The Power of Shame

Had the man and woman who overdosed on heroin in East Liverpool, Ohio crashed their SUV into a school bus, it’s doubtful they would have made the national news.

But they didn’t hit the school bus. A police officer took two photos of them, passed out in their vehicle, with a 4-year-old boy in the backseat. The East Liverpool Police Department did something courageous and useful with the pictures: They posted them on Facebook.

Then the condemnation began. Not for drug addicts who endanger the public. Not for drug dealers who push addiction. But for the police.

“Is this about shaming the guardians of this child? Is it about shaming them or shaming the public for not doing more about this epidemic?” NPR’s Audie Cornish asked East Liverpool Police Chief John Lane.

The questions themselves, and the tone of her voice, sounded like she was leveling shame against the police for posting the pictures. Shaming the police has become a safe sport in the media.

Chief Lane told Cornish the photos were not about shaming.
“I think it’s just to make people aware of – this is how bad this drug is,” he said. “What grandmother willingly puts their 4-year-old grandson into a car knowing they’re going to take this drug and possibly OD like they did?”

His answer was too polite.

What’s wrong with shame? Sometimes it’s deserved.

I’ve known drug addicts who turned their shame into the power to change. That’s preferable to those who embrace their addiction as a disease, wearing it as a badge of something they endured through no fault of their own.

Unless someone accidentally ingests a drug or was prescribed a drug that chemically altered their brain cells, he or she made a choice that first time. Why a person chooses to use drugs deserves to be considered and judged. Did the person want to feel good? Or follow along with what other people doing? Was the person curious? In pain? If so, what kind of pain?

Whatever defense you want to make for drugs (even heroin has a legitimate medical use), look at the photo of the little boy in the backseat and the adults unconscious, their mouths hanging open. What about him?

I used to enter the lives of kids like him when I worked as a reporter in San Bernardino, Calif., and later as a court-appointed special advocate for children in protective custody.

Kids live in drug houses. Undoubtedly, their mothers “love” them. Maybe even their fathers do, too. Sometimes love can be worthless.

San Bernardino cops once let me into a drug house soon after arrests had been made, and before there was any cleanup.

First, there was the smell, a gagging odor of decay. The electricity had long been shut off, and the warm refrigerator was teeming with life. Pots and pans coated with decaying crud were strewn on the counter tops and on the floor along with empty cartons and cans.

In a sight I would see in similar homes, on other occasions, was a pyramid-shaped pile of dry dog food, as if someone had taken a 40-pound bag and dumped it on the floor – perhaps figuring they wouldn’t have to remember to feed the family pet. Every corner in the house had a collection of cockroaches, dead and alive. Furniture was in disarray. Clothing scattered on the floor throughout the rooms, the closets empty.

In the midst of all this chaos was a bright, white piece of paper on the living room floor. I picked it up and turned it over to see what it was. It was an award from an elementary school for perfect attendance. A child lived in this home.

A good defense attorney would use something like a perfect attendance record to prove his client’s love and care for her child: She was so committed to her child she made sure he went to school everyday. I’m inclined to think the kid found school much preferable to home.

The attorneys for Rhonda L. Pasek, 50, and James Lee Accord, 47, will likely argue that their clients loved their 4-year-old grandson. Again, so what? They allowed themselves to love drugs even more.

It wouldn’t surprise me if these grandparents were taking care of their grandchild because the boy’s parents had drug problems.

After I left San Bernardino and returned to the Pacific Northwest, I volunteered in Clark County, Washington for a couple of years as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for children in foster care. The 14 children assigned to me all had parents with drug problems.

Washington, like most states, is committed to “family preservation.” Once a child enters state protective care there are first attempts to locate a responsible relative who can take care of the child, while the state wraps the parents in various services to regain custody of their children.

However, the state cannot create families. A male and female have sex (not to be confused with making love), produce a child, then can’t raise the child because their various addictions have made them irresponsible and child-like. There are children in foster care who will grow before their parents do.

Worse, I learned from long-time advocates and foster parents that they were seeing second-generation kids in the system. You can’t preserve a family that never existed.

One of the fathers of four children assigned to me had kids and grandkids in state custody. The wife of his younger children told me how she went from a middle-class upbringing in Salem, Ore., to an addict on welfare.

One day early in her marriage to this guy, who could never keep job, he came home and told her, “Try this.”

It was meth.

Later, when he was in prison for being a felon in possession of a firearm, I interviewed him about his children and wife. Why did he give his wife to meth?

“Lady, I don’t have to answer that.”

What I really wanted to ask him was, “Were you looking for a better blowjob?”

This is the problem with our drug “epidemic” whether it’s street drugs or pharmaceuticals. Whatever problem you’ve got, whatever pain, misery, disappointment, anxiety – here, take this.

One of the best drug educators I dealt with in San Bernardino was a long-time meth addict (“til death do us part”) who gleefully described to me how he injected meth into a new girlfriend for the first time.

“I slammed her, she grabbed her crotch and fell to her knees!”

This fellow was proud of what he’d done. Years earlier, he had shared the same story with his court-ordered psychiatrist, and the doctor was intrigued. This could lead to help for women with trouble having orgasms, the doctor told him.

We make so many excuses for drug use. We’ve turned “dope” into a slang term meaning something good. Anyone who criticizes our reliance on drugs is branded a “prohibitionist.” That’s where the shame is now. It’s very uncool to criticize drugs. Is there anything worse in American culture than being uncool?

Even President Barack Obama has reassured us that drug dealers are not violent, that they are worthy of our compassion.

In Oregon, we now have marijuana capitalists looking to create bigger and better highs. Check out this enthusiastic review in Willamette Week for a strain called Green Crack. (What could possibly be wrong with turning marijuana into something like crack.)

Drugs are ingrained in popular culture. How many of our best jazz musicians have had drug problems? Movie stars? Rock stars? Hip-hop artists? Sports stars? Writers?

How many heroin addicts working on a book last century thought they were going to be the next William S. Burroughs? This century, how many heroin addicts reassure themselves: Cheryl Strayed would have never written “Wild” if she hadn’t been a heroin addict first.

I loved “Wild.” I doubt if Strayed’s creativity, strength and tenacity can be traced to heroin. Kicking heroin and changing her life while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail gave her a story, but a writer of her talent will always find a story.

As for Rhonda L. Pasek and James Lee Accord, it’s unlikely they will be hitting the Pacific Crest Trail.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


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