The Hero in Heroin: A Mother and Son’s Journey on Both Sides of the VeilBalboa Press, 286 pp., $35.95
TAI: With me now is Mindy Miralia, author of a new book called The Hero in Heroin: A Mother and Son’s Journey on Both Sides of the Veil. Thanks for talking with us at The American Interest.MM: My pleasure.TAI: I know all authors want to get their books known and read, but you have a special reason for wanting this, right?MM: I do. My story is very personal. It’s about how I lost my only child to heroin addiction, when he was just 31 years old, after more than 15 years of intense struggle and pain. But there are lots of similar stories that never get told because the wounds and the sense of shame lock many people up inside. But I believe more of these stories need to be told, because we have a problem in this country that is much larger than most Americans appreciate. And we’ll never make real progress dealing with this problem until more people understand its scope.AMG. I agree. What you’ve presented in The Hero in Heroin is a compelling personal story. But before we begin to talk about the story you tell, let me provide the reader with a few numbers, which don’t really have a place or belong in the kind of book you’ve written.Between 9.3 and 9.4 percent of all adult Americans (defined as age 12 and up) have a problem with substance addiction—and that doesn’t include those with addictions to gambling, sex, pornography, or other extreme obsessive behaviors. That amounts to about 24 million people just in the United States, and addiction is of course a problem is every society. The data also says that about one in every 17 seniors in American high schools smokes pot at least once a day, sometimes several times a day. One in 17 is not a small number, either, and in some communities the number is considerably higher.But we don’t read much about this in the media, and what we do read is usually sort of sterile. We see arguments and data, but we don’t hear stories about real people that give us a full sense of this dark reality. So I think it’s brave of you to have put your own family tragedy out there and detailed how this insidious problem works.MM: Well thank you, but I feel like I didn’t have a choice. Writing the book, which includes some of my son Micah’s own writings, was one way for me to honor his life and cope with what happened.TAI: The first question that pops into my head is this: Did your son Micah look more like his father or like you, or was he an even mix of the two of you? I’ll tell you why I ask in a moment.MM: I would say that he looked more like me in that he had dark hair like me, brown eyes like me, long eyelashes that girls were crazy about. His father’s hair was dark, but it was a different color of brown, and his eyes were hazel. Micah was tall and thin. His father was more athletic and his body was built out more; he was a rugby player and a tennis player. But, naturally, Micah was combination of both. He had this same dimple on his face, on the same side, that his father did.TAI: The reason I ask is because some recent research suggests some similarities between people who end up with Alzheimer’s disease and a propensity to addictive behavior. As you describe in the book, your husband and Micah’s father died of early onset Alzheimer’s, and you ascribe—fairly persuasively, I think—some of the dysfunctional parental behavior he displayed to the early symptoms of the disease. It’s clear that predispositions to addiction are genetic, and I’ve found the research tentatively connecting Alzheimer’s to addictive personalities interesting.MM: I’ve also thought about just the lineage of alcohol addiction in my family. I actually did a genealogical map of my side of the family and of my husband’s side of the family, and, oddly enough, it showed up in every other person. And of course what used to be a problem with alcohol could shift into a problem with other drugs as social trends change. And then, of that group, of that person’s side, if there was one person who had it, if that person had two children, usually one child had it and one didn’t. And it started that pattern all over again.TAI: In the book you talk about one therapist who emphasized Micah’s “need for his father”, who was emotionally and often physically distant. And certainly that’s important. But not every child who has an emotionally distant or physically distant father turns into an addict.MM: As the book explains, I was so confused and upset, and at times almost desperate, that I didn’t know who or what to believe.TAI: It seems that the genetic predisposition is a necessary part of the problem, but not a sufficient part—something has to launch that predisposition into a feedback loop of bad habits that produces an addiction. So it’s nature and nurture, not one or the other.MM: Absolutely it is part of your genetics. In this particular case, with my son Micah, I want to say that genetics is 100 percent of it, but you’re right: Something has to bring it out. If you recall reading early on in the book, my son’s very first writing, when he was learning to write at age five, was entitled, “If It Weren’t for You, Dad.” So early on, there was something in him that was crying out for his father in a way that was very extraordinary to me when I went back and found some of these writings of his.TAI: In his writings, which are reproduced in the third part of the book, there’s a very poignant short note that Micah, as an adult, wrote to his father after his father had passed away. It’s very moving. In a way, it struck me as a stylized piece of writing of the kind where you want to remember the good things and ignore the rest. Micah characterized the relationship as being closer and more loving than you describe it as it really was.MM: I see that, too. I’m a mom looking at my child and I see through very mom-colored glasses. I see the desire of a child for a father to hold him when he’s not being held, and that turns into a kind of wishing, even a part fantasy, to drive away the reality.TAI: When you look back on it, all the moving around your family did, from Lubbock to Houston to Singapore to Boulder and Dubai and then back to California and North Carolina—how much of a factor, on reflection, do you think all that moving around made Micah the way he was?MM: Well, I’ve actually pondered that many times. For a child, picking up and moving and having to make new friends, having a new school, maybe missing out on a subject because one school didn’t offer it like the other school did, from my perspective I would think that that would be very difficult. I know from my own perspective it was difficult to move around that much, not having the continuity of the work colleagues that my husband did, and so I would say that that’s a factor. Now how big of a factor that is, it’s hard to say, because Micah himself writes about how he was really able to change and adapt.TAI: Yes, I noted that. In my own life I had to move away from friends and the familiar only once, when my mother passed away when I was nine. It was horrible, but in my case it wasn’t just moving; losing my mother was much more horrible than being stuck in a different school. Maybe you get better at it if you have to do it time and time again, but it seems to me that Micah was more upset about his older half-brother being yanked out of your family than he was from moving around.MM: That’s true. He was more focused on people than on places. He did not like to be alone, and he sought strong bonds with family members.TAI: You mentioned at one point—I think you were in North Carolina by then—that a Methodist pastor became a blessing to you and to your son at a time of difficulty. But before that, there’s nothing in the book about going to church or being part of a faith community. When you were living in Boulder or Dubai or earlier, was the family associated with the church back in those days?MM: Actually yes we were—in Dubai, no, because there were no churches back there, not in the Middle East. In Boulder, yes. My son was baptized in Colorado in a Methodist church. In Singapore, we went to an International Baptist church that was nothing like the Southern Baptist church where I grew up. So we did have that connection throughout.TAI: I ask because some people think being part of a tight religious community or a faith community can insulate a person from all these evils. It can certainly help, but it’s hardly a guarantee. But those are the kinds of people least likely to seek help or to tell their stories, because they fear stigmatizing themselves and their communities.MM: That’s right; being part of a church is no guarantee. There’re plenty of churches around here in North Carolina that I have worked with on this problem. They all include families dealing with things like the addictions or other similar issues. It’s everywhere; no one is immune from it.TAI: I want to ask you about co-dependency. Before Micah was 18 and left your house, he was doing various drugs. A parent usually knows that something is going on. You can see a change in behavior. And as you describe it in your book, and as Micah describes it in his own writings, it was quite sudden in his case. The first time he got high on pot, it was like it grabbed his inner soul all at once. So you know something’s happened, you can see a change. But there’s a fear about confronting it, because confronting it is a novel and confusing experience for the parent. The parent doesn’t know if confronting a drug problem in a child is going to drive the kid away, or if it’s going to be the beginning of a solution. So a kind of emotional ambiguity often sets in where, as long as you’re reasonably sure that the substance dependency is relatively moderate, and that very dangerous drugs are not involved, then the child may not be addicted at all. And then, perhaps, the child does become addicted in a clinical sense but is still functional; and by then the parent may be more worried but stymied by the pattern that has been established. When that happens a kind of a co-dependency develops that allows the problem to linger until it either suddenly bursts out of control or, less likely, the addict gets a grip on himself. But if the former, the parent usually wants to smack himself or herself in the forehead and shout: “Why didn’t I do something sooner?” Was that something like your experience?MM: No, not really. My situation was completely different. I would say, yes, I owned co-dependency lock, stock, and barrel, but I never even knew what that term meant until the day I found out that my son had been doing dangerous drugs. Once I uttered the word, I started learning all about it. But before that moment, I would say that my co-dependency came from trying to hold a family together, and much of the time my husband’s behavior was as troubling as my son’s. I believed for a long time that if I could keep the family healthy by getting my husband to be less distant, Micah’s problems would lessen. So, unknowingly and unintentionally, I looked right past Micah’s early stages of addiction. Eventually I failed, and my family’s life as a single unit fell through my hands like water.When I did find out that something was not right with my son, I didn’t know what it was. I wasn’t afraid to confront it, but I just didn’t know what it was I was supposed to confront. It was only when I found out that his problems concerned drugs that I was able to respond appropriately, and at that point I felt no ambiguity about it. We participated in programs at the different hospitals and facilities that dealt with family dynamics, met with numerous counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and the tough love groups. But at the same time that I was doing that, my husband was spinning off with what we later learned to be early onset of Alzheimer’s. So it was as if someone had dropped a bomb on my family all at once, and the people I loved and cherished most just went away from me in an instant.So I did confront these tough issues, and to do that I had to learn about myself. I had to confront myself to understand my role. I had to look at myself in the mirror and say, “Woah girl, you have made some mistakes!” And I had to ask myself what I could do about them. I couldn’t go back and undo any of these things, but I could change going forward. I could shift the way I dealt with my son. I could change how I listened to him, how I worked with him, how I could take care of my own issues. It’s difficult to look at yourself in the mirror and admit that you’ve made mistakes. As a parent, I could see where I messed up, and I could fix things going forward. But I could not undo the past.TAI: I think your son was quite a good poet. There’s a poem in the book called “Costumed Couples”, where he comments about margaritas and drunken adults. Does that poem have any basis in reality, or did that just come right out of his imagination?MM: No, there’s a lot of reality in that, and that poem is his perspective on that reality at a fairly young age. We did entertain a lot, living internationally as we did. The jobs that both my husband and I had as part of our work required us to entertain. So yes, there would be parties. And yes, there would be themes for them. So no, that was not something Micah pulled out of nowhere, and I put that particular writing in the book very much on purpose.TAI: I wonder, when you first saw that poem out of the box of writings you discovered and then carefully went through, I wonder what you thought when you first saw that.MM: I just smiled, because I realized immediately that from a child’s perspective he is right on. I’m happy that you are asking me this question, because I think that it is something in our culture and our society that we don’t always look at or pay attention to as parents. We don’t stop and think about some of the things we’re doing as an adult, what kind of perception the children are getting from that.TAI: Yes, and we vastly underestimate, I think, how much children understand at quite young ages, because we equate understanding with an ability to articulate understanding.Let me ask you now about the clinics and the parent support groups and so forth that you attended, probably several of them over the years in various stages of a fifteen or sixteen year long addiction. When you sit with other parents who have similar problems with their children and you try to support one another and you talk it out with one another, one of the things that I experienced was the range of relationships you see. There’s no stock in trade. It’s not like the parents are all one way when the kid has an addiction with “x” and another way if the addiction is of a different sort, and so on. There are no solid patterns, are there?MM: No. There’re as many different patterns as there are people on the planet.TAI: And of course, when you’re in a mix like that for the first time, you realize that some kids and parents have been in and out of these places for years, dealing with the same pattern you describe insightfully in the book, of detox and then relapse and then detox and then relapse again. So your heart just goes out to these people because they never give up hope, and they’re trying the best they can. But it’s very difficult, and it can drive people completely nuts after a while, can’t it?MM: It can, but my counsel on that would be to let go of what was—if it happened yesterday or last week or last month or whenever it was—let it go and live right here in the present moment. Because that’s the best way I have found to manage the emotional rollercoaster of something that is so traumatic. That goes for the addict too, because they are constantly living with the terror and praying, “Oh God, I don’t want to relapse, I don’t wanna I don’t wanna I don’t wanna”, and all that tension and anxiety builds up in them and it doesn’t help. The road to breaking out of addiction needs to conquer the fear that looking back too much brings.For the family members, who are on the outside of the core drama of addiction, we have to learn to live and deal with reality without waiting for the next shoe to drop. That sort of waiting causes our fight-or-flight hormones to build up, and plunges us into a constant state of high stress. That’s what many parents, or loved ones, of an addict go through. They haven’t yet learned to bring themselves fully into the present moment to help relieve some of that stress. Only when they can do that, when they’re not terrified of thinking about the next relapse, but instead can walk through life in a place of peace can they respond effectively if something does go awry in the future. But if the addict and the family members trying to help the addict can’t get off the fear treadmill, they’re going to be co-dependent in the sense of making a relapse more likely for each one – the addict and the family member(s).TAI: The whole process of trying to tease out recovery from addiction—and I think you get at this in the book several times—poses ripping emotional tradeoffs, doesn’t it? For example there are a lot of clinics, there are a lot of programs, that tell parents as follows: If a child can’t live within the rules of your house, if they’re stealing things to hawk to buy drugs, if they’re lying to you constantly, all these social morbidities that go hand-in-hand, then you’re in your rights to tell them they can’t live there until they straighten themselves out. But then you risk signaling to the child that you don’t love them anymore, and of course you never want to do that. So there are terrible choices people have to go through, and it’s just excruciating.MM: Yes, it’s difficult to be able to set a strong boundary but still be able to let the love through. A boundary must be just porous enough for that love to be there but not so porous that you can’t enforce it as you need to. You can’t be an enabler. But you can’t cut them off completely either. It is very hard for most parents trying to cope, and that leaves us with the parents needing as much support as the addicts.TAI: Right. I’ve witnessed the heartbreak of parents having to tell an addicted child that he or she can’t live in the house.MM: My son actually ran away early on; he would be gone and I wouldn’t know where he was. You’re giving up having a home, and a roof, and food, to go be on the street. Something about this picture does not make sense. And then when he wanted to come back I told him no, you may not just go in and out like this when you choose. Mind you he was under 18, so I told him “no, you can’t come back unless you’re willing to abide by the rules.”And twice I had experiences with him on this count. Once he called the Department of Social Services on me, saying that he had been kicked out. Then another time when I had allowed him to come back and live in the house and pay rent so he could learn how to take care of himself in this world, I tried to get him out of there because he had relapsed, and he called the police on me, accusing me of being in violation of the rental agreement.TAI: As you relate so poignantly in the book, toward the end of his life there was one telephone conversation when he calls you up and says, in effect, “You’ll talk on the phone to my friend Will but you won’t talk to me”, and then you express your love for him and he denies it. This is a little like being at the wrong end of a yo-yo, isn’t it, where you’re the spinning thing flying all around the room, and you don’t control what’s going on at all. It seems to me that loss of control is contagious in addiction dialectics: The addict loses control of his own choices, and as a result the parents and all those who love him—including in Micah’s case a wife—see their control undermined as well.MM: That’s true. But there comes a point where we have to ask, “Do we have to be in control?” Parents and other loved ones can help addicts, of course, but no one but the addict can really control his future, his chances of recovery. At a certain point a parent usually comes to terms with that. Lots of addicts, even heroin addicts, eventually do stop using and come out the end of the tunnel—and a lot of them do it without any clinics or programs. But many don’t. Parents and other loved ones trying to help a person can’t control that outcome.TAI: One more question, please. Drug addicts have a propensity to get into trouble with the police sooner or later. Micah’s run-ins with the cops show up in his own writings, but not really in yours. How come?MM: Well, one of the reasons I don’t talk much about the courts and the cops is because I told him that if he ever got arrested or put in jail, don’t call me. I will not come get you. I did nothing to get you there, and I’ll do nothing to get you out. So his writings are from his experiences, not mine.I believe that there are times when, perhaps even in younger years, when the courts have the kids go to jail or go to juvenile for a bit in the hopes that it raises the floor and will divert them from doing drugs in the future. Now, are the courts built for doing things that are really the business of medical professionals? Probably not. Do the judges realize that every young addict he talks to could perhaps benefit from professional counseling? Some may, but most don’t. Very few judges understand the nature of this problem, and they lack any real training as to how to handle it.There are a lot of repeat offenders that keep coming back before the judges, and it seems to me that we are experiencing what I like to call a supply chain phenomenon. The justice system is a link in the supply chain that starts with genetic predispositions and moves through the family and into the schools and then into the street, so to speak. And that’s where the police officers are and from there it leads to the courts and the medical facilities and hospitals, where some budgets often get cut and others don’t. Think about it: Depending on whether budgets get cut for jails, or for government-run or government-funded rehab facilities, or for the schools, that defines where and how people fall through which cracks of the supply chain of drugs and addiction. What I am saying is that we do not align our institutions in a logical way to deal with this problem.So that’s why we have this huge social issue that most people don’t want to look at and don’t know how to look at. Everyone has a piece of it, just a part of it, whether it’s the police or the schools or the medical establishment. So we end up pushing the problem around without ever really getting a grip on it. We end up taking just little nibbles at the problem.So, for example, here in my own town what was happening is that some of these young people would go out on golf courses to do heroin and out of a group of four or five one would overdose and the others would go off and leave him on the ground to die because they were afraid they would get themselves in trouble if they sought help. So the police officers on the front line of this problem worked to get the law changed. They said to the kids: “From now on, you will not be in trouble if you call us and let us know that someone has overdosed. And they’re down with that.” And that may save lives, which is good, but it doesn’t even begin to address the real problem.TAI: There are some judges who understand that what we’re talking about here is a medical problem rather than a criminal issue. They will direct, as part of the sentencing procedure, someone to an authorized clinic to at least give them a chance of recovering, so that they won’t be repeat offenders. So the medical is not always opposite to the legal these days; sometimes it’s integrated, but it depends on the city or the county or the judge. It’s certainly not systematic yet in the legal system as a whole.MM: I agree.TAI: So what kind of reactions have you gotten so far to the book?MM: Well I’ve heard quite a lot from readers who say that they can’t put it down, One person told me, “I definitely had to put it down at two o’clock in the morning, my eyes were hurting, I couldn’t keep going.” One of the responses I got, which really took me by surprise, was from a French woman here in Charlotte who said there were no addiction issues in her family, and she herself has no children. But she said: “Your book is very helpful to me because it helped me see things about myself through this long, painful divorce process that I’ve been going through.” I didn’t expect that, but on reflection I realize that the way out of emotional trauma can be common in part to different kinds of trauma. So far it’s been well received, but my son’s writings seem to be the ones that most people talk about, because his writings are very powerful.TAI: They are powerful. Even at a young age, some of the poetry is quite good, I think.MM: It is!TAI: Well, thanks again for talking with me. I know the subject isn’t an easy one to return to over and over again. I wish you success with this brave book and, again, I’m so glad you wrote it in a way so that people can see the personal side of the many tragedies that go on all around us. Maybe your book will break through the wall of denial that’s so much a part of the problem.MM: Denial is a huge part of the problem. I just got back from Texas doing a book tour, and I talked to a middle school and I talked to a high school and at the end of the week I did a book signing, and the majority of the people who came to the book signing were kids from those talks that I did. And one young man in particular said to me, “I had no idea what to expect, but I am so glad that you talked about this, and that you are talking about this in public to us and to others.”TAI: Well, I hope you go from strength to strength. Keep at it please. It’s important.MM: Well thank you, Adam, I appreciate it.