Amanda's View: Addiction, face-to-face: Part One
By Amanda Knox
It all started when I watched Prescription for Change, a new documentary about the opioid epidemic hosted by Macklemore. Thinking to write a column about it, I sat down in front of my computer with a cup of coffee and a notebook. A few minutes in, I gasped. There was my cousin, Justin! Sitting right next to Macklemore in Recovery Café, a Seattle treatment facility where recovering addicts come together to share stories, solidarity, and support. My cousin Justin, a recovering addict.
When I came home from prison in October 2011, I quickly realized that I had missed out on even more than I imagined (which was a lot), especially in the lives of my sisters and cousins. Deanna had matured from a headstrong high school socialite into a career-driven medical-science nerd. Ashley and Delaney had transformed from little, doodle-drawing, gymnast prodigies into complex young women—bright, ambitious, stricken with anxiety and anger. My cousin Justin…well, he had a problem and no one really talked about it.
In the next few years before Justin submitted himself to rehab, I absorbed the fractured anecdotes delivered to me in hushed tones. They didn’t paint a clear picture of what had happened and what was happening. I felt like I had stepped into a confusing quagmire of hurt feelings and painful memories. Lines drawn in the sand. The unspoken agreement to leave it alone, for everyone’s sake. After all, what could Justin—or any of us—do or say? The situation made us all feel impotent and embarrassed.
“I’m Justin. I’m an addict,” I watched Justin tell the recovery group. “I broke my wrist, and then it caused me to get my first prescription of Vicodin. I’d heard about people getting hooked and I never thought it would happen to me. I was convincing myself it wasn’t a problem. I found out that I was full of shit.”
That was it. A shiver ran through me. I paused, rewound, pressed play again. My heart plummeted into my stomach. In that short clip, I learned more than years of being right next to Justin, as he was going through it. But also, there was so much to unpack in those five simple sentences. What he felt, what he had done, how far he had come…Justin’s whole adult life. And my heart broke at the devastating conclusion, “I was full of shit.”
I came to the sudden and haunting realization that Justin’s struggle with drug addiction has been running parallel to my struggle with wrongful conviction all along. Though the causes and consequences of drug addiction and wrongful conviction are not one and the same, of all people, I should have understood his loneliness, helplessness, and fear. Justin had recognized me, had reached out to me just the week before through a text message that read: Hey Amanda, one of the things I wanted to get your advice on was how you dealt with and fought through so much negativity and people thinking you were lying and guilty. But I didn’t see. I had kept my distance, because I didn’t understand his struggle, or recognize the parallels. The stigma of drug addiction was so ingrained in me that I was keeping my own cousin at a distance. Sure, I hadn’t been around for Justin-at-his-worst. But I also hadn’t been around for Justin at all.
I felt profound sadness and shame. It shouldn’t have taken seeing Justin in a documentary for me to realize that I should just reach out, hear him out, and if he wanted, help him share his story. Hey, Justin, I texted. We should talk.
I have so many questions. What happened? What needs to happen? Where are you now and how is this a part of you? I’m painfully aware that some of my questions are grounded in the misperception that drug addiction was something that Justin did, rather than something that afflicted him. I try to compartmentalize my own bad memories of witnessing drug addiction inside prison—how it seemed to transform people into animals—because prisons are mental health and drug abuse facilities that aren’t equipped for either. My heart hurts.
When we meet, I recognize the signs of how much time has passed since we last really caught up. Justin walks in with his hair in corn rows and wearing a look of exhaustion. I realize that this is going to be heavy, and more than just one conversation. But we start with a hug.
To be continued…