Dispatch from Portland 2023: City of Codependents
On a mother's fatal heroin overdose, and a Portland where "accusers, deniers, and enablers contribute to the city's continued and prolonged death."
Within an hour of posting the most recent, “Dispatch from Portland: A Question of Addiction,” I received an email from someone I will call John. John and I apparently traveled in similar similar circles in mid-2000s Los Angeles, but I know him as a close reader of my work for many years, and an astute and thoughtful commenter. What he wrote to me, about his mother, a heroin addict “aided down the road of permanent midnight by accusers, deniers, and enablers,” had me choking up as I wanted for the F-train. The parallels John draws, between those who enabled his mother and those in Portland who, despite/because of their good intentions, “contribute to the city's continued and prolonged death,” I find astonishing and moving. With John’s permission, I reprint his email in full.
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I've never lived in Portland, but I did think seriously about it after my first five visits to the city. It was a vibrant place that had the right mix of urban, suburban, and rural all within a short distance. The city's Pacific West architecture combined with the mountain views and nearby forests made it a dreamland, not to mention the beautiful and walkable downtown and Powell's books. Powell's alone was a potential reason to move there. Those thoughts died in 2020 and were buried when I visited in 2021 and 2022. The city is dead and decaying and evidence of the emptiness of the radical leftist ideology of the black bloc and those who excuse them, as well as the failure of legalization without also ensuring that treatment programs exist for addicts, are a far cry from liberalism or an open society.
As someone who watched my mother die of heroin addiction as she was aided down the road of permanent midnight by accusers, deniers, and enablers, I see the same three attitudes helping to destroy Portland. In a way, I look at the city itself as a heroin addict, or addict in general, and not merely a place were addicts live. There are those who want to cast blame on the addicts and homeless for the destruction of the city, but they are merely the sufferers demonstrating the ills of their enablers who created policies that embody a "not only won't we stop you from killing yourself, but we won't even provide help if you later ask" attitude.
I understand the argument for legalization and decriminalization, and I am in favor of both of those, but they must also come with a massive expansion of education and treatment. We need to separate decriminalizing drug use from the virtue-ization, fetishization, and celebration of it. Not all users become addicts, because not all people use drugs to self-medicate for a variety of issues, but we need to help those who are and the indifference of the celebratory enabler is a damning one and as I saw those with my mom, I see them too with Portland. So too do we have those who are in pure denial, who say things like "people are more important than property" as people die on the streets and as people's livelihoods are destroyed. One of the advances of Liberalism was that we have a property of ourselves, of our rights, and of our opinions. Madison's essay on the topic is direct and elegant. Thinking of people as inviolable property, wherein one has a monopoly in one's self, is a far more compassionate view than one that watches as others suffer and excuses it away.
The accusers were first in my description for a reason. Those who say "Portland deserves what it gets" and "Portland chose this, so let it reap what it has sown" are just as evil as those who enable and deny the suffering. They too have no solutions, they merely take joy in the suffering of others. This was the attitude my sister had towards my mom, made the more ironic since she has made many of those same choices in the later years.
I tried to help my mom by not judging her mistakes, providing as much of my love as I could, and supporting her when she was in recover and not attacking her when she relapsed. I was in my 20s when she died, forming my own life, so I wasn't able or willing to devote as much time to helping her as I think she deserved. I love and miss her still. I would give almost anything to get ten minutes with her, ten minutes where she could meet the twin grand-daughters she never even got to imagine. I miss her every day and I still get angry when I see people take their parents for granted or who get genuinely angry with their parents over some small (or even "gasp" political) disagreement. My mom was an addict, it took me years after her death to even remember one moment when she was happy, genuinely happy, in her life. I watched all her despair and I would give anything to get one last hug.
I feel that way about Portland too. I still go to the city. I contribute to its businesses. I talk openly about what is wrong, but not to accuse the victims only to get people to see the accusers, deniers, and enablers who contribute to the city's continued and prolonged death. Cities aren't like people. They can be resurrected in this world, but to do so requires an honest encounter and assessment. I don't think we as a society are ready for that. We are too busy blaming ourselves and being co-dependents.
I’m in despair over this, both your tragic photos of a woman apparently exhausted, taking a nap, but really soon dead, as well as “John’s” email. It’s been 40 years since I worked at the detox and chemical dependency treatment center that my dad worked at in the fifties. Minneapolis was an early adoptee of Alcoholics Anonymous and the “disease concept, an approach that didn’t require Christianity, but required full abstinence and sponsors. But I’ve never known how 12 Steps could touch fentanyl or opioids. So when we arrived at people dropping like birds in full view of pedestrians that don’t even scare us or move us to action, we are in serious trouble as a society. Now I accidentally wiped this comment clear off the iPad, but I’ll just hit send before it happens again because I don’t know, don’t have an endpoint. Thanks Nancy. Hang in there. Theo.