Bye Felicia: Aging and Addicted

July 26, 2017

Illegal drugs and drug use have been a longstanding problem in urban communities. But now we know that the production, sale, and use of illegal drugs aren’t limited to city dwellers and poor people of color because we’ve heard about communities ravaged by the opioid crisis. And most of us have heard stories of exploding meth labs. The consequences of these activities can look quite different across the spectrum.

I was just shy of kindergarten when Nancy Reagan decided to attack the nation’s growing drug problem by arming children with language that would hopefully help them stand in the face of peer pressure and discourage them from trying drugs: “Just say no“. I’d been taught both at home and at school to say no to drugs. I knew that if you tried them, you’d become addicted and either die or live life as an undesirable, an aimless soul bound to a life of poverty and stench, a crackhead.

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Tyrone Biggums, a popular character created by comedian Dave Chappelle. The character creates humor around an otherwise serious and grave subject.
Crackheads were common to us kids. We didn’t associate them with the type of drugs they consumed. Well, maybe crack, but not much more than that. We were too young to know the difference anyway. What we knew was that a crackhead was someone you didn’t want to become. They looked bad, smelled worse and always begged for one of two things: money to support their habits or objects to sell so that they could support their habits. Crackheads were irritating too. They seemed to never sleep and they begged relentlessly. We’d see them in our neighborhood and we even knew some of them by name. They served as examples of what happened when you didn’t say no.

But crackheads could be funny too. Sometimes they said silly things or danced recklessly, their brains ferociously racing, their worn bodies pressing to keep time. Some of them were people we loved. Some of them stole things from our homes to feed their habits. Some of them ruined our holidays. But we didn’t laugh at those things and we didn’t talk about them. We’re all grown ups now and we know that preventing drug addiction requires more than a catch phrase. We also know now that the crack era stole entire childhoods as well as access to upward mobility.

After a while we stopped talking about it so much, and some of us thought the crack era was over. And so were crackheads because we had proof of what drug addiction did to people over time and knew better than to repeat their mistakes. Time had revealed generational devastation and early death as a result of one seemingly petty little habit. We had two eyes to see. No one in their right minds would still use illegal drugs. Would they?

Bye Felicia. Of course they would.

A couple of years ago the phrase “Bye Felicia” caught fire on social media. The phrase is a verbal dismissaland was typed on memes across the country. People of all races and backgrounds began saying it. But not everyone knows it’s origin.
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Friday was released in 1995, a little more than twenty years ago. In the film, Felicia is the sister of Craig’s (the main character) love interest. She is addicted to drugs, unkempt, and in an abusive relationship with the local thug. If Felicia was a real person, today she’d be well into extended middle age. She might have children and depending upon their environment and resources, they might be parents too. Felicia could potentially be a grandmother. And she’s not alone.

Felicia’s character doesn’t have much of a back story. And perhaps that’s because the target audience already knows it. The film was written by rapper Ice Cube, a Generation Xer, one of many to see their communities plagued by the crack epidemic.  So when Ice Cube’s character, Craig, dryly exclaims “Bye Felicia”, there’s something behind it. He understands her condition and he knows (from previous experiences) that giving her money won’t help her. In fact, it could harm her. She needs a different kind of help that no one in the immediate neighborhood can give her. So instead they just shoo her away.

We all know Felicia. And now we know that Felicia doesn’t just live in the black community. She lives in suburbia, she parties in the mountains and lingers around in small towns. You can tell her “bye”, but she’s not showing signs of leaving anytime soon.

Most people who understand what happened during the crack era, know the damage that it caused. But what happened to all of those people who became addicted? Sadly, many of them succumbed to their addictions. Others found a rehabilitation plan that worked for them and they’ve been free to live as healthy and productive individuals. Others have had some hiccups along the road to recovery but still have managed to improve.

The rest? They’re still addicted, and old.

In my work with the aging and disabled populations I’ve come across some shocking situations. At least it still shocks me. There are people addicted to drugs at sixty, seventy and even eighty years old. And many of them have struggled through their addictions for decades, damaging familial relationships along the way. How do you engage a family in caregiving  for someone whose addiction has caused them to be absent and/or abusive for years? Decades even? It’s not uncommon to see families exhausted by their loved one years before caregiving becomes necessary. The whole ordeal can leave family members feeling burnt out and lacking the ability to offer emotional support.

The more that we discuss caregiving for those approaching and living in older age, the more that we need to address those with addictions. Drug use isn’t something that only affects younger people, and it doesn’t always resolve itself.

What can we do for someone who is addicted and aging?

Create An End of Life Plan

No one wants to think about death or planning a funeral, but the reality is that drug abuse places you at a higher risk for an untimely death. And if someone has suffered from addiction for decades, they may not have given much thought to how they will be cared for or who will pay for their funeral. It’s a good idea to ask your loved one questions about their plans, and put one in place for them if they don’t have one. Depending upon their health, they may be not be insurable but you can always research the cost of a basic funeral or cremation in your area, and begin saving to soften the burden later. I’ve seen people be left and unclaimed at the county morgue simply because they didn’t have insurance and their families lacked the funds and resources to cremate them.

Seek Family Counseling

Children and other close relatives of people with addictions are some of the most resilient people you’ll ever meet. They have spent their entire lives developing coping mechanisms that allow them to survive lives smudged with inconsistencies and disappointment. But beneath the surface, these occurrences have negatively impacted their mental and physical health.

Counseling isn’t just useful for the person struggling with addiction. It can be beneficial for the caregiver as well. Sometimes just having a third party to offer support and tools can relieve a great amount of stress. Counseling can also help you to prioritize and organize your life so that you can care for your own needs too.

Supporting Self-Determination

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in both my professional life and my caregiving experience is that people, no matter how frail or ill, want to feel like they have some control over what happens to them. So in whatever way possible, try to emphasize the the things your loved one can do rather than the things they can’t do. Additionally, start accepting that they won’t always make good decisions. Not only should you accept it, but there are times when it may be best to support it. It doesn’t mean that you have to like or agree with them but you have to choose your battles carefully and put your empathy to the test.

An Open Heart

Listen to what your loved one doesn’t say as much as you listen to what they do say. It’s easier said than done, especially if you’re caring for someone who has a strong will or just (let’s be real) has a bad attitude. For older adults there’s an added challenge. Try telling someone in their mid seventies what’s best for them. Ha! For people who are addicted to drugs, there exists a fine line between enabling and supporting. But it gets easier to manage with time.

Set Boundaries

When a person has an addiction, their life revolves around it. They structure all of their decisions around the thing that has the hold on them, and when they can’t do so they may become irritated and even abusive in some cases. When you pair that with aging, it can be difficult to determine which behaviors are a result of the addiction and which are signs of aging. Loving someone doesn’t mean that you should become a doormat or a victim. Say what you need to say, in love. Step away when you need to, and be consistent about communicating what you will tolerate. Try to meet them where they are and set the tone for how you will communicate.

As a society we need to break away from the stereotypes about drug addicts. They aren’t all young, misguided souls, nor are they all poor people of color. They come from all walks of life, and many of them have lived and loved and lost and have many years left ahead of them to recover and improve their health.

We may have said bye to Felicia, but she didn’t disappear. She’s still among us, perhaps graying and with a wrinkle or two.

Take Care,

D. Southern


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