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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

We Couldn't Do Better Until We Knew Better

I felt guilty after sharing yesterday’s happy news. 

Besides the guilt I always feel when I admit I’m doing well and feeling happy even though my son is still dead, I also felt guilt over how cluelessly spoiled I sounded. 

Kyle worked at Local Burger when
he was in recovery in Amherst. I still
choke up every time I walk in there.

I boasted yesterday about how proud of myself I was for making time to read more books and write more poems and post more blogs. I didn’t mention my underlying anxiety that there is still so much that needs fixing in our country that to take half a day to work on a poem (which I now often do) feels like not just an enormous luxury but possibly a way of burying my head in the sand. 

I did do some things last month to help advance the cause of social justice in my own small way, and though it felt wrong to toot my horn by mentioning these things yesterday, today it feels more wrong that I didn’t mention them. So toot toot, here goes: 

  • My wife and I stood vigil one Saturday for Black Lives Matter, 
  • I paid for and attended a two-hour workshop put on by Still Kickin on how to be more anti-racist in my everyday life, 
  • I follow all the smart people of color I can find on social media to help me make better sense of the world (go, Joy Reid!) 
  • I attended poetry workshops that mostly featured writers of color. I am always doing all I can to expand my perspective. 
  • I am reading several books right now by and about people of color, including 
    • Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, 
    • Trevor Noah’s tragi-comic autobiography, Born a Crime, about growing up mixed-race in a country that imprisoned people for interracial relationships, 
    • and a gorgeously written but dense and long novel A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Mayumba, a story of a girl’s coming of age in Uganda during Idi Amin’s rule

But what is the point of my listing these steps beyond giving you some excellent book recommendations? It’s still not enough, and I know it. 

And yet…

Guilt is not productive, so while I can't help feeling it, I can remind myself none of us has time for wallowing in that mess. I cannot fix everything; I can only affect what is within my reach. 

My goals this year as my book comes out must be laser focused if I am to have any impact. So this year I am focusing on reaching as many parents and addicts and allies as I can with the message I wish I’d heard while my son was still alive: medication-assisted treatment saves lives and should not be stigmatized. 

I feel sickened that as a society we are only reaching this conclusion now that it’s our white children dying in droves. When Black people were addicted to crack or overdosing on heroin, no one showed them any compassion; they were demonized and criminalized. Now that it’s our kids, we white parents are suddenly advocating for more treatment, recognizing addiction as a brain disorder. How convenient. Suddenly we want the whole world to understand that our children are (or were) incredible human beings brimming with potential, so much more than their addictions. 

I wish I had been able to see the humanity in other addicts, whom I viewed as immoral failures, before addiction killed my child. This is a shame I can only live with by turning it  into action. 

Just as I must forgive myself for the terrible misunderstandings I had about addiction when my son was still alive, I also must accept that I failed to recognize how racism was impacting  addiction treatment before my son was an addict. I hope that by seeing me admit this, other white people can think about admitting it, too. 

We were all part of the problem until the problem came for our kids. We couldn't do better 'til we knew better. But now that we do know better, we are morally obligated to act.  

Meanwhile, medical treatment is still what will save lives, so just because we were slow to figure this out doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be fighting now for equitable,life-saving treatment for everyone. I am committed to keep mentioning how poorly we white people behaved when this was someone else’s problem. I wish I could go back in time and fix what we did (and, you know, save my son's life while I’m back there), but since I can’t, I vow to keep my awareness of our history top of mind as I look for ways to move us all forward in this fight. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this with someone if you think it can help open a conversation.  

#grief #guilt #addiction #anti-racism

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