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[ Opinion ] [ Personal Narratives ]

Father First, Activist Second

Since my son William’s death from an accidental heroin overdose in late 2012, his sister, mother and I have worked hard to fulfill a pledge to him that has become our family mission:

“We promise to do everything in our power to educate and inform people about drug abuse and its prevention, to provide ever more enlightened treatment for addicts, to help make treatment options for addicts more readily available, and to remove the stain of shame surrounding this disease.”

I concluded his eulogy with a quote from Shakespeare, “Action is eloquence.”

I have had some modest success in honoring that pledge, in taking action against the disease. Enough so to be referred to at times as an “activist.” There are times, however, when my activity can be a distraction, a mask that hides the pain that propels me in the first place. My grief over losing William is like an emotional geyser, a deep spring of hot pain, sometimes latent until it shoots up when I don’t always expect it. There is no action that will bring back William. Action may distract, it doesn’t restore.

I have a friend whose son (Let’s call him Mark) began his trials with addiction about seven years ago. She and I met at an upstate county courthouse yesterday to be there for Mark’s sentencing. In late January Mark had been in a county rehab facility for about a month. Insurance issues were such that he had to leave where he was being treated and locate a bed in another facility. And stay sober. It took five days or so to find a bed. The day he was offered a bed and further treatment is also the day he was arrested for burglary. A burglary committed in thrall to his addiction in that brief five-day gap.

As a friend of the family and in my role as activist, I’d written a lengthy letter to the judge asking that Mark be provided every opportunity to receive the most up-to-date addiction rehabilitation services the State of New York corrections system can provide, both immediately and throughout the duration of his sentence, as more up-to-date or progressive treatment modalities come into practice. I asked the court to direct that Mark’s file show that it is imperative he receive the best drug treatment available.

I went into some detail to demonstrate that “afflicted with the disease of addiction, (Mark) has been ill served by a lack of proper treatment providers and insufficient or ill-informed treatment when any treatment was available. A case that should be a public health problem with reliable public health solutions falls instead to an overburdened criminal justice system.”

As a friend of Mark’s mother, I was in court to help her absorb the reality of a sentence that had been plea-bargained to ten years. As an activist, I was in court to speak and urge yet again the necessity for immediate and sustained treatment for Mark. As a father who lost his son, I was profoundly unaware of how the day might affect me. The slight twitching and trembling in my lower lip as I drove to the courthouse should have given me a clue.

Mark’s mother had wisely brought a good friend with her for support. The three of us sat in the courtroom and waited, the courtroom a mix of boring routine and drama. A young woman who had apparently misused pills of some sort (again?) was remanded into custody. As we watched, she had to remove jewelry and her watch so they could be replaced with handcuffs. While frenzied as to whom to call or when or whether she’d be able to call anyone, court officers promptly escorted her out the door. Court business plodded on, including a lack of coordination between the jail, just next door, and the court over the arrival of prisoners. 

Finally, after some walkie-talkie delay, a line of prisoners, strikingly all about the same age, shuffled in. Shackled, handcuffed, orange jumpsuits for the eight or so men, blue jumpsuits for a few women. Seeing someone you’ve known since he was a toddler, a farm boy, trying to hold back tears and embarrassment while trying to acknowledge his mother; seeing him seated and turning to make eye contact again, was heartbreaking. I managed a wink of greeting.

Pleased that the judge agreed to let me speak, I made my remarks. Mark was able to apologize to the court, whomever he’d robbed, and his mother. The ten-year sentence was handed down. The judge recommended treatment. The judge commented that it was a sad day, yet not perhaps as sad as it could be, since Mark was alive to be sentenced. A reference, I’m sure, to my story and me. Perhaps meant as a lesson to all those other jumpsuits awaiting their sentences.

Court recessed for lunch. Prisoners shuffled back out. The judge and court officials paraded by. Eye contact and a nod from the judge to this activist and it was our turn to leave.

The jail abuts the courthouse. As we stood in the parking lot, Mark appeared in a second floor caged in balcony and shouted out, “I love you Mom.” “Thank you Bill.” His mother was stoic. It was then that I learned that her friend’s son had also battled addiction. And recovered. Now working and happily married. Three parents in a courthouse parking lot spanning the range of outcomes addiction offers. Recovery, jail, death.

For me it was a stark reminder to avoid being facile as an activist. Father first, activist second. All those young orange and blue jumpsuits have stories, families, people they love who will have to wait for their return and hope for their recovery. For me, action may be a salve, but never a cure. I went to help a friend. I’ll always need help and support from mine.

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