her husband left all together. In order to keep a roof over his sibling’s heads, he picked up a full time job to pay the rent and keep food in the fridge. He was forced to become and adult at an age where most kids are enjoying their youth; playing on sports teams, hanging out with friends, getting into trouble, being kids.
The impact this trauma has had on him runs deep. He was fortunate that somehow, he had the discipline to dive into working and has become successful, but this is not the case for many children in his position. His emotional wounds have been profoundly repressed and absolutely effect the way he makes and keeps relationships, reacts to crisis and finds, or doesn’t find, validation. The carnage of her illness is present in each of her four children, creating a cycle for which they carry the burden of unwanted responsibility of managing.
Addiction is an illness. An illness, that I believe is often a symptom of some sort of mental or emotional unfulfillment or pain. We are so programed by society to be ‘just fine’, always. It’s a known fact that when someone asks, “how are you?” or, “how is your day going?” they expect you to reply with some form of, “I’m fine. Everything is dandy and I’m living the dream.” In all reality, this is often not how we actually feel. The idea of struggling and letting it show is complete taboo. So, for individuals who don’t fit into whatever ‘box’ their family, friend group, school, church or society has created for them are already stepping out the door each day with a hole in their heart and weight on their shoulders, only to have it compounded upon by the general stress of living in the world we do. For some, the hole is so big or the weight so heavy that they get lost underneath and turn to whatever eases that pain, even if only for a short while.
Society doesn’t appreciate people who don’t ‘fit the mold’, especially if addiction or substance abuse come along with them. People who suffer from addiction are almost dehumanized; portrayed as monsters who will wipe out anything between themselves and their next fix. I rarely hear words of empathy or interest in how and why a particular individual ended up where they are in their journey, as if their entire life’s experience is somehow wiped out and invalid. They are seen as criminals, unworthy of help or hope. The abundance of addiction in our nation has created even more polarization between those effected, either personally or by extension, and those whose only experience lies in other’s stories and HBO depictions. This leaves little room for understanding or conversations of ways to uproot our current and failing systems to create true change that would benefit the countless suffering.
Imagine a world where this stigma didn’t exist. A place where children are taught from a young age that living isn’t just about your physical health, but that caring for your mental wellbeing is just as important. Teaching that emotions are normal and having tools and supports readily available to help navigate the ups and downs that we all experience as we wind our way through this life, even and especially when we find ourselves mis-stepping. Imagine feeling overwhelmed or out of control and having immediate access to professionals and a system designed to help you without fear of societal punishment or extreme financial burden. I often wonder how my partner’s life would be different, had his mother had easily accessible supports that she wasn’t afraid to call upon; how many people would have a very different story? If society treated addiction as an illness, like cancer or any other physical ailment, you would immediately have a team of professionals pouring over your chart and connecting you with the appropriate therapies and specialists to get you on the road to recovery as soon as possible. Generational trauma could begin to heal and cycles could be broken. Families that have been torn apart could find some understanding or closure. Our world could become a little warmer, a little more accepting and for those with a heavy burden, a much easier place to take a deep breath and say with conviction, “I can get through this, I’ll be fine.”