science of us

Finding ‘Post-Traumatic Growth’ After Opioid Addiction Killed My Mom

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

It was a few days before Christmas. The roads were particularly icy that trip, and my mom, who had come to pick me up from college for winter break, was especially volatile. She was late, which frustrated me; I still wonder what that trip would have been like if I had kept my annoyance to myself.

I didn’t, though, and my mom quickly became agitated. “Ashley’s being a little bitch,” she told my aunt on the phone when we stopped for breakfast. We drove in silence for a while after that — until, suddenly, she swerved off the road, nearly spinning into a ditch. She blamed the near-accident on the condition of the tires, assuring me she could safely manage the rest of the trip. But I didn’t believe her. My mom had an autoimmune disease, so I assumed her instability was a side effect of one of her many medications.

For the next 30 miles, I did what I could to talk her through her manic episode while pleading for her to pull over, but my pleas only seemed to make her drive faster and yell louder. When she finally, miraculously stopped at a rest stop off Exit 69, she sped off as soon as I got out of the car. I vowed in that moment that my future children would never feel as unsafe.

My mom died when I was 21, two years after she left me at that rest stop in Wisconsin. In the end, it was her addiction, not her autoimmune disorder, that killed her. I didn’t know until years later she had been addicted to opioids — but what I did know is that she was sick, that she was suffering, and that her sickness had turned her into a different mother than the one I had known as a kid.

It would be nearly half a decade before the opioid epidemic in the U.S. grew into its current form. These days, we have more awareness not only of how dangerous opioid abuse can be, but about how it can traumatize the children of those suffering from and with addiction. And I was traumatized by my mother’s struggle, even if I didn’t have a name for it.

But now, as an adult, I can also say that in some ways, it also changed me for the better. Experts call this phenomenon post-traumatic growth, both the inverse of post-traumatic stress and the productive use of it — and the more I learn about post-traumatic growth, the more I realize that I have my mother to thank for mine.

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In 2015 alone, opioids — both illicit drugs like heroin and physician-prescribed painkillers — killed an estimated 33,000 Americans. Within the next decade, experts predict that the opioid epidemic could kill as many as half a million people.

And there are other victims, too. Children of opioid-dependent individuals, often the closest witnesses to their parents’ addiction, are among the most affected by it. According to the New York Times, after a steady decline for several years, the number of kids in the American foster-care system increased 8 percent between 2012 and 2015; substance abuse is likely to blame for roughly a third of those cases.

“Many of the children who remain in the care of addicted parents are growing up in mayhem,” journalist Jeanne Whalen wrote last year for The Wall Street Journal. “They watch their mothers and fathers overdose and die on the bathroom floor. They live without electricity, food, or heat when their parents can’t pay the bills. They stop going to school, and learn to steal and forage to meet their basic needs.” The early trauma of neglect, violence, and parental death puts children of addicted parents at considerable risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Still, only about 30 percent of those who experience severe trauma actually develop clinical PTSD, according to psychiatrist Eric Weintraub, an addiction specialist at the University of Maryland. “Most people actually tend not to develop PTSD, and that’s because they develop coping skills and masteries of how they see the world and how they tolerate the traumas,” Weintraub says. I found my place among the lucky 70 percent, in large part because my mom, the source of my childhood trauma, had first spent years giving me the skills, and the love, than I needed to cope with it.

My mom wasn’t always the manic, unstable woman I experienced in the car that Christmas. For most of my life, she was a functioning addict: a charming, usually put-together woman beloved by friends and colleagues. More than her sickness, I remember her for her warmth and depth, and I always knew I was loved.

Even the bad memories still bear the marks of this love. One night in my sophomore year in high school, I was woken up at three o’clock in the morning by red flashing lights outside my bedroom window. Assuming the ambulance parked in front was for our elderly neighbor across the street, I came out of my room to find my mom passed out on a stretcher while paramedics rifled through our medicine cabinet. Despite the scene unfolding in front of me, I didn’t realize that her subsequent stay in the hospital was drug-related; my dad later said he thought that even if he told me the truth, I wouldn’t believe him because my mom and I were so close. He was probably right.

And our closeness made all the difference in how I dealt with — how I’m still dealing with — her deterioration. While a parent with a substance use disorder may be physically unable to care for their children, parents who can provide healthy attachment, even in the earliest months and years of a child’s life, can protect them from the negative effects of later stress and trauma. “Just as humans need a physiological immune system to fight off disease and illness, likewise, the relational attachment system provides protection against psychological problems and illness,” psychologists Laura Lander, Janie Howare, and Marilyn Byrne wrote in a 2013 paper in the journal Social Work in Public Health. “Without a healthy attachment system, a child is much more vulnerable to stress and therefore more susceptible to having problems with trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental illness.”

Healthy attachment can also leave a child well-positioned for post-traumatic growth, preparing them to use any traumatic experiences to create meaning later in life. Sarah Edwards, a child psychiatrist at the University of Maryland, says that with the right combination of protective factors, trauma can actually be fruitful. “All of our experiences, good and bad, play a part in shaping who we are. It’s just a matter of how we use them,” she tells me. “Growing up with an addict parent, you were able to learn from that and use that experience to shape what you want and didn’t want as a current parent.” My past has pushed me to make my family’s home feel like a haven of safety, and I tell my kids I love them often enough that they’ll remember even when I inevitably fail them.

It’s important to note that the concept of post-traumatic growth isn’t an implication that trauma or suffering are “good” on any level. And the experience of post-traumatic growth doesn’t exclude suffering — in fact, it depends on it. Mining past trauma for meaning requires developing resilience in the face of pain.

And this gift is not something I take lightly. It’s something I hope to incorporate into my parenting, a value to teach my children — and over time, it’s also helped me develop greater empathy and compassion for my own mother. On the other side of her death, distanced from both the ways she loved me and hurt me, I’ve come to see her for who she was: perfectly human, and loving as long as she was able to be.

When I was in first grade, the same year the movie Twister came out, my family moved to the middle of Tornado Alley in Iowa. Ever hypervigilant, I developed an intense phobia of storms, dreading the inevitable day a giant twister would tear our house out of the ground and bring me with it. “What if there’s a tornado?” I would ask my mom every morning. And each time, she’d hold me close and remind me of the recurring dream she had. In it, the two of us were outside playing during a tornado. As the funnel cloud moved toward us, she’d tell me, she would crouch over me, encircling my body with hers to keep the storm from swallowing me whole.

Finding ‘Post-Traumatic Growth’ After My Mom’s Death