By Dr. Annie Brewster
Anne grew up with privilege. She was well-educated, and she had resources. She married a Harvard professor. She sent her children to a prestigious private school. On the surface, her life looked neat and pretty, even enviable. But her life had another, hidden side.
For over forty years, Anne has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, and for many of these years, while injecting amphetamines and heroin, her life was controlled by the need to find her next fix.
I knew Anne while growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s. She was my friend’s mom. I remember her as warm and open, striking in her mini-skirts and stylish boots. While she was certainly more Bohemian than my own mother, I had no clue that she was an addict. I never would have guessed at the suffering that was going on in my friend’s home.
Addiction is a disease with enormous financial and human costs: the National Institute of Drug Addiction estimates that substance abuse in the United States costs more than $600 billion annually. Addiction has been linked to increased incidence of cardiovascular disease, stroke, certain cancers, and mental illness. Intravenous drug use accounts for more than one-third of the new cases of HIV, and for the majority of cases of Hepatitis C, which can lead to liver cirrhosis, and in rare cases, liver cancer.
Medical research has only recently started to characterize addiction as a disease of the brain that preys on and alters the limbic system, the brain’s reward center. This has changed various approaches to treatment, and should also temper our judgement of the individuals who suffer from this condition.
Here, Anne, now 67, speaks about her long struggle with addiction. With tremendous courage, she talks about her pain, the pain she caused others, her numerous attempts to get sober and her many relapses. Anne has been sober for seven years now, a huge accomplishment. But her struggle continues because addiction is a chronic, lifelong disease.
(Dr. Annie Brewster is a Boston internist who became interested in storytelling as a way to promote healing among patients. You can hear more of her stories here, here and here, as part of our Listening To Patients series.)