My Dad Is A Crack User. It Drove Us Apart — Until I Had An Epiphany That Changed Everything.

"His most recent batch of cocaine had likely been spiked with fentanyl .... Fearing for his life, I quickly booked a ticket."
The author at their grandmother’s house with their dad (1996).
The author at their grandmother’s house with their dad (1996).
Courtesy of Eri Solomon

In July of 2019, I took an Amtrak train from my home in Boston to my father’s apartment outside of New York City. I had one intention for this visit: to help my father, who is an active crack cocaine user, prevent a fatal drug overdose. Specifically, I was traveling to New York to provide him Narcan (the opioid overdose reversal medicine) and fentanyl testing strips, as well as to teach him how to use them effectively.

I had been spurred to action after he had shared with me that his most recent batch of cocaine had likely been spiked with fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid fueling our nation’s overdose crisis. Rather than produce its usual, energetic high, the cocaine he had taken caused him to immediately black out. He had woken up hours later on the chilly concrete floor of his basement apartment, unaware of the time that had elapsed. Fearing for his life, I quickly booked a ticket.

That weekend, I distributed several boxes of Narcan and a bagful of testing strips to my father. I showed him, for example, how to break down samples of his crack cocaine with vitamin C to ensure accurate testing. We passed the time by chatting about harm reduction, drug policy and my own burgeoning advocacy work in the addiction and mental health fields. It wasn’t a conventional parent-child visit by any means. However, it was a necessary one to protect his health and safety.

Though I returned home to Boston comforted by the knowledge that I had acted positively to improve my father’s well-being, I would soon come to understand how important this brief visit truly was: Not only did it set the foundation for a fundamental transformation in our relationship, it also began to engender my father’s own advocacy and sense of empowerment as a drug user.

Prior to making this trip, my interactions with my father regarding his substance use were fraught, secretive and argumentative. I had spent most of my adolescence alternating between periods of feeling actively hostile toward him and periods defined by my desperate attempts to “save” him by pleading with him to become abstinent. Though I was acting from a place of sincere worry and deep love, this pattern often drove us into conflict. We yelled at, we fought with and we spoke profoundly hurtful words to each other.

My behavior was fueled by the messages I had received (from my family, from our culture) about my father’s substance use, which were unambiguous: that it was his fault, that it was a reflection of his character or his commitment to me, that he could stop if he wanted to ― if he would only love us enough. Ultimately, I came to believe that his continued substance use and our ability to build a relationship were fundamentally dichotomous. From my perspective, if we were to have a chance at an authentic relationship, he would first need to stop using.

Yet, when I boarded that train to New York City, I made the choice to flip this corrosive script. By choosing to practice harm reduction, I made the decision to prioritize my father’s safety and dignity — and our unconditional love for each other — over his abstinence. I ceased my attempts to force him to change in ways that he might not be ready or able to, making it possible for us to trade bitter, unproductive arguments for open dialogue and non-coercive support. Most important, through my actions that weekend, I communicated meaningfully to him: I love you, I value you, I want to be in a relationship with you precisely as you are right now, and I will no longer judge you.

The author on their grandmother’s lawn with their dad (1997/1998).
The author on their grandmother’s lawn with their dad (1997/1998).
Courtesy of Eri Solomon

The impact on our relationship was transformative. My father immediately began to feel more comfortable sharing his experiences with substance use and addiction with me, which was important for two reasons: On a practical level, this honest communication meant that I had accurate information about what he was using and how it was affecting him, making it possible for me to provide effective harm reduction guidance, but, importantly for our relationship, it also meant that we were no longer operating under the pressures of secrecy, avoidance and lies. As my father was able to trust that his disclosures would be met with curiosity and support instead of strife and critique, there was no longer any reason for him to hide or deny that he was using. Instead, we were able to talk about what was happening directly, act to preserve his safety and prepare to face it in partnership.

However, what has been most meaningful to me has been the effect these relational shifts have had on the time that we spend together. No longer preoccupied with convincing him to become abstinent, I have instead been able to focus on simply enjoying my father’s companionship and personhood. I have been able to appreciate our spirited political bantering, the lively stories from his youth that he retells time and time again, and the tender moments of care, love and pride that are shared between us, such as when he eagerly printed copies of my first published article to share with his friends. In addition, now that I understand addiction as a health concern ― rather than a moralistic one ― my father’s continued substance use is no longer wounding to me. I know that he loves me fiercely and profoundly, and always has; his substance use and addiction never had anything at all to do with that.

More recently, I have observed an additional, deepening change in my father’s behavior ― one that addresses not only how we relate to each other but also how he relates to himself and the communities within which he participates. Historically, my father has harbored deep feelings of shame surrounding his substance use, referring to it as his “bad behavior,” and his life as a series of cumulative mistakes. These sentiments had been perpetually heartbreaking to hear, and I longed to find the means to eliminate his internalized stigma. I wanted him to see what I knew: that he was a deeply compassionate and gentle human being who would offer you the shirt off his back without a second thought and who had filled my childhood with history, learning and adventure. Thankfully, these harmful beliefs are also finally shifting.

Instead, in their place, my father has begun to develop a political and moral voice amid our nation’s drug war and overdose crisis. Throughout our conversations, he speaks up about the harms and needs he has borne witness to as a drug user: the friends he has lost to overdose and mass incarceration, the importance of educating clinicians and policymakers about addiction and harm reduction, and the need to move substance use “out of the shadows” and into open discussion. He has also taken action. He shared with me that he has distributed Narcan and fentanyl testing strips to his drug dealer, who now carries them and offers them to people who use substances on the street. My father has become an empowered advocate, and it is helping to save lives. I could not be more proud and gratified.

If you have a loved one who is presently struggling with an active substance use disorder, I share this story to show that there is a different and healthier approach we can take toward relating to them and their ongoing substance use: one defined by the dignity, compassion and connection we all deserve, a truth no less inclusive of people who use substances. You don’t have to choose harmful ultimatums and “tough love”; instead, you can make the choice to foster a loving, nonjudgmental relationship with your loved one precisely as they are right now. Not only is it possible to support them as they continue using, when faced with the violence of social stigma, criminalization and a toxic drug supply, that is the time they will likely most need your care and presence.

When I boarded that train to New York City back in 2019, I had desperately wanted to save my father’s life. Hopefully, the harm reduction I practiced that weekend has helped actualize that possibility. Yet it has already done much more: Harm reduction has saved and transformed my relationship with my father, making it possible for us to have a meaningful, open and tender connection no matter where he may be with his substance use. For that, I am profoundly and perpetually thankful.

If you would like to learn about harm reduction and how we can create a compassionate, dignified world for all people who use substances, please visit the National Coalition for Harm Reduction’s Principles of Harm Reduction.

Eri Solomon (they/them/theirs) is a harm reduction advocate and service provider residing in Boston. Their professional background is in community organizing, social justice education and human services. They live with their best friend and two feline companions, Bug and Ringo.

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