In summer 2005, I was a few months into my post-college full-time account coordinator role at a PR firm. I was charged with leading our intern program. I hired Toby, who was six years old than me. He had a fresh degree in hand from Michigan State University and was proudly the first in his family to attend and graduate college. He was very bright with the kind of street smarts that only comes with age and challenging life circumstances. He had big dreams and contagious belief in an amazing future for all of us youngins. He was later promoted to Account Executive and then onto other roles at larger firms. Toby and I lost touch – save for social media updates. I knew he’d married and had a few children and that he seemed quite happy.
On Friday, October 20, he died from an opiate overdose, leaving his young family behind and a network of shocked friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances.
The news hurts. I prayed for his family, especially his children. I reflected on his interview and how much he inspired me with his determination. He’d worked fulltime doing plumbing and contracted labor work and going to school part-time for several years. I remembered our laughter together over lunch in the conference room. I remembered how he covered his mouth when he laughed, as if embarrassed of his imperfect teeth. I remembered our late nights working for our clients. I remembered his kindness. At that time in my life, my mother’s alcoholism was worsening, and I was spending all my non-working time being a reliable grownup for my sister. How is your sister, he’d ask with genuine concern.
“I can’t believe it,” wrote a colleague in a message to me after learning about his passing. “He was such a good person.”
It sucks, and it saddens and angers me.
In my life, loving several people with substance use disorders and addiction, I can tell you they are ALWAYS good people – in fact, they’ve been the best people in my life.
These days, with the exploding opioid epidemic nationwide, there is at least one story about addiction in every local and national TV news story I watch. If you would have told me this five years ago, I’d never have believed you.
As a girl, I felt I was the only person with a mom and uncles who had “drinking problems” and a homeless uncle who “got mixed up with drugs and the wrong people.” Now addiction being in the media spotlight is exposing how common this is – and how much it sucks.
When I began speaking about my experience having several loved ones with addiction, I recall people asking several questions about the character of my loved ones – as if the stories could be more bearable if they could write off those people with substance use disorders as bad people. This way, they could have reassurance that no one in their own lives would ever fall into that situation. People had very defined ideas of who is a “drunk” or “drug addict.”
Now with addiction killing people more frequently than the deadliest diseases we’ve all long understood, people are painfully discovering that substance use disorders affect people of every socioeconomic background, every race, every community. There is no addiction “type.” A punch in society’s gut, the fact is that substance use disorders are killing good people and nearly killing everyone who loves them.
I have mixed feelings about the dramatic increase in attention on addiction. On one hand, I am glad it is generating awareness and education about what addiction is. This is so long overdue. On the other hand, I know how painful this education process is – how people are recognizing that in the process of trying to “fix” a loved one, you become ill yourself. I am also concerned about misunderstanding and misinformation. I’d love to sit in Al-Anon and Nar-Anon meetings with the author of this article – Why the Codependency Myth of Drug Addiction Needs to Die – and have her listen to story after story of loved ones continually housing their spouses and adult children and giving them money that goes directly to buying substance FOR DECADES. Yes, that is enabling them.
From 1981 to 2004, my mother did not work. My father paid for her alcohol and cigarettes until his death in 2014. More than $250,000 spent on alcohol over the course of their marriage – all the while, Mom’s addiction left wreckage in all directions – it hurt my dad, sister and me to an extreme degree. Codependency is contributing to overdoses. I often wonder if Mom would be in recovery today if my dad (and the rest of us) had been educated enough to break free from codependency and help Mom get the help she needed. Instead, we kept life intact and Mom never had any reason to need help. We were so attached to an extremely unhealthy level, we blocked anything from happening that would have prompted Mom want to want to change. Fortunately, today’s families are better positioned to see clearly than we were back then.
This week, I had the honor of contributing to Workit Health’s online community with this post: 4 Things I’ve Learned From Loving Those Who’ve Struggled with Addiction.
Workit Health is a startup based here in Ann Arbor, Michigan (woo hoo!) and San Francisco. They are the first online addiction program. They also have a program to help employers and a free program for families and friends of those with substance use disorders. Very proud of their program – an engaging and interactive program that helps you cope with a loved one’s opiate (or other) addiction.
I hope you are well in your journey.
Rest in peace, Toby. Thank you for the laughter.