A Foster Child of the Opioid Epidemic

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I sat on a wrought iron daybed facing an open window, and a warm breeze was pooling in. It was the first day in my second foster home. The room was made up to seem welcoming, but its pleasantness somehow felt oppressive. I felt dirty, worthless and consumed by fear.

I was about to start 10th grade for the second time, since I’d failed the year before. Earlier that morning, I said goodbye to my 10-year-old brother, helped him into a car, and watched him ride away to live with another foster family.

“Go ahead and hang up your clothes,” my new foster mother said. Sternness was her way of normalizing an abnormal situation. I was abnormal. I came from abnormal. None of my clothes were really hang-up-able. I felt I had to apologize for my clothes, for my parents, for myself.

Both of my parents had used drugs — opioids — since my childhood. I’m 8: My mother locks my screaming, doped-up father out. I’m crying on the other side of a door as she commands me not to open it. I’m 12: This time I’m banging on a door as my mother locks herself into a public bathroom to get high. Those memories stay sharp. It wasn’t always like this, though. We once lived in a sunny apartment in New Jersey; my mom braided my hair, kissed me a hundred times, comforted me when I was sad or sick.

My father, an accomplished blues guitarist, let me stay up late and watch horror movies with him. He let my creativity blossom.

My father struggled with addiction first — he went to rehab and to prison and, for the most part, exited our lives. My mother’s addiction came later, in my early teens. With limited resources, my parents didn’t have the option to quit their jobs and check themselves into long-term rehab. Addiction poisoned everything.

In eighth grade, I spent Christmas in a 10×10 room in a homeless shelter with my mother, brother and a bunk bed. We were spoiled with donated gifts. I’d gotten a Tamagotchi — a small digital “pet” I could care for. I’d feed it and clean it and watch it grow, and, despite it being childish, having that responsibility brought me a sense of stability. My mother wept as we opened the presents. She gave us a few things, too: She wrapped socks in sparkly ribbons and gave me a lacy green shirt that I wore to shreds.

The next morning, we walked with our mother to a nearby methadone clinic. My brother carried his favorite gift: a small blue train with silver wheels.

Eventually, the state took us away. My mother just couldn’t get better or take care of us properly, they believed.

The couple who became my foster parents for my high school years gave me a good home and access to an incredible school system, but I still would rather have been with my mother. Unlike my foster parents, she understood me on a deep level. There was no way my foster parents could truly know me, I thought. I kept them at a distance; we were just different.

In school, I crafted an image of “happy,” repressing the heaviness that hung on me. My teachers treated me with a softness and patience that I needed, but they also pushed me hard; they wanted me to go to college, to transcend my life.

I purposely didn’t make friends in my new high school. I didn’t want anyone to know where my house was or why I lived with strangers. Some of them found out, I think, and they wrote me off as a freak. I felt invisible, but I didn’t try to fight it.

I wish I’d had relatives to live with or at least communicate with at the time but my grandmother was in Virginia, and she was dying. The stigma of addiction kept other relatives at bay. Years later, only one of them apologized.

I missed the way my mother would blast Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd while cleaning the house. She loved watching design TV shows and making plans for her dream home.

Despite her struggle, she was kind and hopeful and light — and I needed that light. I missed my brother, too. Even though he was younger than me, we were similar; we made the same jokes, we thought in similar ways, and we’d been through the same pain.

Still, I was one of the lucky ones. My parents didn’t die from an overdose and I wasn’t abused or neglected by my foster parents — unlike so many other foster kids. If I was lucky, then what does that mean for the others?

By the time I finished high school, my mother had gotten clean. She’d maintained sobriety, gotten a job and rented a small, lopsided house in the woods of rural New Jersey. It was the most beautiful house I could imagine, despite its old walls and slanted roof and barely working furnace.

The first time she hugged me, I stayed close in her arms, listening to the sounds of birds outside.

I stayed with her briefly before starting college in the following weeks. It was painful saying goodbye yet again, but this time, I knew where she was and I could go back. I had a chance to get beyond all of this, and I wanted to take it.

My mom decorated the house in whites and tans. She bought cheap things but made them look stunning. You could sense her self-care in every chair, every carpet, every curtain.

At night in the summer, she’d make salad with cucumbers from the farmers’ market and we’d watch the fireflies. Then, we’d sit and drink coffee on our deck while a thousand cicadas sang. Coming home to see her was a quiet healing; every time I came back to that house, I was less sad, less lost.

She’s since moved, but that place in the woods remains a powerful symbol of rebirth.

And while it took years for me to speak with my father again, I do now. He’s still a musician, he fishes in a green boat, and he lives a simple life. I can sense their shame and regret; when it comes up, that much is clear, but we don’t talk about it often. They both agreed that I could write about our experience; they say it’s my story and I may tell it.

Addiction is an indiscriminate disease. You want to blame the weakness inside a person. But like a tree, it extends its gnarled branches in many directions: toward the children it hurts, toward the state it burdens and toward the victims it consumes.

There is a space inside me that is still filled with shame, embarrassment, fear, anger, resentment and — as I get older — a need to tell this truth, to get this ugliness out of me.

In the end, though —— and as I grow older — I hold to one thing: compassion. Strangers had an audacious compassion for my mother and father, and my foster parents and schoolteachers had an unwavering compassion for me. I carry that compassion with me each day — it is as vital to me as blood and air, and it colors my entire life.