We’ve seen those interviews: grief-stricken parents of children with substance use disorder, demanding greater enforcement and harsher punishment for those involved with drugs. Such feelings are completely understandable. But a growing number of parents see the so-called war on drugs as both an abject failure and the cause of tremendous harm. In place of stigma and jail time, these parents call for compassion and informed treatment. This fantastic interview in Salon profiles two mothers who have turned their grief into advocacy.
“We have a system set up for people to fail, for them to become incarcerated, for them to overdose,” says Dr. Tamara Olt, who lost her 16-year-old son to a heroin overdose in 2012. She recalls the overpowering anger that she felt at her son’s death, and the desire to see someone pay. But with the help of time and a conscious effort to forgive herself, she began to see the affliction that took her son with clearer eyes.
A similar change occurred for Gretchen Bergman, whose two sons are in long-term recovery from heroin use. For both women, a key realization was how drastically the effort to punish drug users and suppliers has failed—failed for a century and counting. “It’s appalling,” says Bergman. “It didn’t work, it hasn’t worked. Drugs are still there. People are still dying. We need a compassionate, tolerant, science-based approach to this issue.”
The two women now lead nonprofit organizations dedicated to changing both the narrative and the approach. Fighting stigma is high on their agendas—Bergman calls it “the number one thing that we’ve worked on from the beginning.” Another priority is educating people about the virtues of compassion and support for a Loved One, rather than the “tough love” philosophy, that may lead a parent to allow their child to hit rock bottom alone. “I knew that rock bottom for my kids would be death,” Bergman says simply. “I knew it. So I wasn’t willing to go there.”
There’s much more to this discussion, including the very positive role medication-assisted treatment (MAT) can play in recovery, and the misconceptions that, sadly, often still prevent it from being tried. And there’s great information about the nonprofits these remarkable women lead. We highly recommend this interview.