Three years ago today (Sept. 29) my mother walked in front of an oncoming train in Wilmington. She was 55-years-old.
I was sitting in a coffee shop beside a woman breastfeeding and describing what her family does for a living — traveling, professional knife-throwers — when my grandmother called and said, “Did you hear the news? Your mother is dead.”
I didn’t know my mother well. In the 1990s the court in Clinton County granted my father sole custody of my little sister and me. My sister was born prematurely from our mother’s alcohol and drug use. Though it was unusual for a father to be granted sole custody, the court’s decision saved our lives, really.
But my mother, while she used substances, was not an addict. Substances were her coping mechanism when things were overwhelming or rough. I’ve watched how communities too often ignore and criminalize people like her instead of building better relationships, communities and programs. Basically, society allows people like my mother to go unnoticed and undiagnosed, perpetuating chronic illness and depression. There were no counseling, recovery, treatment, transitional housing, therapy, community doctors or clinics accessible to her and because her only options were prison or isolation, she chose to live in isolation for most of her life.
My mother’s family lived on the same land in Tennessee for 100 years and some still live there. My grandmother married a veteran at the end of World War II and they parachuted into southern Ohio to start their own lives, eventually living in absolute isolation due to my grandfather’s undiagnosed PTSD and alcoholism that he then taught to his children, including my mother. She dropped out of school in the eighth grade. A lot of people who use substances live in isolation but it doesn’t have to be that way. I think what I have learned from all of this is that we have to dream bigger. We have to address the underlying issues. Our problems are outside of ourselves but too often we internalize blame that doesn’t belong to us. We live in institutionalized systems that reinforce isolation.
Over the weekend I attended the Between Coasts forum in Granville. We talked about the issue of isolationism and substance use: it shrinks our perspectives of who we are.
We aren’t going to get anywhere if we continue to interpret problems in the same ways that reinforce narratives that pit us against them, friend against foe, bad parent against good parent, drug user against non-drug user. We have to understand who “they” are in our minds. We have to understand our foes as much as our friends, we have to understand drug users as much as non-drug users. Solutions presented to problems are incomplete without broader understanding.
I’ve met wonderful people in communities who are doing meaningful work toward solutions. We should strive to not put limits on our possibilities, to not to shrink our perspectives, and to think outside the box about non-traditional methods of education, health and substance use prevention.
I was an at-risk kid straight from the womb, but at the age of 8 I had an uncle who was a prison guard at Lebanon Correctional Institution and my step-grandfather was a detective. The adults were upfront with me about substance use. I believe it was at that age of reason that I made the decision that has stuck with me for the rest of my life to be free of substance use. I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t smoke cigarettes or use tobacco. I credit that with the early intervention of the people in my life at that time. Plus, my teachers at Blanchester Local Schools from elementary to high school were revolutionary and kind, and instilled common sense in us to prepare us for the real world.
However, it wasn’t — and this is important — “You have to do this, or else.” It was presented and explained that I had the free will to make my own decisions and what the likely outcomes and consequences of those decisions would be. Those are some of the key differences in my life that I credit with how I got to where I am today.
Living in isolation is dangerous. When I heard the news that my mother had been struck by a train, I drove to the scene and began to interview the people in the vicinity. I had reconnected with my mother only in 2012 when I looked for her on my own. I was struck that the people on the street already knew who I was because my mother had made friends with everyone and evidently talked about her kids often, even though we struggled to form a connection. She had friends, but she lived in a certain isolation, and at her worst, retreated into the woods in despair. At the time of the accident she had been black-out drunk. She had called me sometime prior to that — I had chosen to not answer the phone, tired of receiving drunk calls from her, unable to understand her garbled voice that sounded distant and isolated.
That’s why today I live in a downtown area within walking distance of the services and things that I use. That’s why the best recovery program I have seen in the state of Ohio is in the historic village in downtown Columbus — it allows people to connect with people who are different from them, allowing people to grow, adapt, change, and thrive, and allows for new possibilities.
Society creates isolationism and isolationism is not normal. It compounds existing problems and prevents solutions from proliferating. No man is an island. Healing and treatment must be integrated into all areas of society and into the heart of each community and each sub-culture within each community. Depression is the second leading disability in the world, and yet we don’t have clinics for depression in communities where it is accessible to the people who need it the most. People with privilege have to take responsibility to make care accessible to people who don’t have it in their individual neighborhoods. If we have people leaving the state to get treatment, we have a problem — it’s a humanitarian crisis.
Your Voice Ohio — a not-for-profit state-wide news collaborative funded in part by the Knight Foundation — has begun to map the drug overdoses county-by-county in Ohio. When we look at the maps, we can see that in some areas whole blocks are being affected simultaneously. A neuroscientist at Northwestern University who has been studying decision-making says that the personal company of who you spend time with is the single most important factor in your long-term health. When two people are beside each other, their brain waves begin to look identical. This shows us the danger of living in institutionalized isolation, of not having immediate access to necessary care, of categorically placing people into isolation for treatment or rehabilitation, and why people placed into isolation relapse. They’re not able to access and engage with people who behave differently than they do and they don’t change. In this way, we can see that substance use is contagious, and we need to be addressing it as a contagious disease and treating the underlying issues that are compounded by systemic, institutionalized isolation, so that people don’t want to turn to self-harm and suicide for a solution.
Reach Ashley by email at email@example.com, by phone at (740) 313-0355, or by searching Twitter.com for @ashbunton
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