14/10/2011 07:16 BST | Updated 14/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Addiction, Heartbreaks and Nightmares

I know a crack addicted woman who has been through a great deal in her addiction. Many have questioned her as a mother, and the questions are understandable.

Missing engagements to be with her kids, not offering proper financial support - these are serious matters. Without meaning to belittle such concerns, I wish to offer another view. I saw a woman deep into crack addiction, at times so tired, thin, and ill, that she could barely stand. She might - with an act of will I can only attribute to motherhood - suck it up in the middle of a crack run, and somehow manage to stop using and to be with her children when expected (it was a two hour bus ride for her, involving several buses and lots of walking). She might have had little to give them, but what she did give she often needed for food, buss fare, or rent. She might, as a result, lose her home - which in the eyes of many was further evidence of moral failing.

By no means do I wish to absolve anyone of responsibility. Holding someone accountable need not preclude an acknowledgement of the many efforts that demonstrate care, determination and strength of character. She's doing better now, but I did once tell her that I had always admired her Herculean efforts. Love for her children caused her at times to display a pair (as we boys say) that I might not be able to match under similar circumstances. And I remember another crack addicted woman - this one has since died in her addiction - who after receiving a welfare check quickly paid off one drug debt, and used the rest to buy $40 worth of dope and a bike for her boy. Of course it was a pathetic gesture. The kid needed a reliable mom rather than another toy. But at least consider that this woman, also addicted to opiates, would soon not only be hungry (she was already homeless) but also suffering from withdrawal. She really loved her boy, and expressed it with the little she had to give.

At the tender age of eight, the kid was very happy with the bike, hugged his mom and said, "I love you mommy. When can we live together?"

Here is what I once told the woman who is still with us: I can help you end the nightmare, but heartbreak is a part of life. You see, her teenaged son had been diagnosed as terminal. My point was that the kid dying is the heartbreak. The nightmare is being too messed up to be there for him while he's going out. It may not be the struggle one would choose, but to meet it - and to prevail - has got to merit respect. Another aspect of the nightmare is a culture of toughness that refuses to acknowledge any merit she has earned.

I won't get into how tough and brave I consider the folks who put such women down. Instead, I wish to discuss this matter in a way that transcends addiction.

In my teens, I recall a kid who was openly gay at a local high school. Many of my friends went there, so I hung out there sometimes when cutting my own classes. This was not the world we know right now, but the late 1970s. This young lad was not only gay, but a real screamer to boot, and open about it at a time when in many (maybe most) circles it was socially acceptable to brag about having thrown eggs at people in the gay parade on Halloween. I was a rough and tumble kind of kid, a longhaired metal-head who often got into trouble. Though I never picked on that other kid myself, I must confess that I did not discourage the ones who did. You see, I thought I was tough and I thought I had balls, and never once saw the obvious: for this dude, showing up at school each day required a bigger pair than I ever had to display in my youth. You know what they say about youth being wasted on the young? Well, at least I learned eventually.

Often, prejudice prevents us from appreciating struggles that may be just as important, meaningful and challenging, as our own. That gay kid deserved respect, at a time when few were willing to offer it. I think about his heartbreak, when a boyfriend broke up with him. For someone already isolated, the loss must have hurt terribly. The nightmare was how nobody gave a shit. They just made fun of him.

I see drug addicted people all over the street, some of whom I know quite well. The only way to appreciate their humanity is to look closely at what they do. Differences notwithstanding, we are all made of the same stuff - and we all need to belong. Heartbreak is endemic to the human condition; it will probably always haunt us. The kind of callousness that turns it into a nightmare is unnecessary - it really is something we can overcome.