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Addiction, Choices, and Lost Time
Amanda Sleen

       “I actually called to tell you something,” my mom said over the phone.

       I was standing outside my college dorm building because my mom had called, and I had no cell reception inside. The November evening wind bit at my bare hands and face. In my rush to answer the phone, I realized I wasn’t wearing the appropriate clothing for the weather. No hat, no gloves, and no coat. There was no snow yet, but that didn’t make the wind any less brutal to exposed skin. A light sweatshirt and thin jeans were the only things protecting me from it that night. I moved my phone from one hand to the other, shoving my free hand in my pocket to warm it up.

       “What’s up?” I asked her. I was nervous. News from my mom was never good. News about her was even worse.

       “I just wanted you to know that I’ve been using Adderall for the past few weeks,” She paused. “I only use it to keep up with Grant. It gives me energy to play with him and clean the house.” Grant was my two-year-old brother, the newest addition to my family, the sixth child. I was the second, which meant I was usually in-the-know about what was going on with my family.

       I didn’t know how to respond to my mom’s information. She has a history of drug addiction, but she had been clean for the last four years. Did Adderall count as a relapse? I wasn’t sure.

       “Okay, is that all?” I wanted to make sure she wasn’t using anything else. I wanted to know she was still okay.

       “Yes, that’s all,” she said. “Don’t worry, I won’t do anything else. And it’s only sometimes when I feel the most tired,”

       “Does Phil know?” My step-dad, my brother’s biological dad, was also an addict. And I knew that when one addict relapses, their addict partner most likely will too. But this was Adderall, so it was different, right? It was like weed, it wasn’t that bad. Besides, my step-dad’s addiction never seemed as bad as my mom’s. He was always very functional while he was using. He would still go to work, still pay the bills, and still be able to hold normal conversations. Maybe it was because his drug of choice was cocaine, which was different from my mom’s. When she used, she was completely useless. Dead weight. She could hardly string together a coherent sentence, let alone function normally in society. While I condoned neither of my parent’s decisions, I had to reluctantly accept one of their choices over the other. I had to be okay with one parent’s addiction, I had to choose the lesser of two evils because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to survive the emotional toll of having addicts as parents. So I chose the evil that kept a roof over mine and my brother’s head, that kept food in the fridge, and kept his kids out of foster care. I wasn’t nearly as worried about my step-dad’s addiction as I was about my mom’s.

       “Of course he knows,” my mom said, bringing me back to our phone conversation. “He doesn’t care as long as the house is clean when he gets home from work. Don’t worry, Amanda, everything is fine.” I believed her. Or maybe I wanted to believe her. I had just moved away to college. I was 200 miles from home, 200 miles from my younger brothers. The last thing I wanted to worry about was my mom relapsing again. So I didn’t. I decided to accept what my mom had said as truth and put the conversation out of my mind.

       It was only three months later, after finding out from one of my younger brothers, that my mom had lied to me. As it turned out, Adderall wasn’t the only amphetamine she was using.

                                               * * *

        Anger is a feeling we are all familiar with. The reaction of your muscles tensing, teeth clenching, and face reddening. Your mouth becomes dry, your heart rate quickens, your sense of hearing decreases, and if you’re like me, your eyes start to water. Sources of anger can stem from anywhere; jealousy, frustration, embarrassment, rejection, and confusion are just a few. Any human being can relate to these motivations of anger, as it is a common and, sometimes, a hair trigger emotion we encounter.

       Feeling angry is one thing, acting on that anger is another. Being from the Midwest, I was raised to be courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered. This meant that anger was not an emotion I could easily express; I was taught to hold in my frustrations, and release that building, pent-up energy into something more productive.

       The result, however, was displacement.

       On any given day, there could be many reasons I might become angry. I didn’t get enough sleep the night before; I did poorly on a test that I could have passed; my hair wouldn’t cooperate. Those are just the small things. I could move on from those and let my frustrations pass in silence, hardly noticing they were there in the first place. But there were always bigger, overarching reasons that I found myself ruminating over for longer durations of time. Things that were hard to get over, difficult to let go of, or impossible to forget. One such thing was my mother’s drug addiction.

       All my life, I was told that addiction is a disease; a mental illness like cancer, hepatitis, or Alzheimer’s. At least, that’s what my mom always said. Along with every treatment center I ever visited because of her. And if I believed that as truth, it would mean that my mom wasn’t a bad or immoral person. It would mean that she didn’t choose to become an addict, in the same way that another person didn’t choose to become obese. It would mean that her actions were not entirely her fault. If addiction were a disease, it would simply mean that she was sick.

       Maybe I believed that when I was younger, before I was able to recognize the signs and symptoms of her illness. When I was still young enough to think that she slept all day because she was tired from work, instead of crashing from a high; that her prolonged absences were because she was visiting her mother, instead of being admitted to rehab. And maybe I believed addiction to be an illness even after I grew older.

       Once I knew what was really going on, my mom began to tell me what her treatment centers told her. Addiction is a chronic brain disorder. She is sick and treatment is the cure. Tell your family and your friends that your addiction isn’t a morality thing. It doesn’t make you a bad person who has made bad choices. Tell them, so they can support you, forgive you, and move on.

       Being young, I didn’t know any better. I never knew an addict or their behaviors. I never had to think about what addiction might actually mean, or how it would affect me. So I believed the things my mom told me because I had to.

                                             * * *

       My mom began drinking heavily at the age of 17, after her father died from alcohol poisoning. She began using cocaine at the age of 20, after she gave birth to me. Three kids later, at the age of 30, she began using her drug of choice, the drug that she would continue to use for years to come, and the drug that would aid her in destroying her family. Meth.

       Since her early adulthood, my mom would spend weeks, months, and even years in countless treatment centers. My step-dad would drag my brothers and me to each one as a way of showing our mother support, but being only ten years old, they all seemed the identical to me. Always the same gray paint plastered on every hallway dimly lit by florescent lights, the same small windows with shades that always seemed to be shut, and the same off-white tile flooring resembling a hospital. Each center also seemed to have the same picture of Jesus, his profile staring off in the distance, and the same small wooden crucifixes randomly hanging from resident’s bedroom doors.

       Upon being admitted to a new center, my mom would spend our first visit by giving us a tour and introducing us to people along the way.

       “This is So-and-So; she has a daughter your age. Maybe you guys can become friends,” my mom would always say, full of excitement. But I hated the idea of playing with other kids who had addict parents. What a miserable play date that would be.

       “Wow, you look so much like your mother.”

       “You could be sisters.”

       “The resemblance between you is uncanny.”

       Random people, other addicts, would tell me every time I visited my mom. They would pull me in for a hug, whispering about how much my mom talked about me, and then hold me out at arm’s length, studying my face. I was already uncomfortable being touched so intimately by my own family, let alone complete strangers.

       “I might end up calling you Janet on accident,” they’d always say.

       I hated them. I didn’t want to look like my mom, and I sure as hell didn’t want strangers telling me I did. I was angry at my mom for leaving; angry that she wasn’t home; angry that because of her, these people, who I knew nothing about, seemed to know everything about me.

       After each treatment, my mom would leave sober and apologize for everything her sickness made her do. Each time she would promise never to do those things again because she was better now. Each time she found God and was being saved by Jesus. But I came to believe that Jesus had better things to do.

       No matter how many rehab facilities my mom was admitted to, she never stayed sober for very long afterwards. Nothing seemed to stick. It was as if my life was stuck on replay for five years. I visited similar treatment centers, leading to similar empty promises, fueling similar feelings of resentment. But that all changed when she went to Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge.

       When my mom went to Teen Challenge in 2009, she had 19 years of addiction and a few uncompleted treatment center programs under her belt. But I really believed being a naïve 15-year-old, that my mom would finally get better, and that it would be the last treatment center she would ever need. After all, people do get better, people really do heal. At least that’s what my mom and Teen Challenge told me, which meant my mother could be one of those people.

       She was enrolled in the long-term, faith-based recovery program, meaning that she was in Teen Challenge for a year, becoming a born-again Christian, again. My brothers, step-dad, and I would spend every Saturday afternoon visiting her in the house she was confined to. It was a big Victorian style home on a small, semi-grassy hill. It had a long narrow driveway lined with tall trees shading multiple fifteen-passenger vans parked beneath them. The house was built with brown bricks and small windows, panes painted white with bright yellow canopies hanging above them. By the front door, there was a large blue sign with the words “Grace Manor” printed in yellow, matching the canopies. Inside, there were three floors, including a basement, each with many rooms. It had a chapel with colored glass windows and a somber atmosphere. The dining area was big and open, mostly because that’s where families would spend their two hour visits with their addict. There was a poor excuse for a playground in the backyard of the house, and it was fenced off with high wood planks and tall trees, blocking out the sun no matter how bright it was outside.

       When my family visited my mom, my brothers and I would always sit at the same dining room table we always did while my step-dad would be in the other room taking a phone call. We’d play card games, talk about school, and listen to my mom describe how much God was working in her. She would always end our visit with the same expression, leading to the same question. She’d lean forward, pushing her elbows wide across the table. Her fingers would be interlaced, as if she was about to pray, and she’d cock her head to the side, at the same angle a dog would when they’re confused.

       “Don’t you miss me?” She asked.

       She asked it in the way parents ask if you miss them while you were away at summer camp for a week. You don’t actually miss them, but you say you do anyways to protect their feelings. Out of guilt.  

       “You could write me letters, you know. You never write me any letters. I would love to have something you wrote to show all my friends here. You’re such a good writer.”

       I would remind my mom that I see her every week, so there’s no need to write her a letter. What would I even say? I hated that each time I came to see her she would guilt-trip me. I don’t think she always meant to, but it felt that way. I had to tell her things she wanted to hear, just so she would stop talking. I had to blatantly lie to her, in order to get my way out of an awkward, one-sided conversation.

       “Yes mom, I miss you too.”

       “Yes mom, I think about you all the time.”

       “Yes mom, I’ve been praying.”

       When she graduated from the program at Teen Challenge in 2010, she did it sober. It was the end of May, and all the graduates were up on a stage in a large church wearing long black robes. My family and I were sitting in one of the front rows listening to the pastor preach about forgiveness and love. Then, one by one, each graduate stood at the lectern and shared their testimony of addiction and recovery. I ate it all up. I loved listening to every testimony, especially my mom’s because I was proud of her then. After all the awkward treatment visits, all the strangers I had to meet, all the misunderstood anger I had, she was finally sober again. I was sixteen, and I was getting my mom back; she was finally coming home. I was even more proud that she stayed sober for two more years. My mom was right; Teen Challenge was right. She was better. She had more energy to spend time with us, she was awake all day, and she was never gone for days at a time. She seemed genuinely happy, which made the rest of our family genuinely happy. It was 2012, I was eighteen, and my family and I were all finally healing for the first time in years. My parents even had another baby, the sixth child, Grant.

       Maybe if things stayed that way, with healthy, recovering, drug-free parents, I would be able to accept addiction as a mental illness; however, my mom was never “cured” from her disease. Treatment alleviated her addiction, but never resolved it. It provided a brief absence from reality, but never a permanent change. And her excuses were endless. It was the treatment centers, the lack of support from her family. It was the easy access of drugs around her, or her husband’s addiction that tempted her own. It was anything except for her, because god forbid she was at fault.

       Most of her excuses were invalid, especially concerning my step-dad.  Even though he had made similar mistakes and was just as imperfect as my mom, he was still there to welcome home his wife when she’d return from treatment centers. He was still there for my brothers and me when she was  away, getting help. He was there to make us go to school, keep hot food in our stomachs, and clean clothes on our backs. Despite his own addiction, my step-dad was never an absent parent. It wasn’t easy for either of my parents to support and love each other all the time, but even when their relationship was at its worst, no one ever forced my mom to use. But she refused to accept responsibility, and she never felt she had to, because after all, she was sick. Addiction as a mental illness is a theory I simply cannot accept.

       Because in 2013, after four years of sobriety, she relapsed.

                                               * * *

       Johann Hari, a journalist who spent three years researching the war on drugs, talked about addiction in a TED Talk. He talked about how everything we ever knew about addiction may be wrong, and he used the Vietnam War as an example. During the war, 20 percent of all American troops were using heroin. Being exposed to such a hard drug for so long, Americans back home thought soldiers would return as addicts. I would have believed that to be true as well. However, Hari explained that according to the Archives of General Psychiatry, when the troops came home, “…they didn’t go to rehab. They didn’t go through withdrawal. Ninety-five percent of them just stopped.” This provoked him to ask the question, what if addiction is an adaptation to your environment?

       If addiction is an adaptation to your environment, based on bonding with other people and support systems, then how could it not be a choice? Hari believed that, “A core part of addiction…the evidence suggests, is about not being able to bear to be present in your life.” He thought that if an addict had a job they enjoyed, and people they loved, according to Hari’s research, they would prefer to bond and connect with those things instead of with substitutes, such as gambling, pornography, or drugs.

       I have to believe that an addict makes choices freely and willingly, like the rest of us. And if addicts have free will, as I believe we all do, then they should be held accountable for their actions.

       Society tends to blame people for making the same mistake over and over again, claiming that they should have learned from it the first time. Children are grounded for swearing, even after they’ve been told not to. People are fired from work for being late one too many times. A second offence for A DUI has considerably more consequences, penalties, and fines than the first. So why should addiction be any different? Just as person might choose to drink and drive, a person might also choose to experiment with a dangerous drug, and despite their state of awareness, those people should have the appropriate consequences.

       Saying addiction is a mental illness feels like a cop out. As if to say that because addiction is considered a disease, addicts have no control over what they do, they have no choice. It’s completely out of their hands, therefore, people should be able to excuse their behaviors instead of hold them accountable.

       I’ve heard countless stories of addicts proclaiming, “I didn’t choose to be an addict. I didn’t choose to hurt my family, or to throw my life away. Why would I choose that?” As if to say they were completely powerless to make their own decisions, so we should all just forgive and forget. While hurting the people they love may not have been the intention of an addict, using a dangerous and illegal drug was. Do the ends justify the means? I believe they are called recovering addicts for a reason. The word recovering implies that they are not fully “healed” from their illness, that there is still a temptation. A wise person would never call themselves a recovered addict, because they would know that temptation will always be there. And with temptation comes a choice.

       Now, I understand how the chemicals of drugs work in the brain. I know that the drugs affect the brain’s reward circuitry, which fuels cravings and addictive behaviors. I know that the drugs influence and alter impulse control and judgment, which, again, leads to more addictive behaviors. And I know that people do get better; I know there are countless stories of success and permanent sobriety. But even knowing this, I cannot bring myself to accept addiction as a disease or a sickness because it is impossible for me to be objective.

                                              * * *

       To believe addiction is a chronic brain disorder is to absolve my mom from her past behavior, before Teen Challenge in 2009. It would mean that I would have to be more understanding about her abandoning her family in 2004, leaving her three children under the age of eleven to wonder when we would see her again. Being the oldest in the house of three children, I was forced to make up excuses for my mom when my brothers asked where she was. I had to lie to them and myself about where she was because I had no answers. I would find Jason, only six, sitting on the stairs, stifling sobs. I had to hold him until his eyes ran dry. I would find Nick, four, the youngest at the time, throwing toys and yelling obscenities. I had to calm him down by telling him everything would be okay. But I was too young to make such promises. We all felt abandoned for reasons we didn’t understand. And abandonment is tied very closely with feeling undesired.

       I am angry because I was the only girl in the house when my mom left, so I had no one to talk to when I went through puberty. I would steal books from the library entitled The Care and Keeping of You, What’s happening to My body, and It’s Perfectly Normal because there was no one around to tell me about those things, and I was too embarrassed to ask.

       I was practically sobbing when I asked my step-dad for my first bra, humiliated that I even had to ask. I was only twelve years old, and the idea of shopping for a bra with him made me so uncomfortable that I could hardly look him in the eyes for weeks. I was supposed to do that with my mom. She was supposed to sit me down on my bed, tell me we would go together, and then show me how it worked. Instead of being a motherly figure at a time when I desperately needed one, my mom was too busy getting high in the garage of a man who would eventually get her pregnant.

Amanda Sleen a fourth year student at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN studying English writing and psychology. She is also a human resource specialist in the U.S. Army National Guard, where she has served for almost six years.