It’s taken me a while to organize my thoughts enough to be able to form them into coherent words on paper. I recently was faced with what felt like a giant wall that just went up right in the middle of the path that I was already making slow progress on. Short version, there was some misinformation put out about how Gregg died, in a pretty public way, though not so large enough that everyone who knows him would have seen it. Someone said that Gregg died of a heart problem. A lie was told, either purposefully or out of ignorance, and I felt like the small semblance of peace that I had I been clinging to was being ripped from my fingers. That may sound dramatic, but when you find your husband dead of an overdose and then something challenges that truth, your truth, the truth that you have fought to embrace, that shit lights a fire in you. AANyway, I spent days feeling hurt, raw, and confused. Then angry and defensive. Then sad. Then determined. I would find where on this line of communication someone either twisted the truth or just made an honest mistake. I would get to the root of what was going on and figure out where things got tangled. I reached out for answers. I asked for an apology. I wasn’t rude or abrasive, but I did talk directly about why I was so hurt. What I wanted was for someone, anyone, to ease my pain and to help me be not angry anymore. Everyone was kind, they even apologized, but the trail fizzled out. I don’t know what happened, and I don’t know if it would make me feel better knowing.
You might be asking, “is this really that big of a deal?” And it’s okay if you are. I’ve asked myself that very question countless times in the last few weeks. “Am I overreacting?” Maybe. “Am I being dramatic and emotional?” Definitely a possibility. But guess what? I don’t care. I reserve the right to lose my chill when I feel threatened by someone or something that tries to steal my peace. And I thoroughly examined why I felt threatened. I thought about how I would feel if Gregg had actually died in a car accident and they said he died of a heart problem. How would I feel then? Probably annoyed, but not so triggered. What if he had died of a heart problem, but they had said he died of an overdose? Probably frantic. And that’s the problem. It was the shame that surrounds addiction (which is the very thing that keeps addiction growing) that made me have such a strong emotional reaction to this little mistake. My shame, other people’s shame, Gregg’s shame, society’s shame… It’s something that I have tried so hard to not leave space for and this mistake was telling me that I should be feeling it. And in my mind, it sent a lot of people harmful messages.
To get at the real heart of how I was feeling, here’s a section of an email I wrote, one that hasn’t been replied to. I know, not much context to go off, but you’ll get the gist.
“This little piece of misinformation may not seem like a big deal. It’s just one tiny detail. The point of the tribute was to honor veterans, not go into the knitty gritty details of the sacrifices they make. However, we can’t truly honor veterans- individually and as a whole- when we don’t fully acknowledge that sacrifice. When veterans sacrifice their physical and mental well-being, the costs can be great. My husband survived war, but self-medicated through the lasting emotional pain until it killed him, and his story is not unique. The segment glazed over this very real and very serious part of what thousands of American veterans struggle with every day. Those that saw the tribute and don’t know Gregg’s story may not have been harmed by it. But his community, his brothers in arms, his friends, his family, and especially his two children and I were sent hurtful messages. That we should be ashamed of how he fought his pain. That the courageous sacrifice he made will not stand up against his short-comings. That his presumed moral weakness should outshine the strong, kind, caring man that became a shell of himself when he was touched by war. That we should hide his struggles as well as our own because those around us would not accept them. That addiction is not a problem that we should be fighting against. That we should be ashamed of how Gregg died and that we should carry that shame with us.
I have found power in speaking the truth about Gregg’s death in a world where people don’t want to face the truth of addiction. This may not make a lot of sense to people who have not had to fight against the shame that our culture puts on individuals and families who have been touched by addiction, but believe me when I say that just acknowledging the truth is the best weapon there is in fighting that misplaced shame. There could have been a lot of power in stating the truth about how Gregg died during the veteran’s tribute. It would have been a more authentic way to honor veterans. It would have been an opportunity to bring some awareness to a piece of what veterans struggle with, a piece that doesn’t get a lot of attention. I know that mental health awareness was not the goal of the segment and I recognize that the misinformation given was most likely an honest mistake. But I also feel like my power has been taken from me and that a lie was presented, one that viewers would be more comfortable with.”
Yeah dude. The fire, I was in it. I was piiissed. And I was begging for someone to help me not be angry. I feel a lot calmer about it now, but still, NOT cool…
Society has a hard time separating people from behavior. If you do something bad, you are bad. If you do something good, you are good. If you struggle with addiction, you are an addict and not much else. But if we take a step back and look at people holistically, are we more than our behaviors? Is what people see on the outside the whole story? Does our history, our intentions, and our environment count for anything? What about all the good in us? Loving people (yes, more than one) who struggle with an addiction has taught me that, yes, we are more than our behaviors. We are all hott messes of neurons and cells, all capable of making brilliant choices and all capable of screwing up royally. People who struggle with addiction are just broken in different ways than people who don’t. But the shame still exists.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you’ve probably never seen people stumble frantically through what to say when you tell them your husband died of an overdose, or witnessed the relief that spreads across their face when you give them reasons like “combat veteran” and “PTSD” to justify the outcome that they don’t know what to do with. You’ve probably never heard people tell you that their loved one died of health problems, when the truth is that they overdosed. Probably no one has ever told you that dying of an overdose is not a tragedy, it’s just what happens when people do drugs. You’ve probably never loved an addict.