When I was growing up, this metaphor was commonly espoused: “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public.” That is, you shouldn’t reveal things from your private life that people usually don’t want others to know and they don’t want to hear anyway. Things like inappropriate confessions and unpleasant family secrets. Everyone will be embarrassed and people will feel ashamed.
Now we are more likely to hear someone respond with “TMI – Too much information” when someone goes beyond the bounds of information that no one wants to hear – either too creepy or medical or personal. Totally understandable.
But is it airing dirty laundry for us to speak openly about conditions or situations that are of a communal nature? Topics such as physical or sexual abuse, or complicity and criminal behavior by politicians or leaders, or suicide, or addiction? Of course, there are some details about issues that plague us as a community that do not need to be part of the public discussion in certain situations. But that is different than bringing an issue into the light of day so that it can be discussed in order to work towards a solution.
For many people, when there is a discussion of a sensitive nature or disturbing topic, it is not uncommon to hear, “I am a private person” or “I don’t like to share personal things about myself.” So how does this relate to individuals discussing their struggle with addiction? Or us, as parents, sharing about our son and his opioid and heroin addiction?
We felt that while our son was alive, it was his life and story and he should be the one to make the decision on what was public and what was private. But with our close friends and family, because he would interact with them many times in a compromised state, we felt that territory was fair game.
Since his death, we have made his life an open book for the express purpose of helping others feel less stigma and shame about their struggles with addiction. While JL was alive, I wish that we had been more like David and Nic Sheff, the authors of Beautiful Boy and We All Fall Down. As a father and son, they spoke more openly about Nic’s addictions, which I believe played a large role in his surviving so many years – because he had the support of his father and he knew he could share about his relapses without fear.
In a recent conversation with a doctor and scientist who is working to develop new therapeutic drugs to help with opioid addiction, we were thanking him for being part of the solution. He had an interesting response. He felt the work we were doing to reduce stigma would have a more significant impact on the opioid epidemic than the medical response for several reasons: the system is so horribly broken for addressing addiction, the current Gold Standards are terrible, and most significant because advocacy will turn public opinion around that will bring resources to bear.
We were encouraged and will continue to work to help change the dynamics surrounding addiction so that young people will not have to work through recovery but will not even begin to use opioids in the first place.