Overcoming Addiction; Harder than Battling Addiction Itself
Scholarship Essay for Seasons in Malibu
University of Cincinnati
November 28th, 2020
Substance use and addiction have been prominent issues that have plagued society for ages. Although societal awareness of the complexity and depth of substance use has increased over the years, these individuals’ stereotypes and negative judgment cause the path to sobriety to be significantly more challenging. There are immeasurable amounts of research and studies describing addiction; it affects on mental health and the negative consequences of substance use out for the public to consume. However, I have found the most important lessons to learn come from those around us over the years of working as a social worker. For this reason, I am writing this paper about my brother Martin and how his addiction impacted his ability to live a wholesome, satisfactory life even after attaining sobriety. Through this, I hope to bring awareness to these individuals’ needs to maintain recovery and how they are being stripped of opportunity and success because of their disease.
My parents adopted my older brother Martin at the age of one from Paraguay. Paraguay is an incredibly impoverished country that has insufficient resources for the immeasurable orphans within it. At the age of one, he was the oldest child within the orphanage. This is because when they get older and more “difficult to manage,” many orphanages within this region cast the children out into the street to fend for themselves. There was little history gathered about Martin’s biological father, but Martin’s birth mother was a young woman with multiple children from different fathers. Martin was the only son she had that she gave up for adoption in hopes that he would have a better life than she could give him. Due to the orphanage’s lack of resources and support, the babies were all put into separate cribs in one room. The only time they were held or spoken to was when they were given small portions of food three times a day. My father, a psychologist, taught me from a young age that many of Martin’s struggles later on in life were a direct result of this year spent in the orphanage. The first year of life is undeniably one of the most formative ones. Without being nurtured or shown love within those months, children can grow up with behavioral and emotional disturbances.
It is worth being noted that Martin’s temperament in early childhood was appropriate to his development stages. However, when he was old enough to understand that he was adopted and, in his own words, “abandoned,” his emotional turmoil caused him to act out throughout childhood in violent and aggressive ways. Although he was put into therapy at a young age, Martin struggled with the inability to control extreme emotions. In efforts to do anything to aid in my brother’s healing and promotion of over-all functioning, my parents were advised to put him into a group home where he would be given structure and discipline. From the ages of 12-16, he lived in a house with other teenagers with behavioral and emotional disturbances. Despite this home’s goal to be a positive one, it was during this time; my brother began experimenting with drugs and alcohol. When he turned 16, he got into serious trouble with the law and was transferred to a more restrictive environment. Nonetheless, it was to no avail; Martin’s experimentation with substances turned into an addiction to coke, dependency on marijuana, and any other substances he could get his hands on. He was in and out of rehabilitation centers, homeless shelters, and eventually prison when he was 20 years old for selling drugs.
While in prison, Martin experienced a “psychotic break,” as the doctors called it. He was transferred to a mental asylum for dangerous criminals. When he was released after a year, he was undoubtedly different. Martin was too paranoid, anxious, and depressed. There was one time I make a joke about how at least prison forced him to get clean, and he told me, “Maryanna, you can get any drug you want in jail at any time you want. The only reason I did not use it was because I had nothing to give.” This conversation was the first time I realized how so many individuals battling addiction are placed in prisons or jails due to criminal offenses. Yet, they are not receiving the services needed for proper rehabilitation. It is like sending someone with lung cancer to an AA meeting and telling them to get better, for lack of a better analogy. This then begs the question, if it is understood that addiction is a disease, why is it not being treated?
Following his discharge from prison, Martin had a tough time finding any stability in his life. My mother had moved across the state, and he had a conflict with my father. Martin floated through various friends’ homes, homeless shelters, and halfway houses in attempts to find a job that would hire him despite his record. Although he had managed to recover for some time, he continued using any drugs or alcohol available. Finally, after he was found in a shed one night by the police, he decided to admit himself back to the same rehabilitation center Martin had been in when he was a teenager. This specific program provided the clients the ability to work on the farm it was on after passing through all the program stages. For the first time in years, he wanted to better his life and start new. So he did. He made it through all of the stages and began traveling with the program to give his testimony to trouble kids.
In the months following, Martin began to make amends with my parents and apologized for the pain he had caused. He went back to school to gain his bachelor’s degree and found his graphic design passion. Martin worked in odd jobs such as taxi driving, fast food, and construction to pay for school. Nonetheless, to start completely new, Martin knew he had to move out of the toxic environment he lived in within Long Island, NY. So he moved to a halfway house in Brooklyn, NY, applied to various jobs and positions, and started fresh. However, this halfway house was in a challenging, impoverished neighborhood where gang violence is prevalent. Yet it was all he could afford, so he wanted to try. Two weeks after moving there, he was walking home following job interviews and was brutally beaten and murdered on the side of the road. He was 24 years old, had been sober for two years, and was finally starting to be hopeful for the future.
When my mother reached out to the police department to see if they were exploring what happened to her son, they told her it was probably a drug deal gone bad. They labeled my brother as mentally ill and immediately assumed he was on drugs despite a clean tocology report. After all the years of him working so hard to become clean and somewhat hopeful, his life had been taken, and the people who had taken it are not being held accountable. My brother is only one person who was failed by the system time and time again. There are so many individuals battling severe addiction and mental health issues cast to the side or deemed unworthy of care. This needs to change; these people deserve better; Martin deserved more than 24 years of hardship. Addiction impacts everyone, not just the individual struggling. Yet, the road to recovery is only half the battle. Maintaining sobriety in a world that looks down upon individuals who have substance use disorders has become increasingly challenging.
Martin passed away on August 3rd, 2019. It was only fifteen days before I began the senior year of my undergraduate degree in social work. This next year was unimaginably difficult and heartbreaking. However, I felt a deep conviction to help individuals with addiction and mental health illnesses. I began working at a crisis unit in West Virginia that served this specific population. I spoke to individuals who had been using drugs since they were nine years old. I facilitated group therapy sessions where the clients would talk about the fear they experienced at the thought of remaining sober. Many of them felt as though they were already given a life sentence, so what was the use of continuing in recovery. I provided psychoeducation, counseling, and support the best I could. However, I could not help but feel as though there was some part of their distorted concept of the world that was true.
Society will not gain awareness of the issue through news reports or studies that show the adverse effects of substance use. There will only be a change made when stories such as Martin’s are heard and felt by others. The social issue of insufficient resources for individuals with disorders such as these should make us angry. It should make us want to fight for justice, for rehabilitation, for hope. These stories inspire change in the way addiction is handled and how recovery is maintained. Unlike stage four cancer, addiction is not fatal. However, if we continue to disregard those in need and not provide assistance, it can be. I am about to graduate with my masters in social work this upcoming spring. I hope to bring awareness to the dangers of addiction and substance use to all individuals I encounter within my future profession.
Regarding those in recovery, I hope to acknowledge the battle they are going through each day and motivate them to continue. That being said, I am only one person, and this change in approach to addiction and support for recovery will not happen overnight. But I will fight the same way Martin and so many others do each and every day.