Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century.
“Nobody is more determined or more affected by the disease of addiction than a mother,” ardently declared Leisha Underwood, the Executive Director of The Addict’s Mom (TAM) at a “Fed Up” event in Washington, DC, in September 2016. Seeking to raise awareness about drug addiction and the urgent need for legislative reforms, Underwood continued: “Nobody will ever fight harder to save a child. The societal stigma and misunderstanding experienced by mothers simply trying to save their children can be crippling.”
Underwood’s impassioned speech captured the emotionally fierce reformist spirit and steadfast determination of the more than 150,000 members of the grassroots movement that is TAM. The group practices a unique version of passionate politics in which aggrieved mothers (hence “fed up”) voice their discontent sorrowfully and tearfully. As one paper noted, “The Addict’s Mom may be walking into stiff headwinds, but there’s strength in numbers. And as groups like MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] have taught us, there’s nothing more powerful than a mom on a mission.”
Barbara Theodosiou, the founder of TAM, is illustrative of the groundswell of emotional politics practiced by the burgeoning army of mothers tenaciously and mercilessly opposed to current forms of drug control. Theodosiou took to Facebook to form the online group TAM in 2008 upon learning that two of her children were addicted to drugs. After suffering from severe bouts of depression that psychologically, and, to an extent, physically paralyzed her, Theodosiou channeled her emotional pain toward productive ends.
She created a community where mothers could, as she explained, “share without shame.” The stigma of drug addiction deeply troubled Theodosiou, and she believed that shame impeded progress toward a more enlightened and compassionate approach to treating addicts. “Society views addicts as dirty and ugly,” she asserted in analyzing the social stigmatization of addiction within an idiom of disgust. Such feelings of shame led to isolation and despair, and she sensed that thousands of mothers in her situation also experienced emotional repression detrimental to their personal well-being.
After the drug-related death of her son Daniel in 2015, Theodosiou grew more committed to both enriching the emotional resources provided by TAM and to expanding its political agenda. She envisioned a nationwide support network that could also serve as “a lightning rod for progressive advocacy.” Her son’s death triggered a series of emotions that inspired her to take a more activist approach, demonstrating that grief can be empowering and can engender political and structural change.
Initially mired in despair, Theodosiou despondently claimed that, “There is no peace for me. Ever again. This is a life sentence.” “It shocks me,” she continued, “It crushes me. It steals my soul.” Her deep sense of guilt and sadness morphed into outrage and anger that she re-directed toward reforming a broken system, which she believed had failed her son. The trauma of personal loss sparked a fierce fury that would prove to have far-reaching political ramifications. As she put it, “It was through my own brokenness that The Addict’s Mom was born.”
TAM has proven to be a popular venue for heartbroken mothers—and sometimes fathers—to commiserate and to agitate for sociopolitical change. Members engage one another in topical subgroups that discuss subjects like political advocacy or that address specific emotions as in “The Grieving Moms” forum. The group now has chapters in every state and provides emotional support for its growing membership. According to one mother who lost a child to drug addiction, “Its [TAM] given me a place that I feel at home, a place that I can give back. If I can help one parent ease that pain, then I’ve done something comforting.” “What I’ve found through TAM is that I’m not alone,” another mother said, “There are people just like me, just like my kids. My son is a good person—and so are their kids. They’re just sick.”
As these testimonials suggest, feeling plays a crucial role in the remarkable popularity of TAM. This kind of emotional comfort was exactly what Theodosiou had originally envisioned when forming the community. She sought to facilitate “the transformation of a nightmare into a supportive reality of consolation and solidarity.” TAM’s online forum, however, provides a space for more than the sharing of painful stories about loss. A successful business entrepreneur, Theodosiou has also turned the site into a venue for crowdfunding scholarships that provide addicted children access to scarce and expensive therapeutic resources. Parents can also display group solidarity by purchasing clothing and other items featuring TAM slogans like “Sharing Without Shame” and “Stop the Silence.” Indeed, the group has built a robust drug reformist material culture that includes placards, posters, and addiction literature.
Most importantly, the site provides space for discussing plans to reform the landscape of addiction treatment and recovery. At local chapter meetings across the country, mothers gather for letter-writing and postcard campaigns for healthcare reforms like increased access to Naloxone and Narcan. Many members lobby municipal, state, and federal officials for change. The group also touts its extensive communal work in school outreach programs.
Consequently, TAM has helped secure the passage of a number of state laws that emphasize therapy rather than incarceration for the treatment of addiction. Theodosiou envisions an integrated treatment model that uses federal, state, and community resources to establish comprehensive outreach programs. The state of Washington’s 2016 passage of Ricky’s Law—also known as The Involuntary Treatment Act—was one of TAM’s more notable legislative achievements. Ricky’s Law allows family members to involuntarily commit addicts to institutions where they can receive what are otherwise often prohibitively expensive treatment services. The Barack Obama administration presented Theodosiou, as head of TAM, an honorary award that celebrated “Champions of Change,” an official acknowledgement of the nongovernmental group’s ability to inspire and empower communities across the nation and enact concrete political reform.
In recent years, TAM has extended its influence well beyond the digital confines of the Internet, has raised awareness about drug addiction, and has changed how Americans think and feel about the addict. Each September during National Recovery Month, TAM organizes the “Lights of Hope,” a gathering for members to come together and remember lost loved ones. These mourning ceremonies take place in every state, and parents commemorate and honor their deceased children by lighting candles. The flames symbolically illuminate the landscape of loss and suffering wrought by the opioid epidemic.
“Lights of Hope” also functions as a space for the critique of current drug policies and the advocacy for social and political change. One TAM member calling for more direct action explained that: “There are no breaks, no holidays, and no vacations from this heart wrenching disease that our children are being engulfed with. The legal system is housing our broken children in their jails and they are not equipped to handle them or the disease.” “It’s okay to be in recovery and it’s okay to talk about these things,” another mother exclaimed, voicing one of TAM’s central messages:
One participant captured the emotional significance of the cathartic and emboldening memorial ceremony. “I am so rejuvenated after my event… It is so empowering knowing we took this world by storm and no longer hid under the cloak of shame and guilt because of the addict in our life. I am going to forge on and bust through the walls of silence.” Her expression of joy about this emancipation from the dominant cultural attitudes toward addiction echoed Theodosiou’s mission statement about “Lights of Hope.” The personal melded with the collective in these rituals of mourning, Theodosiou declared, allowed members to “Step out of the shadows of shame and stigma and raise their voices as one.”