My son 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 are trying to do in Massachusetts through the group Creating Outreach About Addiction Support Together.
As cathartic as doing this play has been for me, more importantly it has raised 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.
“Four Legs to Stand On” was written by Rhode Island native and New York University drama therapy major Ana Bess Moyer Bell, who felt compelled to do so after close friends died from heroin overdoses. It is a 35-minute community service piece about a family coming to grips with the son’s addiction. I play the father who at the end of the play gives an angry, desperate, anguished speech. It is a work of fiction, but the words I say are every angry, desperate, anguished word I said to my son in those terrifyingly dark years we shared.
We’ve performed at addiction facilities, alternative high schools, recovery centers, and churches, getting positive feedback during the 20-minute talkback that follows each production. We’ve heard stories from addicts and others affected by addiction, many of them heartbreaking, confirming the intention of our work: We are all in this together, and together we must fight this disease.
Addiction spares no social class. When the poor of the inner city were dying from overdoses of heroin and other opiates in places like Brockton (24 deaths in 2012-2014, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health), Boston (87), Worcester (42), Revere (23), Lynn (38) Haverhill (24), and Fall River (34), few seemed to notice.
But when it started killing mostly young suburbanites in places like Plymouth and Quincy, (13 and 32 deaths, respectively) -- a total of 1,099 statewide in 2012-2014 -- suddenly many people did, with politicians and police finally taking action to treat addiction as a disease, not a crime.
This play brings it all out, painful and wrenching, heartfelt and hopeful, as we try to destigmatize addiction. Of all the acting work I’ve done over the years, this has been the most important -- and hardest to do. It reminds me of the times my son was in the grip of addiction, having tried and failed 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: its price. He had been hooked on other opiates, Percocet and OxyContin, but that was expensive, and heroin was far 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, and there was that one time when 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 checked into 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 and enjoying it, getting treatment at the VA, 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 “Four Legs to Stand on” addresses as well. Nor is the thought very far from my mind that my son may fall into the abyss again. I hate myself for thinking that thought, struggling to understand and accept why I do.
Black or white, rich or poor, our kids, our mothers, our fathers, our sisters, our brothers, our friends, are dying from the disease of addiction. In doing this play, we hope to start the conversation so necessary to fight it.
For more information, visit www.coaast.com. Also, see www.mass.gov/eohhs/docs/dph/quality/drugcontrol/county-level-pmp/town-by-town-listings-january-2016.pdf.