Being the child of drug addicts makes for a life both frightening and weird. There’s no stability, the strangers in house can be anyone, including child sexual predators. And the parents themselves are pretty much checked out even while they’re checked in.
Liz Murray tells her story of growing up this way. Her father was a drug dealer. He was making a lot of money selling prescription painkillers, but was caught. After that, he had no real means of supporting his family. And he was a drug addict himself, mainlining cocaine. During the day, he would roam the streets, looking through others’ garbage and collecting thrown-out objects that he considered useful gifts for his wife and two daughters.
Meanwhile, Murray’s mother had been using drugs since adolescence. She was addicted to cocaine. She was mentally ill—schizophrenic—and it seems that she used drugs as a way of self-medicating. She is truly disabled, incapable of having a job. She receives welfare checks monthly, but with the cost of her and her partner’s (Liz’s dad) drug habits, the money is always gone in a week. Eventually, her habit causes her to contract AIDS.
Murray discusses the love she has for her parents despite their serious failing. They also appear to love her and her sister, who vies with Liz for their parents’ affection and who plays mean tricks on her as a way of getting attention. At any rate, the child Liz often has to take care of her parents, and their roles are reversed. Her sister seems to be above the fray. She is capable of studying and going to school while the world is falling apart around her. Liz can’t manage that attitude.
When Liz’s mom and sister leave the father, Liz stays behind. The apartment is crumbling and filthy. Eventually Liz finds herself part of the ‘system,’ living in a home for girls. She hates it and hits the streets, depending on a few friends and her new boyfriend, Carlos, to keep her safe. But Carlos is a hustler and Liz eventually realizes this. She is tired of asking her friends if she can spend the night and use the shower. She decides to go back to school. At seventeen, she has exactly one high school credit.
Fortunately, Liz has the opportunity to enroll in a school for students whose lives have been rough. She has that second chance and takes full advantage of it. With the help of some excellent teachers, she gets a scholarship from the New York Times and heads for Harvard.
High school housekeeping: I think most teens are really going to like this story. The ones who are fortunate will have the sense of their lucky breaks. (“But for the grace of God, there go I” as we used to say.) For those less fortunate, Murray’s tale offers hope and genuine evidence of a teen being able to turn things around. I did wonder why Murray preferred to live on the street or in cheap hotels (right next to a murder scene in one), rather than stay in the home for girls. She lacked privacy there, but there was food, shelter, and clothing. And, well, it wasn’t a murder scene. I wish Murray had given more information about her choice. But other than that, this is truly inspirational stuff.
Murray’s situation and the outcome made me reflect on the importance of teacher-mentors in teens lives. Here’s a little unasked for advice to teens: many good and excellent teachers care deeply about their students, but they can’t all mentor every student (like 160 per teacher?). They’ll connect deeply with a few. If you don’t connect with a particular teacher, it doesn’t mean that s/he is a bad person. But it does mean you need to reach out to another good teacher for help. Having a mentor can make all the difference in a life, as Murray shows us.