‘What we are unable to say’

In Comment, Non-fiction on May 15, 2015 at 1:19 am

Or, Why I wrote about heroin addiction for a month straight


By Alex Ashley

“Do you have my mom?” I remember asking, my voice – in a high-pitched, child’s tone – trumpeting into the telephone’s transmitter.  “Where is she?”

“I don’t understand what you mean,” the 911 operator replied.  “Is everything OK? Is there an emergency?”

In my grandparents’ home, the home I grew up in, there was a telephone in every room.

While the rest of the family talked and laughed in another part of the house, 5-year-old me, sought refuge in the space between my grandparents’ bed and the wall.

There, holed up in a corner of the house where no one would find me, I tried to make sense of my world.

I pulled an old Trimline telephone off the nightstand, and phoned the Anacortes Police Department to ask why they had taken my mother.

At 5, or maybe a bit younger, I didn’t understand that when you go to prison for drugs and theft, the 911 operator has nothing to do with it.  Eventually, out of pure vexation, I slammed the phone down and walked away.

When the police called back a few seconds later, phones rang all over the house.

And when my grandparents figured out what had happened, it sparked an explanation that would set the tone for the next 21 years of my life.

A man called my office last week.  He reads the newspaper everyday.

The second in a four-part series on heroin addiction had just gone live, and he had called me as a concerned citizen to inform me that the series’ subject matter was too dark, too heavy, and would worry members of the community.

“It could affect where people buy real estate,” he said, “and where people send their kids to school.”

“Let’s see if we can put a more positive spin on this,” he said.

It was that conversation that prompted me to write this commentary, a way of “wrapping up” this series on heroin and opioid addiction in a neat little bow.

I’m a relatively private person.  I don’t like to share with people I don’t know.  The thought of publishing this commentary, in fact, has given me a solid two weeks of anxiety just thinking about it.

But then I’m reminded of something Anaïs Nin, a French-Cuban author from the early 1900s, once said: “The role of the writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.”

When I pitched this series in a news meeting a couple months ago, my editor thought it would be cathartic for me, as well as make for some powerful writing.

It took me another month to finally pull the trigger, as it were, and when I finally started writing and running each installment, my editor’s feedback went from words of encouragement and enthusiasm to “are you sure you’re OK with this?” and “we can stop the series at any time.”

Or, after one particularly emotion-driven piece, a note on my approved manuscript that said, in neat, tidy cursive: “Thanks for going there.”

For me it’s personal, though I know that isn’t true of every person in our readership.

The news, and especially when it’s about drugs, is heavy.

It’s deep.

It’s dark.

It’s scary.

But it is also power.

That is why I chose to write about heroin and opioid addiction these past four weeks.

News and information, left pure and unalloyed, can do more than provide an entertaining read over a morning cup of coffee and a bialy bagel.  It can apprise, edify and provoke change among entire communities.  It would be the tallest, skyscraping height of ignorance to pretend something as serious as heroin addiction here, and throughout the nation, is a fallacy just because it is uncomfortable.

I wanted this series to be about more than “the Jack Webb approach (‘just the facts, ma’am’).” I wanted it to be about more than facts and figures; I wanted it to be about real people.

It needed to paint a picture, one brush stroke at a time, that put you in the room as a police officer recounted his near-death drug bust experience as a revolver was shoved up against his chest in the mid 1970s.

Or, as a mother grieved the loss of her kids to the “walking dead” addiction of heroin.

Or, as an addict’s words retrace his steps from addiction to death, through the pages of his personal journals.

Because, although numbers don’t lie, they don’t always tell the truth either.

Later in life, in my early teenage years, my relationship with my mom would change, and on more than one occasion would include knock-down, drag-out fights: screaming, torn clothes, balled fists and subsequent, sober “I’m sorry’s.”

Anything can happen when you’re toe-to-toe with an addict.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s as I wrote in this series: There is a person, a story, behind every statistic – people who aren’t the same as when they’re shooting up or getting high.

They’re much better people.

That’s why the war on drugs is worth fighting.

And if you can’t say it, I will.


[This piece was written as a way of wrapping up a four-part series on heroin addiction that appeared in the Stanwood Camano News]

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