Content warning: This article contains descriptions of substance use disorder and violence.
I remember staring at the ceiling of some waiting room of some hospital that I can’t remember the name of. I had spent the previous night riding with my uncle down from Cleveland, Ohio to Johnson City, Tennessee. I generally don’t see my father’s side of the family often, but I had to make the trip for this occasion. After waiting for what seemed like forever, a doctor finally called us in to visit him. While walking down the hallway to his hospital room, the doctor pulled me aside and said, “He’s in really bad shape. We don’t think he’s going to make it much longer. I just want you to be prepared for the worst. I am so sorry, son.”
I felt strangely emotionless and numb and just nodded. I stepped into the room and saw him lying there attached to all kinds of cords and machines with a tube stuffed down his throat. I stepped to his bedside and just watched him as he slept. The stab wounds down the side of his neck and all over his chest were carefully stitched. His breathing was incredibly taxed, and it seemed he was struggling a lot. The doctor tried to wake him up to see and to know that I was there, but it didn’t work. I could hear my uncle choking back tears behind me as I quietly stared at the man who brought me into this world dying in front of me.
To this day I feel guilty for my lack of emotion in that moment, but when I think about it I remember that he was never there for me when I was growing up, and I didn’t really even know the man I was looking at in that hospital. Further, the few times that I was able to talk to him on the phone, he would promise to come back and be in my life in Ohio. I would get so excited and hopeful about those promises, but he never followed through, and I would get incredibly disappointed. These moments made me feel like he didn’t want me in his life and that I was unlovable, but it wasn’t until I grew older that I understood that his situation was much more complicated than I realized.
Unfortunately, my father was a victim of the system of drugs and drug dealers that control many impoverished communities all over our country. He got hooked on opiates and heroin, and his life fully revolved around fulfilling that addiction. He did anything it took to get those drugs, and he found himself hanging around very dangerous people out on streets with nowhere to go. The only time he would not have these drugs in his system over the last twenty years was if the police threw him in jail for making a scene in public, getting in fights or stealing from people. From what I have heard from the rest of my family in that area, he had quite the reputation. It was a drug dealer that stabbed him thirteen times and got him sent to the hospital in critical condition. I feel no anger nor embarrassment toward him because I have come to understand his struggle.
He was caught up in a system that destroys so many people who are trapped in poverty because of the realities of living in poverty. Desperation, starvation and pain make people in impoverished communities much more vulnerable to getting involved with drugs because they feel like they have no other choice. Some get involved in drug dealing because of the money that can come from drugs, some do it to cope with the generational cycles of trauma they face and others are forced to do it because they are exposed to the drugs so early on that they don’t know any other way.
Although my father and I grew up in communities that were hundreds of miles away from each other, there were many similarities between his and my neighborhoods. When I was young, there were multiple occasions where I would be playing on the small playground in my trailer park and older kids would ask me if I wanted to smoke or try the drugs they had with them, and I am very lucky not to have been pressured into making a mistake that would have destroyed my life as it did my father’s. Others in my community were not so lucky. One of the worst drug-related incidents in my trailer park growing up was when a multiple-weeks-old dead body was found sitting in the car left behind by whoever was doing drugs with that unfortunate soul. They left that person to die after an overdose instead of helping them because they were afraid of the consequences. Further, my brother was forced to walk home past a man that was shot and killed on the street over a disagreement they were having. So many people are forced to face these kinds of realities in impoverished communities because of the incredibly strong grip drug use has on us, and these patterns are exacerbated and continued because of the many who profit off of victimizing the vulnerable.
By some miracle, my father survived that assault when there was every expectation that he would die. Instead of finding a new way after his unlikely survival, he returned to the same streets and circles that had almost killed him immediately after being released from the hospital. If this doesn’t show how horribly powerful drug addiction is, I don’t know what can. I wanted to share my experiences with the Bowdoin community for those who may not realize that many FGLI students may be coming to Bowdoin after growing up in communities with these kinds of problems, issues and traumas. I think, as an institution that strives to commit itself to the “common good,” we should do our best to realize these realities and how they have motivated many of our students to work hard to get to a place like Bowdoin to escape these problems and issues that exist in their communities and to try and find ways to help themselves and their communities.