Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Empty Seat at the Holiday Table

Mothers and the War on Drugs.

Guest post by Gretchen Burns Bergman

Gretchen Burns Bergman is Co-Founder and Executive Director of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) and lead organizer of Moms United to End the War on Drugs.

The Holiday season is upon us. At this time, when the weather turns chilly and we move indoors to enjoy the warmth and safety of our homes and the closeness of family and friends, I am acutely aware of those not so fortunate: people who are out in the elements, either because of dire financial situations or mental and addictive illness.

The Holidays are particularly difficult for those who must navigate the mighty and destructive waves of addiction. It is a painful time for families who are separated because of a loved one’s incarceration, whose young person is lost on the streets due to drug problems, whose children are in danger because of the violence of the drug cartels, or those who have lost a loved one to overdose. Often a family member is missing from the festivities because of stigma and shame.

I don’t remember when I started dreading Thanksgiving. It wasn’t after my father or my nephew died, because they were remembered and celebrated at the table, or even after the breakup of my first marriage. It was all of the times that my older son was absent because he was locked behind bars in that cold, concrete jungle, and I couldn’t figure out where I belonged – with him to somehow nurture and sustain him, or in the bosom of the rest of my family. It is the memories of holidays when one of my sons wasn’t included because he was lost in the maze of his addiction, and his name wasn’t even mentioned because of pain, discomfort, and even judgment. Those omissions widened the hole in my heart.

I weep for the countless families who have been torn apart by discriminatory and destructive drug policies that lock up fathers and remove children from their mothers in the name of the war on drugs, which is really a war waged against families and communities.

This season, mothers are banding together and speaking out with human stories of injustice and devastation, to encourage other mothers to join our voices for change. Moms United to End the War on Drugs is a national movement to end the violence, mass incarceration and accidental overdose deaths that are result of these blundering punitive policies. At a time when 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States and overdose is a leading cause of accidental death, mothers must lead the way in demanding harm reduction strategies, health-oriented solutions, and restorative justice.

The following are stories written by mothers who have experienced the ravages of the war on drugs, and who honor that empty seat at the holiday table:

The missing seat at the prison visiting table.

It was Thanksgiving and my family and I drove 4 hrs to visit my young son in his California prison for the holiday. He was serving time for drug possession, celled with a murderer, in one of the state’s highest security prisons, so “processing time” including prison official dysfunction, near total disrobing, endless questioning, metal detectors, sally-ports, and guard escorts, took about 4 hours to complete before we got to the highly secure visiting room. Because of this time consuming process, there was only 45 minutes left to visit. On the other side, my inmate son was being strip searched and waiting in a line moving at glacial speed to enter the visiting area. I cried to the guard that, as time ticked by, I was being left with five minutes to see my son for Thanksgiving…but I wanted those five minutes. He waited in his sally-port on the other side, while we all waited at our assigned table for that precious few minutes with my son. That seat remained empty. Alerts sounded that visiting was over.

--Julia Negron, A New PATH Los Angeles, California

Until this war ends, an extra place at my table.

During the holidays, we reflect as we prepare meals, set our tables, and decorate our homes. As I begin planning, with my daughter and husband’s help, I think back to the time when I was addicted to heroin, and missing from my family’s holiday table. Though it was more than 20 years ago, my family experienced extreme grief over my addiction. My father tells me that he is so grateful that I am alive. He didn’t know, in the midst of my homelessness, whether I’d ever be able to attend, let alone host, a Thanksgiving with my own family. I think how lucky I am, because I had the opportunity to get treatment that worked for me. I know someone waited and despaired over me. Now, I wait for those with substance use disorders to be served by our health care system rather than languishing in prison. Until that wait is over, there will always be an extra place setting at my holiday table for those who are locked up, thrown away or left out. The person in prison for a drug crime might not be able to eat with me this year, but perhaps next year, they will.

--Kathie Kane-Willis, Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, Roosevelt University

Emptiness is everywhere.

Since our son was born, we always picked out the Christmas tree together. It became a tradition and one of the fun parts of the holiday rush. Dad would put the lights on the tree and make clam chowder, while Jeff and I did the ornaments. As years passed, it was sometimes difficult for us all to be together for this tradition, but we were. Our son had addictive illness, and through the many rehabs, the short county incarcerations, the times where he’d isolate because he was using, we somehow were able to keep that tradition. Christmas Eve was spent with our entire family either in our home or my sister’s. The first year without Jeff – just 3 months after he died of an accidental overdose and 2 days after release from 4 months in county jail, was unreal. Jeff had been so much a part of Christmas, sharing Santa duties and passing out gifts to the little ones with the biggest smile on his face. The emptiness was EVERYWHERE. He should have been there. We haven’t had a Christmas tree or decorations in our home since 2007. I don’t think we ever will again. The Holidays bring nothing but pain.

--Denise Cullen, Broken No More, Orange County, California

Photo Credit: http://sisterjohnpaul.blogspot.com/


Unknown said...

Some sad stories here, but there is hope if we can see it through. Lovely share.

Cathy Murphy said...

As I read this article, the memories came flooding back to those Holiday Seasons Gretchen is speaking of. I was there. The son she refers to was my roommate and dear friend. Now, every holiday leaves an empty seat at my home, as I lost my brother 9yrs ago to an OD. Thank you, Gret, for giving and teaching me how to be strong at these times~Cathy

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