On March 10th, our son would have been celebrating his 33rd birthday. That day is now a painful reminder of all the potentials and possibilities that a young person should be experiencing in the 4th decade of their life.
After JL died of a heroin overdose in 2014, I began the dreaded process of sorting through his belongings – which included his computer and phone. Many of the photos on his phone I had never seen and some have now become permanently seared into my visual memory. One is of JL with a Boa wrapped around his shoulders and neck.
Boas are constrictors. Constrictors don’t chase their prey. They are ambush hunters. A boa grabs its prey with its teeth, then quickly coils its body around the prey and squeezes. It doesn’t break the bones – it constricts so tightly that its prey can’t breathe. With each exhale, it tightens its coils until its prey dies slowly from an overwhelmed circulatory system due to blood not getting to the brain. Once dead, the snake swallows its prey whole.
(Translation into most languages at tab to the right.)
A few months ago, John was on a phone call with a physician who was asking his input about a new drug to help with opioid addiction. John shared about our son’s addiction and death and how we hoped that by speaking openly about his life and writing our book and blog we could help in some small way. His response was something I did not expect and will never forget. He said, “Don’t underestimate advocacy because it is the surest way to change things. Science and medicine take a long time and have limited effectiveness.”
An advocate is someone who works by speaking, acting, or writing truthfully on behalf of a person or group in order to promote, protect, and defend their welfare and to seek justice for their rights. To speak out for those who have no voice. But advocacy is not cheerleading. A cheerleader is someone who only supports their team or player – since they are in competition against another team. They are indiscriminate about what their team does or doesn’t do. They don’t necessarily look at the big picture or causes and effects. Their role is to simply cheer on their team or player and boost support from their fans with slogans that may or may not be true.
Serious problems that affect the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and entire societies, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, addictions, and racial prejudice and inequality, are not helped by cheerleading. People in danger and suffering need advocates who have compassion, who are truth-tellers, and who will vigorously and untiringly work for a solution.
When I see a young person on the streets, homeless and struggling, enslaved to a substance that is stealing their life – or anyone living with addiction of any sort – I long to be helpful in a meaningful way and become discouraged at my inability to do so. And if I feel discouraged, how must they feel? What will help bring real, substantive change and hope to these lives and in these circumstances?
As parents of a son with a deadly addiction, we were sometimes cheerleaders when we needed to be advocates. Cheering him on and telling him he could do it without any medical help was not being realistic or being the advocates he needed. I think it is difficult to be an effective advocate for those we love because we are too close to have a clear perspective. Which is why a supportive recovery community – for both the family and the one struggling – is vital. We must try and use whatever resources we have: our voice for those who are not being heard, our writing to bring clarity to public thinking, our physical presence to stand or march with others, and our time, energy, and finances to step in where we can or offer help to find those resources.
There are as many ways to be an advocate as there are needs in this world. I have friends involved in racial justice, in refugee struggles, in stopping sexual exploitation and abuse, homelessness and poverty – the list is endless. The question is: How can each one of us be an advocate for the people and needs we are aware of and that we have a passion for?