Daily Archives: 22 October 2016

Addiction Treatment Culture

From Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance (Harper, 2016), pp. 114-117:

On designated weekdays and weekends, we visited our mother at the CAT [Center for Addiction Treatment] house. Between the hills of Kentucky, Mamaw and her guns, and Mom’s outbursts, I thought I had seen it all. but Mom’s newest problem exposed me to the underworld of American addiction. Wednesdays were always dedicated to a group activity—some type of training for the family. All of the addicts and their families sat in a large room with each family assigned to an individual table, engaged in some discussion meant to teach us about addiction and its triggers. In one session, Mom explained that she used drugs to escape the stress of paying bills and to dull the pain of Papaw’s death. In another, Lindsay and I learned that standard sibling conflict made it more difficult for Mom to resist temptation.

These sessions provoked little more than arguments and raw emotion, which I suppose was their purpose. On the nights when we sat in that giant hall with other families—all of whom were either black or Southern-accented whites like us—we heard screaming and fighting, children telling their parents that they hated them, sobbing parents begging forgiveness in one breath and then blaming their families in the next. It was there that I first heard Lindsay tell Mom how she resented having to play the caretaker in the wake of Papaw’s death instead of grieving for him, how she hated watching me grow attached to some boyfriend of Mom’s only to see him walk out on us. Perhaps it was the setting, or perhaps it was the fact that Lindsay was almost eighteen, but as my sister confronted my mother, I began to see my sister as the real adult. And our routine at home only enhanced her stature.

Mom’s rehab proceeded apace, and her condition apparently improved with time. Sundays were designated as unstructured family time. We couldn’t take Mom off-site, but we were able to eat and watch TV and talk as normal. Sundays were usually happy, though Mom did angrily chide us during one visit because our relationship with Mamaw had grown too close. “I’m your mother, not her,” she told us. I realized that Mom had begun to regret the seeds she’d sown with Lindsay and me.

When Mom came home a few months later, she brought a new vocabulary along with her. She regularly recited the Serenity Prayer, a staple of addiction circles in which the faithful ask God for the “serenity to accept the things [they] cannot change.” Drug addiction was a disease, and just as I wouldn’t judge a cancer patient for a tumor, so I shouldn’t judge a narcotics addict for her behavior. At thirteen, I found this patently absurd, and Mom and I often argued over whether her newfound wisdom was scientific truth or an excuse for people whose decisions destroyed a family. Oddly enough, it’s probably both. Research does reveal a genetic disposition to substance abuse, but those who believe their addiction is a disease show less of an inclination to resist it. Mom was telling herself the truth, but the truth was not setting her free.

I didn’t believe any of the slogans or sentiments, but I did believe she was trying. Addiction treatment seemed to give Mom a sense of purpose, and it gave us something to bond over. I read what I could on her “disease” and even made a habit of attending some of her Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which proceeded precisely as you’d expect: a depressing conference room, a dozen or so chairs, and a bunch of strangers sitting in a circle, introducing themselves as “Bob, and I’m an addict.” I thought that if I participated, she might actually get better.

At one meeting, a man walked in a few minutes late, smelling like a garbage can. His matted hair and dirty clothes evidenced a life on the streets, a truth he confirmed as soon as he opened his mouth. “My kids won’t speak to me, no one will,” he told us. “I scrounge together what money I can and spend it on smack. Tonight I couldn’t find any money or any smack, so I came in here because it looked warm.” The organizer asked if he’d be willing to try giving up the drugs for more than one night, and the man answered with admirable candor. “I could say yes, but honestly, probably not. I’ll probably be back at it tomorrow night.”

I never saw that man again. Before he left, someone did ask him where he was from. “Well, I’ve lived her in Hamilton for most of my life. But I was born down in eastern Kentucky, Owsley County.” At the time, I didn’t know enough about Kentucky geography to tell the man that he had been born no more than twenty miles from my grandparents’ childhood home.

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Discovering Hillbilly Identity

From Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance (Harper, 2016), pp. 78-80:

Mom was released from jail on bond and prosecuted for a domestic violence misdemeanor. The case rested entirely on me. Yet during the hearing, when asked if Mom had ever threatened me, I said no. The reason was simple: My grandparents were paying a lot of money for the town’s highest-powered lawyer. They were furious with my mother, but they didn’t want their daughter in jail, either. The lawyer never explicitly encouraged dishonesty, but he did make it clear that what I said would either increase or decrease the odds that Mom spent additional time in prison. “You don’t want your mom to go to jail, do you?” he asked. So I lied, with the express understanding that even though Mom would have her liberty, I could live with my grandparents whenever I wished. Mom would officially retain custody, but from that day forward I lived in her house only when I chose to—and Mamaw told me that if Mom had a problem with the arrangement, she could talk to the barrel of Mamaw’s gun. This was hillbilly justice, and it didn’t fail me.

I remember sitting in that busy courtroom, with half a dozen other families all around, and thinking they looked just like us. The moms and dads and grandparents didn’t wear suits like the lawyers and judge. They wore sweatpants and stretchy pants and T-shirts. Their hair was a bit frizzy. And it was the first time I noticed “TV accents”—the neutral accent that so many news anchors had. The social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courtroom were different from us. The subjected to it were not.

Identity is an odd thing, and I didn’t understand at the time why I felt such a kinship with these strangers. A few months later, during my first trip to California, I began to understand. Uncle Jimmy flew Lindsay and me to his home in Napa, California. Knowing that I’d be visiting him, I told every person I could that I was headed to California in the summer and, what was more, flying for the first time. The main reaction was disbelief that may uncle had enough money to fly two people—neither of whom were his children—out to California. It is a testament to the class consciousness of my youth that my friends’ thoughts drifted first to the cost of the airplane flight.

For my part, I was overjoyed to travel west and visit Uncle Jimmy, a man I idolized on par with my great-uncles, the Blanton men. Despite the early departure, I didn’t sleep a wink on the six-hour flight from Cincinnati to San Francisco. Everything was just too exciting: the way the earth shrank during takeoff, the look of clouds from close up, the scope and size of the sky, and the way the mountains looked from the stratosphere. The flight attendant took notice, and by the time we hit Colorado, I was making regular visits to the cockpit (this was before 9/11), where the pilot gave me brief lessons in flying an airplane and updated me on our progress.

The adventure had just begun. I had traveled out of state before: I had joined my grandparents on road trips to South Carolina and Texas, and I had visited Kentucky regularly. On those trips, I rarely spoke to anyone except family, and I never noticed anything all that different. Napa was like a different country. In California, every day included a new adventure with my teenage cousins and their friends. During one trip we went to the Castro District of San Francisco so that, in the words of my older cousin Rachael, I could learn that gay people weren’t out to molest me. Another day, we visited a winery. On yet a another day, we helped at my cousin Nate’s high school football practice. It was all very exciting. Everyone I met thought I sounded like I was from Kentucky. Of course, I kind of was from Kentucky. And I loved that people thought I had a funny accent. That said, it became clear to me that California really was something else. I’d visited Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, and Lexington. I’d spent a considerable amount of time in South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and even Arkansas. So why was California so different?

The answer, I’d learn, was the same hillbilly highway that brought Mamaw and Papaw from eastern Kentucky to southwest Ohio. Despite the topographical differences and the different regional economies of the South and the industrial Midwest, my travels had been confined largely to places where the people looked and acted like my family. We ate the same foods, watched the same sports, and practiced the same religion. That’s why I felt so much kinship with those people at the courthouse: They were hillbilly transplants in one way or another, just like me.

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