I lost my 38-year-old daughter this year to an accidental and deadly combination of drugs and alcohol. Laura was a vibrant, witty, and loving young woman who grew up in the Upper Valley and worked at the University of California as executive assistant to a dean. Highly intelligent and very accomplished, she was also a highly functional, very secretive addict.
I learned this only after she had died. I’m a career educator working with children and families, but I knew dangerously little about the power of addiction.
Not solely a behavioral problem, addiction is essentially a brain disease, a neurological disorder affecting reward and motivation centers. A person who uses heroin in combination with other drugs and alcohol, will experience potentially lethal cravings and symptoms.
Laura wasn’t a stereotypical junkie. She’d never lost a job, been arrested, broken with her family or stolen from anyone. She was meticulous, organized, and disciplined, and she’d achieved sobriety from alcohol and drugs for seven years. But in 2011, she confided to a friend that, having been sober for a while, she thought she could “drink again without getting hooked.”
When the Berkeley coroner called to say that Laura’s death was suspicious, I couldn’t imagine it was drug related because I’d just spent time with her and seen how healthy and upbeat she’d appeared. I was blindsided and couldn’t reconcile the Laura I thought I knew with the Laura whose life and death had become a consummate mystery.
Those whose children have died in this way must confront not only the stark loss of someone we loved but also the stigma that accompanies this loss. We tend to judge parents, blame and imprison addicts, offer inadequate treatment, and under-fund recovery programs – when we should treat addiction as a chronic disease, and commit to finding and funding comprehensive, innovative treatment and rehabilitation strategies.
Awakening to the possibility that the next child to overdose could be our own is a thought so terrifying that our natural inclination is to turn away from it. But we need, instead, to lean directly into it with all our collective weight.
We must be vigilant, and never assume that children are safe and healthy just because they seem to be doing well. We must be unafraid to ask hard questions, share painful stories, and intervene if there’s even a suspicion of addiction.
As a mother, my fervent wish is that not one more life is lost to this terrible disease and not one more parent suffers such agony.
A longer version of this commentary originally appeared in the Valley News on Saturday, Oct. 10. Find it here.