Why I Do This Work: The Funeral

In the depth of winter, I finally learnedthat within me there lay an invincible summer..png

As I entered the funeral home, I thought, “this could have been me.”

He was son of one of my husband’s former colleagues. A young man, a room filled with people who loved him. It’s a scene that plays out across our country multiple times a day.

He didn’t die from the same drug that I used to use, but that doesn’t really matter. Today there’s a mother whose heart is broken.

As a mother, it’s my greatest fear.

As a person who has struggled with a substance, it’s a too close reality.

I didn’t know him, but she is a dear woman and she standing by her son’s casket. He was 30.

When I read about a person who has died in any kind of drug-related death I get that feeling in the pit of my stomach. How did I get out? How am I still here?

The drug I used is legal and is sold at the supermarket.

Here comes the part people don’t like to hear, and may stop reading after they see this line: alcohol is a drug. We often don’t like to think of it that way, but it actually is — just a legal and socially acceptable one. People still die from alcohol — in fact, it’s the third leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S.  But we treat it like it’s an accessory, a second-hand thought. But as we talk about deaths from other drugs — specifically opioids — we can’t not talk about alcohol and its realities.

When I think back, I ask myself: "How did I not hit my head during a fall? How did I make it back to my hotel rooms when traveling? How did I make it home? How did I not get killed, or how did I not kill myself with the slow poisoning by wine?" It's a story as old as time.

Enough bad things happened, things with far reaching consequences for me physically, mentally, spiritually, things that have taken years of healing.

“But I don’t have a problem. I’m not an alcoholic.” 

"That's someone else's problem."

"It's all about balance, right?"

These are the words that echo in my head, because I used to say them too and I hear them every day in the course of my advocacy. 

But here's the thing: you don’t have to be addicted to die from a drug. You don’t have to be an alcoholic. You don’t have to have “a problem.” It just takes one time, one set of decisions made while under the influence. You can also die as the result of someone who has made a set of decisions while impaired, too. My parents told me that when I was a teenager, and of course, I didn’t believe them.

A classmate of mine died in in drunk diving accident at 15. I saw up close that alcohol, a drug, could indeed kill. I swore off touching that stuff, ever. And then I did. I believed what the world told me, instead of my own heart. 

And then I woke up, and was, amazingly, still alive. 

Today I write about the way that we talk about alcohol, the way that we’ve made it an accessory to life. “Mommy needs wine” and “rose all day” on everything from T-shirts to advertisements for beauty, fitness, “wellness.” They get clicks and they sell products and they are easy content. As someone who has worked in the media for a career, I understand the dynamics of how this has happened.  

Every day I unpack the stories from this perspective -- of someone who has worked in media for a long time, and also as someone who used to say “You deserve it" to justify her own behavior. I too used to just have one glass of wine at dinner, and then became a person who could drink a bottle of wine at night. I am far from alone. (WebMD/ Alcohol Consumption Among Women On The Rise.)

Content promoting alcohol as a lifestyle accessory exist abundance — it’s easy to draw attention to this message. It’s also easy to dismiss this content, saying “What harm do they really do?” I can’t say for certain. Every person must search his or her heart. But I believe it’s time that we get serious about this conversation.

Today I am called to do this work that says, “Why?” What are we running from? What is this promise of connection? What is underneath the surface here, and why are so many of us suffering and dying? And why is there such a big connect between the reality of what's happening with women and alcohol and the stories that are being sold to us?" 

Our nation is one besieged by substance use, dependence, and addiction. More media outlets are making the connection and talking about how bad things actually are with our nation’s struggle with alcohol. And we have to keep talking. We may have different DOCs (“drugs of choice”) but I believe the underlying drivers are the same.

At the funeral home, I feel ill. There are times I want to pack up my advocacy and focus on all of the other things I’m called to do. It would be easier. How easy it would be to put aside the “dark” chapter of my past, to move on as some well-meaning people have told me. Why keep wrestling with issues around drugs and alcohol and addiction and dependence and pain and the stories we tell? Why keep appealing to media and marketers? Is it a futile effort?

The truth is: life is very good for me now. I could stop telling this story. 

Yes, it would be easier to do that.

But I don’t do easy, and the story is not over and I am still here. 

I have a son too. He is 12. I talk to him about all of the drugs, and the heightened risks he faces because of my history. I talk with him about what’s happening with opioids, and synthetics, and all of the drugs, legal and illegal.

I show him the stories I’ve written about all of these things, and try my best and try to have open-ended conversations. But lots of parents do. That doesn’t make our children immune to it.

Still, we try.

I hug my friend in the receiving line. I pray for her. I tell her, later, that I will carry her son’s memory in my heart. Though I didn’t know him, he is a brother. And I will continue.

[As always: I am not a prohibitionist: everyone has the right to choose to drink or not drink. It's about the message.}

Erin StreetEssay, Addiction