pando tree

Drug Addiction Like a Pando Tree

Drug addiction and alcoholism is considered by many to be the family disease. I am a great-grandchild, a grandchild and an adult child of an alcoholic. It’s entirely possible that if I dig deeper I’ll trace my roots of addiction all the way back to the Stone Age. I’ve been sober for a good chunk of time, have seen some stuff and have a relationship with the Divine that whispers to me….”it’s all just a big mystery and a crap-shoot of sorts.” I have no idea why addiction runs through my family like the root system of the Pando tree, it just does.

The Pando tree is also known as “The Trembling Giant” (perfect analogy for addiction). It is a clonal colony (the family disease if you will) of a single male quaking aspen found in Central Utah. Pando’s are driven (an obsession) to be a single living organism by identical genetic markers and assumed to have one massive underground root system (yes, we are all connected).

When my grandfather died, he had a few years of sobriety but that was apropos for his habit. He was a binge drinker and would detox at Saint Johns after a few months of hitting the bottle hard, then he’d get healthy once again, level off and control his obsession. A few months later he’d be back at it full tilt. I think the only reason he had a few years when he passed was because he got so old he forgot to drink.

My father has been sober for 44 years now. He told me last month on his anniversary why he did not get sober in AA. He said, “I went to one meeting and it was brilliant! I didn’t think it could get any better than that!” I love AA, but here’s one of those sweet nothings the Divine whispers to me when I want to defend the program, “Shhhh, it’s not for everyone.”

mourningThose are the partially humorous sides of alcoholism in my family but there are more that are unfortunately, rather tragic. My sweet cousin, Leah who partied with me and my 32 (yes 32) cousins while growing up, died of cirrhosis of the liver at the young age of 38. She was a beautifully flawed soul who couldn’t see the forest through the trees. She never had the chance to learn how we help each other honor our imperfections and hold each other’s hands as we walk from the shadows and into the light.

My cousin Sean was the next to leave us. He was gay and a heroin addict, a lethal combination during any decade but especially so in the early 80’s. He contracted AIDS, but that didn’t stop him from partaking in drugs and alcohol. In fact it fueled his addictive fire for quite a while after being diagnosed. Eventually, he did find recovery and lived his last 8 years sober before he succumbed to his disease. I adored Sean, two years younger than I, sensitive, creative and kind and incredibly uncomfortable in his own skin. Sometimes the world just seems like too much for kids like us.

Sean’s sister Eva Collette departed a few months after Sean. She had been homeless for a while and finally found a place to stay at St. Vincent de Paul’s shelter down on Island Street in San Diego. She was a meth addict. I remember her older brother, my cousin Kevin, sober now almost 30 years, taking me down to see her about nine years ago. We drove around looking for her, asking people if they had seen her. This had become a ritual for Kevin, he was the best big brother and wanted to make sure she was ok so he checked in on her regularly. We parked in a spot where he was sure she frequented and waited in his car. Sure enough, there she was, walking down the street and Kevin called to her. From a distance she looked just the same, long blonde hair blowing in the sea breeze, slight figure, jeans and a t-shirt. She waved, excited and ran to see us. But as she got closer I could see how the meth had taken its toll, she looked like a 70 year-old woman and had no front teeth. My heart broke a little more that day as she sat in the back seat and talked about the old times, as if nothing were any different. I was newly sober and very naïve then. The grandest thing of all was that we zipped over to Sean’s house, picked him up, and went to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Eva Collette took a 30-day chip, I took a 9-month chip, Sean took his cake for 8 years and almost 3 months later he was dead. Eva Collette survived another few months and died from a heart attack brought about by her addiction to meth. Sean was 44 and Eva Collette was 41.

My talented and soft-spoken cousin, Jack, had everything going for him. Looks, education and that certain je ne sais quoi. But he only made it to 46 and by that point he had been clenching his fists for years. We called him the Mayor of Santa Barbara; he was that popular. But underneath he was always so controlled and he had been fighting the demon of depression for many years. He did not have the addiction to alcohol that his brother Derek had (sober now for 6 years) but he had the ism and that’s enough to damage anyone’s soul. He took his own life with a gun. He had a big family, children, a wife, an older brother and a younger sister who were so close, people all around him, but he was always the loneliest guy in the room. Nothing and no one could reach him.

There are more stories of sobriety found and recovery lost in my family, but no one has gone to the other side of the veil since Jack, 5 years ago. Currently, there are even more stories of long-term sobriety. My brother will celebrate 25 years in a few months, my aunt has almost 10 years, my son had 6 years and now he is starting over.

The Pando tree or “Trembling Giant” reproduces via a process called suckering (conning, fooling, tricking or duping). An individual stem can send out lateral roots that, under the right conditions, send up other erect stems, which look just like individual trees; but rather they are clones of the same, single tree (a family of sorts). Drug addiction is like this. It cons and tricks us, popping up everywhere. Is it nature or is it nurture? Is it genetic or is it a crapshoot? Is that important? Does it really matter to me why or is the solution more important? I suppose if we can help save someone’s life and so that future generations might escape the symbolic repetition of “the sins of the father,” (no knowledge of the bible here so no implication intended, just poetic license) then it’s good to identify the root system. Otherwise, a little knowledge might just be a dangerous thing where alcoholism and drug addiction are involved. Who’s to say? Certainly not me.

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