Both of my parents struggled with substance use; those genes passed on to me. I have spent the better part of my adult life trying to alter how I feel, needing to change how I think. Often I write pieces from the perspective of a person who has used substances. But, another aspect of my truth is that of a child who grew up with two parents who were incapable, or unwilling to be sober. My experiences helped me to become the person that I am today. I view others who are using substances with empathy and compassion, I feel that it is essential to reflect on the pain caused as a result of being a child of substance users.
As a child, I thought they chose drugs over me
In some regards, they did. Each of my parents had a history of trauma and pain. The reality, however, is that their lack of coping skills directly impacted their ability to parent. Often you hear people say they were poor, so let me put that into context for what that meant for me. We would live in homes with no electricity. It was not uncommon to go days without food. In elementary school, I became aware of the ‘Book-it’ program. The program by Pizza Hut promoted literacy in elementary children through the use of incentives. For every star received, a child received a voucher for a free personal pan pizza. That pan pizza would feed my mother and me.
During school, I could rely on receiving food at school. I can remember sitting in class and counting the time down on the clock for when we would eat. My stomach had gotten to a point where it felt like it was eating itself, and it would make noise. It made me an easy target for bullying and the other kids, who would laugh or make fun. While this was cruel, I acted like I did not care. I just knew that I needed food. For the better part of each day, I was sick. It was such a normal feeling that I believed everyone must always feel sick. Food or dope, it is not a choice when you are dope-sick. I was ill from hunger; my mom was sick from not having dope.
My parent’s relationship best explained like a rollercoaster that involved domestic violence, decades of drug use, and predictable collateral devastation. While things were hard when my father was not around, they were stable and seemingly peaceful. It was my mom and me, and I loved her. The truth, however, is that she loved my father and needed opioids more.
Parents who are dope sick
Life was better when they were using and intolerable when they were out of their opioids and amphetamines. My dad, who had been a rising star within the union movement locally, was in a debilitating car accident decades earlier. My mother was living with uncontrolled paranoid schizophrenia and a few other mental health disorders, which in large part was worsen by the unhealthy infatuation with my father. As a result, I found it easier to forgive my mom. Both parents justified their drug use as a way of addressing chronic pain or some other ‘justifiable medical condition.’
As a result of my parent’s behavior, I was the one who paid the price, bounced around from home to home. I desired to be a child they cherished and loved, something I am not sure either was capable of doing. I first entered into foster care when I was three years old, due to neglect and abuse. I would spend fifteen-years, in foster care, a mix of family, and out of home placements.
Not good enough for adoption
As a person who aged out of the foster system, I will forever view myself as someone not who was not good enough for adoption.
There is a difference between foster care and adoption, yet society often places them in the same category. One of the most significant differences for me is that as a person who aged out of the foster system, I will forever view myself as someone was not good enough for adoption. I was a child, with many developmental issues, due to poverty. I was a loud child who talked a lot. I was the collateral damage of two parents who were incapable of being sober and unwilling to try. Foster care and adoption are both harrowing experiences that are life long. Inherently there are feelings of never being good enough, which are complicated by perceptions of not being ‘grateful’ for foster families or adoptive families. The internal struggle that I was a child born to substance-using parents who were unable to be parents is my own.
This brokenness is something that only other fosters or adoptees might understand. Regardless of what degree I put on the wall or what I achieve in life, it will all go back to the earliest days of my life, and the choices my parents were unable to make. As an adult, daily, I face the reality that I have no biological family to call my own. No one who looks like me. No one who acts like me. No one who understands me the way that my mother did. She was witty and had a dark sense of humor. While others have welcomed me into their families over the years, it is not the same. And so for that, there will always be a piece of my heart that will forever be broke.
A reality too hard to face
My mom never told me that I was in foster care. I am sure that she believed it was more compassionate for both of us, for her to create a different storyline. She would tell me that she was not well and that I was going to stay with friends. Sometimes it was church friends; other times, I now know it was foster families. For example, I remember returning home after being away. The family had taken me fishing. I thought it was the coolest thing. They had a little fishing pole, the kind that is specifically made for kids, that I used. After the trip, I returned home, and I had a photo of that experience, including a picture of my holding a fish and the fishing pole. My mom ripped the photograph into pieces in front of me. It was something that she could not witness, a pain that cut her to her very core. It had to be very painful for my mother, and it was something that would stay with me to this very day. Through extreme poverty, an abusive father, homelessness, and everything in between, we were there for each other. This fear and the act of surviving through hard times would forever bond us.
That is what moms do
Once, an intruder broke into the back door of the dilapidated trailer where we were staying. My mother pushed me out of the trailer through the front door as she fended off the intruder. Afterward, as we recounted the incident, she said, “Aaron, that is what moms do. Moms protect their babies”.
In the end, when I think about my mother, I realize that she was sick. How can I hold her accountable for something that was not her fault? Did I believe her when she said that moms protect their babies? Absolutely, without a doubt. Nevertheless, my mom was sick. The mom that I knew was not the same mom that my siblings knew. While I recognize that she had these challenges, that does not change the fact that I was a child who needed her love more than anything else in the world. I needed to feel connected, and the truth was, I never did. The last time that I lived with my mother was when I was fifteen. Until the day that she died, she continued to grasp onto the dream of us living together, an idea that I had let go of years prior.