This is the unabridged essay Denise A. Cullen MSW, LCSW, wrote as an op-ed in The Desert Sun.
This is a difficult time for my family. There are several days like this one each year, days that should be happy ones but that I struggle with. Ever since my son Jeff died as a result of an overdose in 2008, this is one of those holidays that seem designed to remind me of what I’ve lost. But this particular mothers’ day – almost exactly 40 years since President Nixon called drugs “public enemy number one” and ramped up the drug war that helped push my son away from life and toward death – is different.
This year I’m channeling that pain into anger – and a call to action.
The drug war is a war on our families. Hundreds of thousands of people are arrested each year for nothing more than possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use. All of them are daughters and sons; some are brothers and sisters; and more than a few are parents. Many of them don’t have a drug problem; some, like my son, do. All of them are arrested, shamed and stigmatized. If they are convicted, they may also face the life-long barriers that accompany a felony conviction. Few get offered any help.
My son was arrested several times; he was offered treatment once. When Jeff died, he was on a waiting list to enter court-ordered treatment. He never had to wait to go to jail because it was too full.
Current drug policies seem to me to be almost entirely focused on judging, punishing and shaming people who use drugs. This approach to drug use is not just failing to address our loved ones’ drug problems; it’s making them worse. How many more families who struggle with a member’s drug problem will be subjected to the heartless and punitive criminal justice system? How many more will find their child repeatedly imprisoned for his addiction while being told that there aren’t enough resources to send him to treatment? Or that he’s used up all his “chances” at treatment?
My son was a wonderful person who also happened to have a drug problem, which was significantly complicated by his ADHD diagnosis. Despite these burdens, he was warm and caring. He didn’t have an enemy in the world. He played and won competitive pool with his father. He excelled at surfing, BMX bike riding, and he was artistic. He was a loyal friend to so many; he loved his family and was exceptionally compassionate. He was known for his smile and laugh, for making people feel special, no matter what he was going through.
My beautiful son died of a completely preventable drug overdose – and he’s not alone. Preventable drug overdoes is now the second-leading cause of accidental death in the US, after car accidents. So where’s the public health campaign to address this problem? Where are the prevention efforts that could have helped keep my son alive? He wasn’t the first to die of a drug overdose and, we learned later, he was at extremely high risk for overdose. Public health and criminal justice experts all know that people who have just been released from jail or prison are at sky-high risk for a drug overdose. But I didn’t know that. Neither did my son. And no one was there to tell us. Why is that?
My son’s drug problems seemed impossible for him to break, at least during the time he had with us. If he had survived his twenties and lived into his thirties, who knows? During the time he struggled with drugs, from 14 to 27 when he passed away, every thing you could possibly try, we tried: individual therapy, group counseling, drug treatment (several times), a private school for kids with ADHD and other learning disabilities – 2 hours each way on a train every day, bailing him out of jail, not bailing him out of jail. He wanted to stop, but he couldn’t. He was threatened with jail; that didn’t work. He went to jail; that didn’t work. He went to treatment several times; that helped for a time but then he would relapse. And then he would get arrested again.
My goal was to keep him alive long enough for the cure – for the time that he went to treatment and it finally stuck. I’d seen it in other families. It sometimes takes years and, if you’re lucky, your child survives drugs, the lifestyle and the criminal justice system.
While my son was alive, I was busy doing what I could to help him. Now I stand back and see the insanity of the systems we were forced to maneuver and how most of them made matters worse, not better.
Forty years after Nixon’s war on drugs, it’s time to say enough is enough. Parents like me need to come out from behind our shame and grief and demand an end to the policies that are failing our children. That’s what I want for this Mothers Day.
Denise Cullen runs GRASP, a national organization for grief recovery after a substance passing (www.GraspHelp.org), and is a member of Moms United to End the War on Drugs (www.MomsUnited.net). She and her husband, Gary, founded Broken No More (www.Broken-No-More.org), a nonprofit support and advocacy organization. Denise and Gary live in Orange County.