It’s Messy

Around five years ago, I got a call about my dad. He was dying, and I should come see him. The call wasn’t entirely unexpected because he was in his mid-80’s with a laundry list of ailments and diseases that made him frail. He had been rushed to the hospital and I learned he would undergo exploratory surgery in this weakened condition. His odds of survival were miniscule. This would likely be the end.

So I sat on his hospital bed and said the tearful “I love you.” I was prepared, ready to let go. I steeled myself for what was to come…
…And he didn’t die.

Somehow, he came through the surgery and went on living. And over the next five years, this happened again and again and again. He’d spiral down and teeter precariously on the brink of death, I’d get myself ready for his demise…and he’d come through it.

And while he did not die, he never “got better” either. He just kept existing, each time with more—and more debilitating—issues to deal with, growing weaker and more limited with each crisis.

And now I’m going to admit to the THING. The messy, icky, horrible THING that no one wants to admit to:

I began to resent him for living. I began to resent his suffering. And I resented being brought to that place on the edge where I’m holding my breath waiting for his death to release me – and the relief never comes. I’m holding my breath. He gets through the latest peril. I gasp for air…and I’m pissed that he put me through this and I’m pissed that he can’t let go. It’s ugly and complicated and it’s NOT something that I want to admit to anyone. But there it is. I love my dad, but I can’t stop from feeling this way. Believe me, I’ve tried.

So I’ve learned to accept it. I share these horrible, ugly feelings and all the guilt that goes with them to trusted friends. By doing this, I get to a place where I remember that this is not about me. He is not doing this to me and, if he had a choice in the matter, he’d have taken a different journey to the end. I dig deep and find compassion, empathy, and love. And somehow I gather the strength to hold my breath once again. But it’s hard.

These difficult, messy, conflicted feelings are not unique to me. Loving someone in the throes of inescapable deterioration is emotionally fraught, and we all deal with it differently.

With the failing elderly like my dad, we have an easier time understanding that the suffering is not of his choosing. And as I’ve admitted, it’s still hard not to resent it.

Imagine then, how messy, how complicated and how excruciating it is to see someone suffering and declining from the disease of addiction.

People like my dad, who suffer from chronic diseases at the end of a long life, receive sympathy and compassion along with that complicated resentment. Unfortunately, those in the throes of a substance use disorder often endure blame, shame, and isolation. Along with a much larger dose of resentment.

Part of what we do here at NCADA is keep the public from turning their backs on those wrestling with substance use disorders. We educate. We try to reduce prejudice and misunderstanding.

Several months ago, a father wrote this in the obituary for his young daughter who had died from an opioid overdose: “To some, Maddie was just a junkie – when they saw her addiction, they stopped seeing her.”

They stopped seeing her.

It’s easy and reflexive to turn away from the opioid problem as the death toll rises. It’s easy to resent and blame those who are struggling with the disease. It’s easy to stop seeing them.

We stop seeing them when we use words like “junky” or “drug abuser.” We stop seeing them when we focus only on the symptoms, not on the root causes. And we stop seeing them when we believe they are making a conscious, deliberate choice to self-destruct.

At NCADA we try to address this human tendency to resent the disease and stop seeing the person. Because as we continue to experience a national opioid crisis, we all know someone who is either battling an addiction, or someone who has lost their battle with it.

So we help people use non-judgmental language that gently reels us back in to seeing the person and not just the addiction – to more easily find and express those feelings of compassion, empathy, and love.

For my dad, death is inevitable. But for those grappling with addiction, this doesn’t have to be the case. Treatment works and recovery is possible. If NCADA is to help prevent the harms associated with drugs and alcohol and reduce the number of deaths for those struggling with addiction, we need to remind the public of our collective humanity. And, to the best of our abilities, that’s what we do.

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