White, Working-Class America: My Family of Addicts

Susan Anglada Bartley I Society & Culture I Commentary I December 7th, 2016

There is a pain that many of us hide, a truth that is hard to bear. It's a pain that starts slow, like a pin-prick, but flames into a fire that burns forever, until we are all consumed. We are a family of addicts. May I speak to you privately, family? White addicts and family members of addicts in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and nationwide, especially those who voted for Trump, this is for you. As a fellow family member of multiple heroin​ addicts, I feel your pain, but family, hate will not heal our broken hearts.

Where did it start for your family? Was it your Brother, your best friend? Was it your beloved Mother? How long did you deny it? How much time, money, and energy did they steal? When did you lose your ability to trust? Can you ever regain it? What did you see that you can't unsee? Who did you lose that you will never, ever hold close again? How is the hole in your heart today?

At four years old, in 1982, I remember pressing my face close to the glass, making halos of steam on the inside of the window, staring out at my favorite Uncle-a brilliant, 30-something Irish-American man with shocking red hair, a man whose stories mesmerized neighborhood strangers. I waited for those stories, for days, for hours, for years sometimes. And there he was, waiting outside on a freezing winter day. He was not allowed to come inside the house because he was addicted to heroin and would steal everything we had. He stood out there waiting for hours, for days, through a whole Buffalo, N.Y. winter. He wasn't waiting for love. He wasn't waiting for justice. He was waiting for my grandmother to give him money to buy heroin.

Sometimes, when my Mother and Father weren't home, she let him inside the house. He came upstairs into her small room, talking her out of her social security check while I played with buttons on the floor. I waited for a wink, for a smile, for a flash of brilliance from his light blue eyes; I waited outside of his window for the day when he would break through his addiction, coming back to my childish heart, which revered him.

Anyone who really knows heroin knows that he never really did come all of the way back. He came back in fits and rages; he came back in bouts; he came back in moments of extraordinary storytelling; he came back in strums of his guitar; he came back in calls from jail; he came back from prison; he came back to life from suicide; but there was something in him that stayed far, far away forever.

And I still fucking miss him.

And that wasn't the whole story. The whole story is too hard to paint with a poetic brush. So I'll say it this way. They were a band of brothers living in Detroit during the Vietnam era. Due to one-eyed blindness that runs in the males in my family, they avoided the draft. Their Father, an Irish alcoholic who was an amateur boxer, horse-trainer, and expert auto-upholsterer before being fired from every auto-plant in the city of Detroit, was murdered and thrown in a ditch when my Mother was 18. At that time, the brothers fell deep into the Hippie Movement in Detroit, they all took up guitar; they were all taken by the needle.

When I was six months old in 1978, my Uncle James Fitzpatrick died of an aneurysm while battling heroin addiction. My Uncle Kearney, after fighting and playing with heroin and other opiates for the past thirty years, died an addict a few years ago. My beloved Uncle who waited outside the window, attempted suicide two months ago, and continues to battle with depression while managing his relationship with methadone and other substances.

Lately, I hear a new rhetoric about addiction--many Black and Latino writers say that the new efforts to remove the stigma of addiction are racist. In a 2016 PBS article, critical of Obama's campaign to end the national opioid epidemic, Judy Woodruff writes, "Back then, when addiction was a black problem, there was no wave of national compassion. Instead, we were warned of super predators, young, faceless black men wearing bandannas and sagging jeans." When I read Woodruff's words, which I know are true, there is still a part of me that asks does she really know what it is like to have a family member live and die in addiction? She must not really know because if she knew the reality of living with family members addicted to heroin, she could never speak against the work being done to destigmatize it.

The answer, though, is yes, she does know. F​or Woodruff and other Black and Latino family members of addicts, along with addiction, they also face the brutality of a system that incarcerates and kills their family members on a systemic level. Where I had thirty years, off and on, with two severely addicted Uncles, Black and Latino people actually faced the pain that we are feeling right now, while also experiencing racial hatred in society, and taking all of the stigma and shame of the beginning of our society's addiction only to see that now that their loved ones are dead or in prison. We want to take off the mask and ask for compassion for our pain.

When I think of all of you tonight -- family members of opiate addicts in a nation facing unprecedented levels of addiction in almost every state -- I want you to know that I truly feel that pain that you experience on a daily basis. What I need to say is that, statistically, it is evident that many of you also voted for Donald Trump. Have you thought about the way that he appeals to that last shred of pride in you, that part that hasn't been taken by your addiction, or your family member's addiction to opiates? Have you thought about the way that, in a moment when you and your family were hurting, he came along to say what you needed to hear--that you, your family, and your country could be great again?

I know the blindness that heroin causes in families of addicts. Are you unconsciously blaming Black and Latino communities for the presence of heroin and opiate-based pills, when really Big Pharma is profiting off of working-class whites like you as you vote a man to power who will boost their corporate reach, making a killing off of your family and friends?

Dig deeper. Those of us who have survived ancestral legacies of addiction must come together to unite against hate, despite the pain that we feel. We cannot blindly follow an individual who is promoting Nazis while promising us a stronger economy. Be honest. Seek the healing that you need as an individual; don't sacrifice your humanity for the promises of a rich executive who wears a mask while stabbing you and your loved ones in the back. Love yourself more. Love your faith more. Love your country more. Reject the hate machine of Donald Trump.

Susan Anglada Bartley is an activist, writer,​and teacher in Portland, Oregon. She earned her B.A. from NYU, and her M.Ed from Portland State University. She was awarded a National Education Association H. Councill Trenholm Human and Civil Rights Award in 2013 for her work to end racism in public education. She presented her work on Systemic Barriers to AP and IB Courses for Black, Native American, and Latino Students, and co-presented with Pedro Anglada Cordero, MSW on Invisible Fences: Removing Obstacles for Latino Students at the Teaching for Social Justice North West Conference and at the Evergreen Education Association Diversity and Social Justice Conference. She has published articles with Artvoice Buffalo, Literary Arts Portland, The National Education Association Magazine, NEA-Ed Votes, and The Hampton Institute: A Working Class Think Tank.