Talk With a Stranger

Children & Recovery

As many of you know, May was Mental Health Awareness month. Despite growing awareness around mental health issues, the deeply embedded stigma surrounding addiction remains. When people speak scornfully about those struggling with addiction, they may not realize how hurtful and harmful this is to those who love a person who has it.
Recently I had an experience that exemplified this for me. I went to my bank to deposit an expense check from work. The name of my employer is prominently displayed on the check, and being a well-known organization, it is not uncommon for people to comment, as my teller soon did.
She was friendly and talkative. First she commented on my Irish last name; then asked me if I worked at the Betty Ford Center. Looking intently at my check, she inquired as to what type of organization it was (I suspected she already knew, or would not have broached the topic). I explained that it was a drug and alcohol treatment center. The woman looked puzzled and asked me what I did there. I informed her that I worked with little kids whose parents were struggling with addiction.
It was at this point that her demeanor changed. She paused for a moment, contemplating what to say next. My banking transaction was over, but clearly this woman was not done.
Placing her hand on mine, she looked me directly in the eyes. Her expression shifted, as tears welled up. She glanced around nervously, focused on where her co-workers were standing. She leaned closer to me and in a hushed tone of voice filled me in on her situation.
"I'm raising my grandson and he's 11-years-old. His mom—my daughter—is using alcohol and drugs and can't care for him. He's really angry and gets in trouble a lot at school. They don’t know about his mom’s situation, and I’m afraid to tell them. She really is a good person deep down. I didn't know there was anything out there that could help my grandson. Is there?"
I quietly told her that it was important that she and her grandson get help, and that there was help available. She handed me a Post-It note and asked me to write down some resources, which I hurriedly did as the line behind me grew. She thanked me, and I let her know that her grandson was very lucky to have her in his life. Then I left the bank and went to the grocery store, a little stunned by the interaction.
What struck me about the conversation was the desperation I felt from this woman. The story she shared with me was a secret she obviously kept closely guarded from others. I noted how her body language shifted as she spoke about her family. I recognized the familiar look of shame on her face.
There are many people, professionals included, who still believe that addiction is a choice, a moral failing, and put time and energy into this debate. "Addicts" and "alcoholics" are continually vilified and often criminalized. These attitudes contribute to the stigma that people struggling with this disease feel, but it also serves to isolate and harm their family members and loved ones.
It’s difficult to reach out and ask for help when a loved one has an illness. It’s even more difficult to do so if the illness is one that is met with contempt and blame. How long had this woman kept her secret? Had she told anyone of her daughter’s struggles? Or did she keep it to herself, suffering in silence?
I really felt for this grandmother. I wish I would have given her more information at the time, but I was too surprised to think clearly in the moment. What angered (and saddened) me most was that she felt compelled to explain to me that her daughter was “still a good person,” as if the substance abuse problem erased her humanity. This is stigma in action, and it is not a useful tool. As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, it strikes me how unaware people can be of the harm that stigma causes.
I did note the teller's name, and next time I go to the bank, I will be sure to ask about her grandson. It's a risk to tell anyone of our personal struggles. The fact that this stranger shared hers with me speaks to the desperation that she must feel, and the love that she must have for both her daughter and her grandson.

Peggy McGillicudyPeggy McGillicuddy has worked with young children impacted by parental addiction as a counselor, consultant and trainer for the Betty Ford Center. Having experienced familial addiction herself, she feels strongly that family recovery means including kids in the healing process. With an emphasis on reducing stigma and building resilience, Peggy writes from both a personal and professional perspective. This blog explores issues related to childhood, addiction and recovery.

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