There are three major events that have shaped me in the last 16 years. Interestingly, all three of these events carry diagnosis that are often whispered about but rarely understood by those not in that world. I write openly about my son’s special needs and my husband’s suicide. My intention for the transparency is to, hopefully, open the lid and let light shine into the darkness. Only heinous things grow in the dark. Shame grows where no light shines. Lies expand. Depression flourishes. The power to destroy depends on darkness.
We shove things that make us uncomfortable into a box. We close tightly the lid and put it out of sight. We don’t want others to know we have labels like that in our possession. But we do. I dare say we all do.
It has somehow become one of my life’s missions to try to erase some of the stigma attached by proclaiming, “It happened to me. There is nothing for which to be ashamed.” Indeed, the true shame lies with the society that allows those with challenges to not only remain hidden but almost demand they remain so.
Yet there is one thing I have not shared even with some of my closest friends. I have held this secret for so many years it just became part of me. However, if I am being honest in my endeavor to bring light to decrease the power of shame then I am being a hypocrite by not writing about the third thing. And so, in my most vulnerable post, I open the third box.
In 2004 my now deceased husband came to me as I sat on the bed. With shaking voice and tears in his eyes he took my hand and said, “I have a problem. I need help and it has to be inpatient.”
His proclamation was preceded by events which I am not ready to share only to say they were horrific. He hit rock bottom and he hit it hard.
A few hours later I packed my children and dogs in the car and drove 18 hours straight to check him into rehab. Gary had developed an addiction to Percocet. A few months before he had been prescribed the medication for tendonitis. As a maternal fetal medicine specialist he performed numerous ultrasounds a day. The repetitive motion caused an injury and he needed medication. It started off legitimately. It did not end that way.
Because of the shame of his disease he could never receive the help he needed. For a while we would drive to Northern Virginia so he could participate in AA and NA meetings without fear of patients, friends, or colleagues seeing him walk into the meetings. He was sure if people in our town knew it would ruin his reputation. He lived with his enormous secret until the day he died. I carried it until now.
The addict is not necessarily the man on the corner with a cardboard sign begging for money. The addict is your spouse, your child, your doctor, your teacher. He is the manager at your favorite grocery store, your pastor, your friend. The addict is someone you know or perhaps love. The addict might even be you.
Our society judges them. We joke about their disease and it is still socially acceptable. We put them in jail rather than rehab. We create laws, as we should, to make getting the drug more difficult but what we fail to do is create a path to make it easier for them to get help. We try to demonize them because we want to put as much distance between “us and them.” For if it is “us and them” we subconsciously believe we can never be like they are. It gives us a false sense of both superiority and security. But the truth is some of us are one pill, one drink, one puff, one mouse click away from being an addict.
For years I thought I needed to protect Gary’s legacy so I guarded and carried his secret. I didn’t want people to think less of him. I have found that committing suicide receives more understanding than being an addict. Most of us don’t think of addicts as they are – normal people fighting a formidable opponent in the dark
Addiction is a disease. Though the addict chooses to use his drug of choice he does not choose to become addicted. It is a complex process and so misunderstood. They say it is a family disease but I believe most chronic, powerful diseases are. Like other diseases some people will respond to treatment and some won’t. Some will die from their addiction and it is just as a significant loss for the family as cancer is.
During Gary’s eulogy I tried to offer words of closure to the various populations at the memorial. He was a beloved member of the community and every walk of life was represented from prostitutes to politicians. In the closing remarks I offered this:
To those who suffer depression and addiction, I believe he would remind you that your disease is relentless and to fight it with all you have. Tend to your recovery like a delicate garden watering it every day and rooting out the weeds immediately. He would tell you to not be ashamed of your disease. People with cancer and diabetes do not feel shame because of theirs nor should you.
I have spent the last fourteen years feeling personal shame while telling people there is nothing for which they should be ashamed. In my quest to bring light to the things we try to force to remain in the dark, I have been disingenous. It is arrogant of me to determine what Gary’s legacy will be. Perhaps it is not of a man with a secret but a person who couldn’t get the help he needed because shame exists where it should not. What if part of his legacy is a cautionary tale of what can happen if nothing changes?
I haven’t allowed God the opportunity to do what He does best. I haven’t made the way so He can redeem the situation and work all things for good. He will not force His way into a situation but waits to be invited. I invite Him now and I know He will use Gary’s truth even if it touches just one person.
I open my third box to expel the shame and darkness. I know with certainty God’s light will grow something else entirely. Just what if my broken down, dingy box is exactly what God needs to grow a beautiful garden?