A Mother’s Plea: Treat Addiction with Science and Compassion
Advocacy Gretchen Burns Bergman, who stood by her son as he struggled with addiction, speaks out against punitive measures that exacerbate the problem and squander human potential.
Of all the roles I’ve played in my life, motherhood is the most important. Because of my family’s experience, I became an advocate for therapeutic, rather than punitive drug policies, and an activist for drug policy reform.
A dream becomes a nightmare
My first son was born in 1971, the same year that President Nixon declared the “war on drugs,” a devastating war that would be waged against families like mine for the next 40-plus years. My two sons were bright, happy and full of promise, but something went terribly wrong in their teen years when they began experimenting with drugs.
Drug use filled all the crevices of our lives like acid seeping into the foundation of our family. The destruction continued for years, leading to heroin addiction, with ongoing painful experiences: a son kicked out of school, car crashes, prison sentences and near-fatal overdoses. The dreams turned into nightmares.
Today drug addiction is our No. 1 public health problem. A majority of high school kids report experimenting with illicit drugs. Unfortunately, many of them will get stuck (like my sons), and approximately one out of 10 will become addicted and lose their way. Besides destroying their health and happiness, many will end up in the criminal justice system. Even more tragically, today 100 people die of accidental overdose in the United States each day!
"Although the goal is to keep youth away from drugs, fear-based, non-scientific approaches appear hypocritical and can actually make drug use seem more inviting."
Adolescence can be a particularly difficult and critical period. Relationships with parents and teachers are often tenuous, so trust is a precious commodity. Although the goal is to keep youth away from drugs, fear-based, non-scientific approaches appear hypocritical and can actually make drug use seem more inviting. Resources need to be spent on education, and healthcare professionals who can guide them into services. Kicking kids out of school for drug use has become a pipeline to prison. My older son was kicked out of high school for marijuana use, and was labeled a criminal at 20 years of age because of marijuana possession. He spent over a decade cycling in and out of prison for non-violent drug offenses and relapse. This was a tragic waste of human potential and an irresponsible cost to the state.
I celebrate people who get the treatment services they need and are able to restore their lives. My older son is now in long-term recovery and works as a Drug and Alcohol Counselor. Punitive policies present real roadblocks to recovery. We must treat addictive illness like any other chronic relapsing disorder, with health-oriented, science-based and compassionate solutions.