Across North America, older people who never attended a protest in their lives are contacting elected officials and marching in the streets, demanding their governments transform and intensify the response to drug-overdose deaths.
They are the mothers and fathers of children who struggle with addiction and, too often, the parents of children lost to overdose. They meet and organize online, and advocate for the drug policy reforms and harm reduction measures that can save lives.
Many never imagined they would share their family’s personal struggles or speak about the country’s failed drug policies. The overdose crisis is creating a generation of unlikely activists.
[A protest in Vancouver marks Canada’s National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis in February 2018. Credit: Travis Lupick]
Maureen Cavanagh is one of them. In If You Love Me: A Mother’s Journey Through Her Daughter’s Opioid Addiction (Henry Holt and Co., September 2018), she tells the story of how she came to count herself among this group.
“I drive around Salem, through areas where I think she might be, trying to find her,” Cavanagh writes of her daughter, Katie (pictured top). “Past seedy motels, places known for drug use, and down streets I have heard her mention. I steer my car along Lynn Shore Drive, where she used to run miles on the walkway around the beach every day, what feels like just yesterday. Every young girl jogging could be her, but none are. I scan the newspapers each day for her name. I call the local hospitals in the middle of the night to see if my recurring nightmare that she needs me is real.”
Not since David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction—published in 2008 and last year adapted into a feature film starring Steve Carrell—has a parent so vividly shared such a story. The book is intense, frightening, and also heartwarming.
“I am constantly looking at [Facebook] Messenger because it shows the last time she was online, and I can console myself with the fact that she was indeed alive two hours ago, forty-two minutes ago, right now,” Cavanagh writes. “I live with the phone in my hand. I sleep with it next to my head. I take it into the shower with me, keeping it high up. I feel everything I’ve worked for slipping through my fingers, but I have no idea what to do differently.”
Prospective employers and landlords often make it exponentially more difficult for people to leave a life of chaotic drug use behind them.
Reached on the phone at her home in Massachusetts, Cavanagh shares how the crisis is affecting parents like herself, and how they are trying their best to cope.
She begins with an indictment of the ways in which society compounds the challenges of an addiction, detailing how prospective employers and landlords, for example, often make it exponentially more difficult for people to leave a life of chaotic drug use behind them.
“Katie lost out on an apartment because somebody looked up her past,” she explains. “She was afraid to even apply for jobs. All her [criminal] cases were dismissed but people still look up the newspaper articles.”
The book similarly recounts how Katie aced a job interview with the clothing store JC Penny. She was even introduced to people she would soon be working alongside. Then someone with the company dug up her warrants. The opportunity evaporated, prompting Katie to lose hope and wonder what the point was in her even trying to rejoin the legal economy.
“We wouldn’t do this with any other disease,” Cavanagh says. “Because of the way we treat [addiction], people are very often forced into criminal activity in order to keep going. And then we punish them for that, too. This is the shift in how we think about substance use disorder that we are going to have to go through. Otherwise, we’re going to keep losing people.”
She argues against “tough love”—but says that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set boundaries.
It is not only strangers who inflict such stigma on people who struggle with addictions. Drug users’ own families sometimes cause similar harm, Cavanagh notes. She argues against “tough love”—certainly its more extreme forms, including parents completely severing ties with their children—but says that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set boundaries.
“At the lowest point in somebody’s life, in what other situation would you cut them off?” Cavanagh asks. “You can have boundaries. And I did. I had very strong boundaries. But they were mine. They were not what anybody else told me.”
Katie was not allowed to live in the family’s home during the worst years of her addiction. But Cavanagh tried to ensure that her daughter always had a working cell phone, regardless of what Katie had done or anything else that was going on in their lives.
“I gave her a phone because I wanted her to always be able to call me,” Cavanagh explains. “A lot of people would say that was enabling. I don’t care what anybody else says. I always tell parents who come to me, ‘You have to figure out what you can deal with’. I almost lost her so many times. It was very, very possible that she could have passed away from this. And so I needed to be able to live with whatever I decided.”
Technologies like that cell phone play a central role in Cavanagh’s story. Even more than that, online social networks became lifelines—for example at the time that Katie disappeared from a treatment facility in Florida.
“I manage to get Wi-Fi on the plane and watch for responses to a Facebook post with Katie’s picture and a ‘Missing’ headline in an online parent support group,” Cavanagh writes in the book. “Her description and last known whereabouts have been shared via The Addicts’ Mom group across Florida and are being passed through the entire mom network. No one has seen her, but I’m offered words of encouragement, horror stories, and more prayers. Dazed, I feel less alone, though no less frightened.”
Today Cavanagh is the founder and president of Magnolia New Beginnings, a nonprofit that functions as a support group and advocacy network. Cavanagh recounts how it began as nothing more than a Facebook group of confused parents in search of anything that might help them help their children.
“Now we have about 20,000 people on our pages and more than half of them are in our closed pages,” Cavanagh says. “There, people no longer feel like they are isolated anymore, even if they are in a place where they can’t go to an in-person meeting….For somebody who is not ready for that, the online groups are great.”
Magnolia’s Facebook groups and similar organizations—Families for Sensible Drug Policy, for example, and Canada’s Moms Stop the Harm—are also places where mothers and fathers can find encouragement in the stories that parents share of their children’s recoveries.
“I told Katie that I loved her every day.”
Cavanagh reports that Katie, now 26, is 19 months sober, living on her own, attending school and engaged to be married.
“Katie is amazing,” Cavanagh says, dragging out with word with enthusiasm. Many times, the situation appeared hopeless. Cavanagh shares that Katie overdosed 13 times during the years she spent addicted to heroin.
It is how close she came to losing her daughter that Cavanagh says helped her embrace more controversial harm reduction programs—safer consumption spaces, for example—that many other parents still disagree with.
“Alive and breathing is a place where there are still possibilities, where anything can happen,” Cavanagh explains. “As long as someone is breathing, they have the possibility of finding a way to a better, more productive, and happier life. I think we should get behind that.”
Cavanagh is reluctant to give advice to other parents, noting that every family’s situation is unique. But she is unable to stop herself from sharing one suggestion.
“I told Katie that I loved her every day,” Cavanagh says. “That is the one thing I will say: If somebody is really cutting somebody off, to the point where they can’t even tell their child that they love them … I think that that is a great mistake. I have seen people very, very sorry that they followed that path.”
Main image credit: Maureen Cavanagh