Memories of My Mother and Her Addiction, in Six Parts

A reflection on the damage opioids can do



Photo: Paul Schutzer/the LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

My mother died as an opioid addict at the age of 53. I don’t know when her addiction really began, but I’ve come to realize that she self-medicated to escape. I have a vague vision of her at one time being the mother I needed her to be, but I’m unsure if it’s a true memory or something I conjured up to ease our history.

The truth is I never knew who my mother was as a person. Our relationship while I was growing up was empty, and she was an empty shell. I don’t remember any fun times or happy moments, but six memories I have of her and her addiction stand out.


She had certain traits I could never forget. She threw up a lot, and when she was finished, she’d take a swig straight from the Pepto-Bismol bottle. I can still hear the way she would sob and the shrill of her yelling at my father to stop beating us, her voice usually coming from her bed because she rarely felt well.

These details represent the core of who my mother was. She had been a victim of child abuse herself, and the severe, untreated depression she experienced shut me and my siblings out of her world. Opioids temporarily fixed things for her while we were left without a mother.

“Get dressed,” she whispered. My father was coming and once he saw what I’d done, there’d be fire and fury. This is the only memory I have of her trying to protect me from him.

She would come out of her room for doctor’s appointments, though. She was always going to the doctor, riddled with health ailments. That was her claim for getting opioids; she swore she was in unbearable pain. Since experiencing my own battle with depression, I now believe she may have been in emotional pain that presented physically. Back then, though, what I remember is how excited I felt when it was time to go to the doctor. It meant that I got to see her outside of her bedroom. I got to have my mom for a time — wearing jeans and smelling like aerosol hairspray.

And when we came home, she would cross the threshold of our front doorway and immediately…