My hometown was a sleepy small town situated in Bible Belt Appalachia, a population of those riddled with addiction and those praying for those who weren’t addicted. My mother had a prescription pain pill addiction for as long as I can remember. Orange pill bottles and the doctor’s office are the hallmarks of my childhood. My young brain simply understood that my mother was sick, though the pain and illness were never resolved. It seemed that over time, the doctors were fighting the wrong illness and only prolonging her suffering. My story is not the only one, nor is it unique in any fashion.
As I got older, I felt powerless. I could control my grades, my friendships, and my time, but I couldn’t repair my mom or reverse the effects of years of addiction. It plunged me into a state of self-loathing and I resented her for taking away the naivety I felt entitled to as a child. I felt as if she was abandoning me for pills when I needed her most, leading to our relationship crumbling and sitting on shaky ground.
When I was 14, she overdosed and passed away.
I had never viewed my mother as an “addict.” I hated the connotation that word presented and the idea that she could be someone like that. My mother was sunshine and sunflowers and the smell of linens hanging out to dry. She was bright, happy, and she laughed often. She was not trying to get a fix or someone who intentionally set out to harm us. She was a mother and a sister and a wife, someone who loved and was cared for.
I started a war within myself against my own perceptions of what people were and what boxes I put them in. No simple box can contain the dynamic, ever-changing complexities of humankind. My mother could not be placed in a small box, no matter how hard I tried to repress it into something of smaller magnitude and significance.
Life after her overdose was like learning to walk again and l felt that I carried an immense disadvantage going into young adulthood. I stumbled and fell and scraped my knees. I didn’t feel I could truthfully explain my mother’s passing without encountering judgment for the manner in which she passed, which led me to not speaking about it.
The repression of my own grief was the greatest disservice I could’ve done to myself. I was hurting, I am still hurting five years later, and this hurt will endure because I was loved and loved her. There is a common parable that is often stated in the grief support community: “Grief is all of the love we want to give and cannot.” My grief has been learning to love, to appreciate the hills over the mountains, the ponds over the oceans, and to find ways to transform the atomic bomb that fell onto my family and made us fearful for future hardships. I sit with the loss I’ve faced and I accept the empathy that this experience has given me. Grief taught me about love and how universal it is. The biggest love I have found within this has been forgiveness and letting go of shame. I am more than my trauma, my healing, and my doubts.
I am a multi-dimensional human with flaws and shortcomings, but I am also a lover and an overcomer of poor circumstance—something that gives me strength and power.
I have also learned to communicate my mother’s passing without shame. We can openly discuss loss from illnesses like cancer or the flu without hesitation, so why do we invoke such societal stigma on mental illnesses? As a society, we must reform our way of thinking regarding mental illness. We must create an open dialogue that allows us to grieve out loud and give voice to the places in which we are struggling. We are humankind: a beautiful combination of human and kind. No human is perfect, we all possess our own faults, but we can remain true and kind to ourselves and others. We, as intelligent beings, can expand our horizons, our preconceived notions, and work to find common ground, which is empathy.