Addiction: The cost of caring

IB Publisher Jody Glynn Patrick blends work and life in this very clear departure from both her column for In Business magazine, and the other bloggers. Awarded national recognition for her previous work as a newspaper columnist, she brings us all back "Closer to Home" with her insights and remembrances. A nice place to be "After Hours." Check back often! Read Full Bio

Actual letter written to a son by his mother: “[Son’s name] Get out! Get out! Take your belongings and leave. If you don’t get out, you can consider this a suicide note. With you in my life, I have no present, no future, just a miserable past. I never realized how very much I could hate you. Just get out! [Signed with her full name].”

The mother who penned this note 30 or more years ago (a message fading with age, carried from place to place with a few other documents tucked in a dirty envelope), this woman may or may not have been a drama queen prone to hysterics; I don’t know and don’t even wonder about her. What I know is that her son was then, and is now, a self-described “street-smart drug and alcohol expert” who has left behind him, in his 50-plus years on this earth (more than a couple of them spent in jail) many women who justifiably might have written the same sentiment to him.

Men with alcohol-use disorders often have a co-occurring diagnosis of narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, impulse disorders, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In this man’s wake, doors not only slammed behind him, but also locked. I know this because I recently asked him, straight out, how his life has impacted others. After a tirade about how he doesn’t care about anyone else, how he is a self-reliant, independent thinker who doesn’t need “baggage” like family, he admitted that other people don’t seem to have much need for him, either. That’s why, he said, he much prefers the company of junkyard dogs to people.

I interviewed The Son as he made his way through Madison, one of many cities he “visits” for shelter in the form of a charitable shelter mattress, a lightly police-patrolled park where he can score what he needs, a bridge overpass to protect him from hailstorms, or a “friend’s couch” (that “friendship” having been forged that very day on barstools conveniently located by any labor pool office, where the unemployable go to find a day’s wage for contracted day labor with little question about former job history).

I was interested in his lifestyle for two reasons: (1) I donate dollars, time, and talent to a charitable nonprofit that reaches out to homeless men like this one, and (2) my politics are tied to my sense of social justice, and lately I’m really second-guessing my lifelong political affiliation and my mandatory tax contributions to “entitlement” programs that don’t address root causes.

“I’m entitled to food stamps and you [society] owe them to me!”

I learned, from this man, that “food stamp” swipe cards (the name and method of payment has changed) are how he supplements his cash outlay for drugs and alcohol. He obtains a free state identification card from the DMV, makes a bar friend who is willing to share a legitimate mailing address (for a percentage), forges a fake lease agreement – forms are easy to score – and then signs up for benefits that he “is entitled to.” When he leaves the state, the credits continue to be added to the card monthly, and money continues to be sent to various pickup addresses until review time, at which time he doesn’t respond and instead hits up whatever state he then lives in for their benefits, courtesy of new “friends.”

This is what “street-smart” means: knowing how to manipulate systems and people. There is a strong secondary trading market in Madison for “discounting” food cards. Alcoholics sell use of the card for a discounted card-to-cash ratio. The traders are area needy families on never-ending waiting lists for affordable housing and child care assistance who often legitimately need additional help to feed their children. According to my single but experienced source, the food benefit is most often pawned to women or immigrant men.

The food assistance program also is the bridge, for men like this, between day labor jobs and disability payments – the latter being, he informed me, the golden egg that promises consistent payments (on average, about $1,056 per month for workers with disabilities) and legitimizes, in his mind, that “dumb asses” like me (his words, not mine) who “toil for The Man every day” “owe him” a future because, hey, “this is the U.S. of A.” A disability check can mean the difference for this man between living on the street, in an abandoned rural building, or in a subsidized apartment – depending on the waiting list for subsidized housing.

He says he knows he must be disabled, because he can’t keep a job. Hasn’t had a steady job for years.

Of course, one reason he can’t keep a regular job is because he can’t buy or maintain a vehicle, having lost his own transportation a long time ago. He told me that $7.15 an hour is the prevailing wage in Madison for day labor, minus taxes. It won’t put a roof over your head (prevailing rates are about $45/day at the low-end hotels in town) and he clears just under $40 for eight hours “on the clock.” That won’t cover the phone cards, and there’s no money for things like laundry. Not when $2.50 could buy a beer and a conversation instead.

About the best he can hope for is to get on the food-stamp roll, trade use of it on the secondary market, and save enough from day labor (which takes willpower, given the inviting bar across the street where it’s easy to drink $40 in a day) to bankroll a cash move (bus ticket) to another locale once he’s marked by local police as a park vagrant, or after his welcome wears thin with his new friends due to the predictable personality change and bar fight after a few slams of whiskey.

He bristles at the question of drug rehab, at the suggestion of a “better future” with more creature comforts. “Hey, my life is working for me,” he huffs. “I’m not chained to Citibank, because that’s who people like you really work for, with your wallet full of credit cards. You never really worked a day in your life; you don’t know what work is! Me and my friends, we work hard when we have to. We don’t owe nobody nothing, we have a good time, and when it’s my time to check out, I’ll go happy. I don’t need family. I don’t need your f***-ing health care so doctors can get richer by sticking tubes up my nose and my @$$. And I don’t need you bleeding-heart types feeling all superior to me because you ‘helped me.’ I never asked you for your f***ing help, so f-off.”

He never asked for anyone’s “help”, that’s true, and imagines “checking out” as a private matter, but it is not. According to the latest figures available (which were released at a summit meeting just last week) in 2011, “poisoning deaths became Dane County’s number one cause of injury-related death, killing more Dane County residents than automobile crashes. Two-thirds of poisoning deaths are due to drug overdoses”. There is a community cost to these deaths, as well as the emotional toll it takes on surviving family and friends. He may die alone, if he so desires, but only he would escape the financial responsibility for his body and the commitment to locating whatever family members he may or may not have left willing to acknowledge him — his admitted family estrangement a parting souvenir of his addiction.

Addiction: Disease, disability, or drain?

Wisconsin has the highest incidence of alcoholism in the United States, so addiction-related arrests and costs aren’t all attributable to vagrant homeless men passing through. We grow our own. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, in the 2010 report (latest report available), “The economic and health costs of substance abuse in Wisconsin are substantial, as are the related costs to the community of arrests and criminal offenses. Focus on these key areas will be useful in guiding the state’s funding decisions regarding which problems to address and which interventions to use.”

As a philosophical and voting Democrat, I feel an obligation to increase entitlement programs as much as possible, and redirect funds from the arts, etc., during recessionary times because, hey, this IS America and until we have equal access to education and child care and basics like affordable housing, we need bridges to basic sustainability. However, as a heavily invested taxpayer, and manager of a small business (like yours) that is hit with extra assessments whenever a government agency over-promises and under-funds its public policy commitments, I have a certain outrage and question about sustaining “golden egg” benefit packages at a level that sustains this addictive behavior – at the expense of laying off adoption workers and cutting other social service programs during these lean years.

I no longer have the quick answers or even the optimistic, futuristic outlook I used to have in my younger days. No. I have more experienced, 20/20 hindsight these days. I thought listening to this man would better cement my affiliations and guiding Christian principles, but separating addictive behaviors and dependencies and mental problems from the addicted is an almost impossible proposition for all parties involved. So I’d like to take a hard line and say, “This is white and this is black and we don’t have time or money for all these shades of gray,” but I am pulled to the middle by the deepest truth of all – that we are all connected, and how we treat the hardest to love amongst us determines not their worth, but ours.

Like I said, I have no answers, only sorrow, because I’m still rattled in the wake of interacting with him, and (like his own mother) I, too, just want him to go away. But the question remains, to where, and to what end?

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