I’m 62 years old. I have a son, a daughter and a grandchild. If things play out as life usually does, they will outlive me. But for too many scary years, in the case of my son, I wasn’t so sure.
He is a recovering heroin addict. That is not easy to say, nor admit to.
But saying it, out loud and before an audience, is what I’ve been doing as an actor in a play about drug addiction, called “Four Legs to Stand On.” The metaphorically titled drama takes place around the dinner table of a family of four, a powerful piece we’ve done all over Rhode Island and will do in the Boston area this fall through its founding group, Creating Outreach About Addiction Support Together.
The play lifts the shroud on what has been a dirty little secret in America for too long: Our children – and other loved ones – are dying from the disease of addiction, and we need to bring it out in the open and talk about it. This play does that.
Addiction spares no social class. When people of inner cities were dying from overdoses of heroin and other opiates, few seemed to notice. But when it started killing mostly young suburbanites in places where people fool themselves into thinking these things don’t happen, suddenly notice was paid, with politicians and police finally taking action to treat addiction as a disease, not a crime.
“Four Legs to Stand On” was written by Rhode Islander and New York University drama therapy major Ana Bess Moyer Bell, after close friends died from overdoses. The 35-minute presentation presents a family coming to grips with the son’s addiction. I play the father who at play’s end gives an angry, desperate, anguished speech. It is a work of fiction, but the words are every angry, desperate, anguished word I said to my son in those terrifyingly dark years we shared. It’s the most gratifying acting I’ve ever done – but the most painful, as it reminds me of the times my son was in the grip of addiction, having tried rehab several times, the norm for this disease, signifying not failure but effort.
He is an Army veteran of war who turned to heroin for the insidious reason many do: Price. He was hooked on other opiates, like Percocet and OxyContin, but that was expensive, and heroin was cheaper. He stole from family to fund his addiction, lying to us about it. My rational head knew what was happening, but my father’s breaking heart didn’t want to know.
There were times he came close to dying, he has told me since. Once, I came home to find him in bed, dried vomit sheeting out of his mouth down his chest. For the longest, most agonizing split second of my life, I didn’t know if he was dead or alive.
I finally got him to the VA for help, which he initially resisted, but he did what all those battling addiction must do: He found the inner strength to survive. Around the same time, my daughter gave birth to my first grandson, and his new uncle vowed to get clean for him. Whatever the reason, I am immensely proud of my son for it.
And now he is clean, attending Bridgewater State University, getting treatment and focusing on life off drugs. But during those hellish years of his addiction, not a day went by that I didn’t dread getting the call all parents of addicts pray never comes saying your child is dead.
There’s also hardly a day that goes by still that I don’t blame myself at least in part for his disease, a common familial side effect of addiction that the play addresses as well. Nor is the thought very far from my mind that he may fall into the abyss again. I hate myself for thinking that, struggling to understand and accept why I do.
Black or white, rich or poor, our kids, our mothers, our fathers, our friends, are dying from the disease of addiction. In doing this play, we hope to start the conversation so necessary to fight it.
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