Sebastian Johnson

‘Wow. This is really beautiful, son, thanks so much for this.”

I’m sitting in a Takoma Park restaurant watching my father thumb through a small silver photo album from my parents’ wedding. It’s the first time he’s seen the album in 25 years. And this is only the third or fourth time I’ve seen him in the past decade.

My mother, who raised me, passed suddenly in her sleep in 2016 — bringing me into possession of the album. My father was in a Maryland prison when she died. Now he’d been paroled, and here I was learning about a wedding she’d rarely talked about.

Like millions of Americans, I am a child of addiction. Research indicates that an annual average of 8.7 million children 17 or younger live with a parent addicted to drugs or alcohol. Drug deaths rose by 21 percent in 2016, the biggest annual increase ever recorded. Today’s headlines warn of the arrival of a new drug crisis, driven by a flood of opiates and alcohol. For the second year in a row, American life expectancies declined in 2016 because of the surge in the death rate from drug overdoses.

When my parents married in the late 1980s, Washington was on the verge of a coming catastrophe: crack cocaine. Cheap, highly addictive crack flooded the city, fueling drug-related violence and disorder that officials were ill-equipped to handle. Drugs, or the lucrative drug trade, entrapped my parents and many others in my family. I came along in 1988, two months premature and severely underweight — one of hundreds of thousands of children born to mothers battling addiction nationwide, according to a January 1991 General Accounting Office report.

For most of my life, all of this was a mystery to me. I was raised by my mother as an only child in Takoma Park, a leafy Maryland suburb north of the city known for political activism and stately Victorian homes, away from much of the havoc affecting families across the District. The change of scenery helped save my mother’s life; she used the distance from old habits and connections to beat addiction and rededicate herself to her dream of becoming an educator. In this pursuit she had a number of advantages: the first college degree in my family, a supportive network of co-workers and relatives, decent pay, and — crucially — no criminal record.

My father, who is now seven years sober, was sporadically in my life and spent many years in and out of prison for drug-related crimes. One of my earliest memories is of visiting him and an uncle in a halfway house as a toddler. Growing up, I hated talking about him, and my mother didn’t force the issue. Part of my avoidance was due to shame, a common reaction to the conspiracy of silence that our society forms around drug addiction and abuse. But a bigger part was the frustration of not knowing — of being unable to answer the simplest questions about one of the two people I was supposed to know best.

In many ways, it’s easiest not to know, for all of us. It’s simpler to see those struggling with addiction or convicted of crimes as problems to solve or bad actors to punish. It’s simpler not to engage with the humanity behind broken behaviors. We can save face with the outside world if we hide the painful struggles in our families. Alana Levinson, in Pacific Standard, wrote movingly about her family’s “pact of silence” around her father’s drug addiction, in which avoidance ensured harmony. This was how my mother and I dealt with my father’s addiction.

Ignoring these problems, and leaving them to addicts to solve for themselves, can soothe our consciences. It allows us to focus on how individual choices drive individual outcomes, rather than on the reality, which is that blind luck and the vagaries of chance shape the choices available to everyone.

I was lucky to grow up in a supportive community with a loving mother, who stressed the importance of education and was in a position to provide me with a good one. I was lucky to earn degrees from Georgetown and Harvard. Today, I work with organizations seeking to reform our criminal justice system and improve chances for families affected by mass incarceration.

But the desire to transcend origins and “make it out” helps ratify the conspiracy of silence. Transcendence can be a selective amnesia: a way to ignore that which causes pain, or carries the whiff of shame, or connects us to a past we would rather forget. The escape narrative also denies the truth that people who survive do so more because of luck than will.

At this point in my life, having practiced forgetting, I have a deep desire to know. Having made it out, I want to understand what went right so that fewer things can go wrong for others.

Losing my mother was, in many ways, easier than getting my father back. Loss is a part of the natural, if tragic, order of things. There is a rhythm to it, a procedure, stages of grief.

But what to do with a father you never thought you’d have? How to relate to the prodigal parent seeking amends? How to comprehend the face of a stranger and see your own?

I was apprehensive about what it would mean to have my father in my life just as I was getting used to living without my mother. It had been so long since I was a kid; I’m older now than my father was when I was born. And at the outset, our relationship was suspended in amber, both of us fitted awkwardly into roles we’d outgrown.

What’s more, I was mad about past heartbreaks, which we needed to revisit if we wanted a different relationship now. And I was incredibly angry at the hand that I’d been dealt. It seemed unfair. Finding an outlet for my emotions, in friends and loved ones, has been critical to making a relationship with my dad work.

Since his release last May, my father has done very well — to his delight and mine, and largely because of a different chance encounter. A few weeks after coming home, my dad saw a friend from what he called the “bad old days” at the bus stop. The man now helped run a nonprofit reentry and employment program for ex-prisoners. “I know how extremely lucky I got with that,” he told me. His friend helped him find work driving a garbage truck and steered odd jobs (snow removal, cleaning gutters) his way. Just as important, his friend has served as an example and mentor, keeping him on the right path, listening to — and understanding — the frustrations that come with reentering society.

We’ve been able to celebrate milestones, such as my father’s first-ever bank account and car, together. When I asked my dad what his favorite thing about being out was, his answer was simple. “Paying bills,” he said. “Paying rent. Feeling like I can contribute and waking up with money in my pocket. Because when I was using, there was never a time that I went to sleep with any money.” He told me recently over breakfast: “I feel like I have something to prove. I don’t want people to look at me cross-eyed and assume they know everything about me.”

Reconnecting with a loved one is a journey of unexpected turns and slow progress, especially when the loved one has returned from prison or is in treatment for addiction. Given our history, it was difficult at first to trust my father. It was not that I suspected his intentions but rather that I was leery of putting faith in him. Being guarded and anticipating failure was a defense mechanism for me, as much as avoidance had been previously. When my father offered to help me move last summer, I hesitated. Practically, I didn’t want to risk being stranded without a moving truck if he failed to show up. But more than that, I remembered the pain of missed birthdays and graduations, promises made and not kept, and years of swallowed disappointments. I accepted his offer, but I braced for the letdown.

On the day of the move, my father and the truck were delayed by traffic, and I tried to bury my nagging sense of dread in a flurry of boxes. But then he arrived, and it was like a weight was lifted. I was surprised by how much that small gesture meant to me.

Stories like these are common for adults working to rebuild relationships with formerly incarcerated parents. My father and I are still on our journey, and I suspect that we will be for some time. Like most things in life, it’s required patience and a willingness to readjust expectations. For my part, I’ve had to acknowledge or at least consider that this time could be different.

I’ve found others making similar journeys; sometimes those who you would least expect.

On my first birthday, President George H.W. Bush delivered a televised address to the nation. Holding a small bag of crack cocaine, he denounced the scourge “turning our cities into battle zones.” He pledged to wage a war on drugs, beginning with the streets of the nation’s capital. We now know how damaging this approach has been, at home and in countries around the world, according to numerous studies from the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Tough policies have saddled hundreds of thousands with criminal records, exported violence to developing countries in Central Asia and Latin America, and completely failed to prevent the dramatic expansion of illicit drug markets or improve health outcomes for users.

Then, last fall, President Trump gave his own address on the new drug epidemic. He called it a public health emergency, putting him at odds with the drug policy articulated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who promotes the old law-and-order, tough-on-crime routine. But I was struck less by the president’s hypocrisy (no new money was directed to provide treatment to Americans addicted to opioids) than I was by his display of seeming emotion and empathy.

Trump spoke affectingly of his older brother, Fred, and Fred’s long battle with alcoholism — “the saddest part in what I’ve been through,” in the president’s recounting. Fred, he said, was a “great guy, best-looking guy, best personality — much better than mine. But he had a problem. He had a problem with alcohol.”

Listening to the president’s words, I couldn’t help but think of how different my life could have been if Bush had given a similar speech in 1989; if he’d connected the struggle with addiction engulfing poor black and brown communities to a personal tragedy — his own son’s tortured relationship with alcohol, perhaps.

Numerous accounts have documented the difference in the responses to the crack and opioid crises. Opinion-makers and elected officials reacted to crack with alarm, not empathy. A 1990 Rolling Stone article intoned ominously: “Crack leaves nothing to chance. Not only does it make babies only a mother could love, it wipes out that love as well. . . . Drug counselors now look back to the days of heroin families with something verging on nostalgia.” A 1989 Washington Post article headlined “Crack babies: The worst threat is mom herself” implores: “Why aren’t we protecting these children? One major reason is that, paradoxically, we continue to entrust their care to the very parents who are threatening their well-being.” What if I had been taken from my mother at her lowest point, something that happens all too frequently to mothers of color across the country?

Black fathers are in the worst position. In his landmark essay “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” Ta-Nehisi Coates found that “by 2000, more than 1 million black children had a father in jail or prison — and roughly half of those fathers were living in the same household as their kids when they were locked up.”

But the ability of white policymakers and politicians to see themselves or their loved ones in the faces of drug-addicted strangers has, along with rapid declines in crime rates, made a regime of treatment and prevention possible. State and local leaders have pioneered new interventions such as needle exchanges, community response teams that connect addicts to resources instead of shipping them off to jail, and decriminalization of possession for small amounts of illegal narcotics. Too late and too little for the countless families affected by earlier iterations of the drug war, but in time to prevent a similar cascade of mistakes from hurting families of all colors. The challenge now is to ensure that policies of compassion and empathy extend to every one of us.

Last June, on the first anniversary of my mother’s death, I happened to be in New York for work. I was there to attend the launch of the Ford Foundation’s Art for Justice Fund, an effort to bring the resources and creative energy of the art world to the cause of criminal justice reform. Glenn Martin, founder of JustLeadershipUSA, the organization behind the campaign to close New York’s Rikers Island jail, said something onstage that resonated with me particularly. Acknowledging the tendency of some to put him, a formerly incarcerated black man, on a pedestal, Martin pushed back: “I’m not the exception, I’ve just been exposed to exceptional opportunities.”

His words reminded me of my mother — and of myself. When I was younger, before Washington was swept up in glittering condos and coffee bars, when 14th Street was an artery of the city’s drug and sex trade and not its gentrification, I would ride in the car with my mother on her way through Logan Circle, Brightwood Park and other neighborhoods where she was raised. She had a habit, at every red light, of offering dollar bills and spare change to the addicts and homeless people who crowded the medians. And, interaction complete, she would offer a quick prayer: “Thank you, Jesus.”

As a child, I thought this was simple generosity. But now, full of knowing, I see the gesture for what it was: an acknowledgment that her fate could easily have been that of the stranger outside her window. And a deep gratitude to whatever power — metaphysical or otherwise — had secured for her a second chance.

It makes us uncomfortable to consider the role that dumb luck — the series of dice rolls, the whims of strangers — plays for all of us . Those chance developments shape the partners we choose to spend our lives with, the jobs we report to each day, the children we would do anything for. I’ve learned a great deal in the past 18 months about chance and the nature of life.

Improbably, and in a way I would never have expected, I have been given a second chance at a father. At the age of 29, the chance to share a laugh over dinner; to have him there when I moved into my first home; to enjoy Thanksgiving in his company and consider what kind of Christmas gift he might like.

It is yet another exceptional opportunity I’ve been simply lucky to get. But luck is not a model, not a policy, not a solution. Knowing that is the most important way to transform America’s understanding of addiction.

At my wedding last fall, my father pulled me aside during the cocktail reception. “Your mother would have loved this, and I know she’s here right now with us,” he said. We embraced, he told me how proud he was of me, and I returned the compliment. We’d gone from remembering his wedding to carrying out my own; we were lucky. And we walked back into the hall, hearts full of new memories, the celebration just getting started.


How much of this is dumb luck?  How much of it is fate?  Some folks believe in coincidences.  I believe in God-Incidents!  Things tend to happen for a reason, especially the BIG things!

Dr. Raymond Oenbrink
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