The Empty Chair Campaign Highlights Loss and Sorrow Caused by the Drug War

By Elizabeth Brico 12/21/18

The families of people incarcerated, distanced, or deceased because of the drug war live year-round with the unique suffering of loving someone whose pain you do not have the power to heal. During the holidays, that loss rises to the surface.

Moms United to End the War on Drugs - Empty Chair Campaign Logo
Right at the time he needs treatment and healing, which would have involved introspection, he's behind bars, where in order to survive you have to harden your heart.

Whether you're celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's Day, or something else this winter, the one element that probably shapes your holiday celebrations most is family. For most of us, that's joyous, stressful, lovely, and anxiety-inducing all rolled into one. For those of us whose extended family will be present, we might even dread the holidays a little bit, fearing the awkward antics of Uncle Joey or the grotesque way our cousin brags about her perfect life. But for families affected by the war on drugs, winter holiday festivities don't get to be about celebrating your family or nitpicking your sister's new boyfriend. Instead, they are shaped by grief and loss.

If you read the news at all, or even just scroll Twitter every once in a while, you probably know that drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed. Approximately 175 people die by drug overdose every day. That's 72,000 each year, and the majority of those deaths — almost 50,000 — involve some type of opioid. Alcohol deaths, which are counted separately, account for approximately 88,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. So the impact of death due to substance use is huge, all on its own. But losing a loved one to a drug-related death is not the only way families are affected by drug use and the stigma that surrounds it.

The Impact of the War on Drugs at the Holidays

There are currently 200,000 people locked up in state prisons for drug crimes, and 82,000 convicted of drug crimes in federal detention facilities. These people are fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, uncles, cousins, sons, daughters, and friends. Their loss is felt year-round by those who love them, but families affected by the drug war have an especially difficult time during the holidays. The pain of the season is why, each year since 2012, Moms United to End the War on Drugs runs their Empty Chair Campaign. It starts around Thanksgiving and extends through the December holidays. While families gather to celebrate love, unity, and forgiveness, the empty chair symbolizes those who cannot be present — either through death, incarceration, or the stigma that latches onto people who use drugs or struggle with addiction.

"Part of the goal of the Empty Chair Campaign is to also destigmatize the loss of a loved one through overdose," says Diane Goldstein, a retired police officer who now chairs the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group of criminal justice officials working toward system reform. Goldstein says she was inspired to work on criminal justice reform after watching her own brother struggle with substance use and mental health issues. Eventually, he died of a poly-substance overdose.

"My mother was horribly embarrassed by my brother's death and couldn't talk about it," Goldstein recalls. "I think you see a lot of families who that occurs with, so we are inclusive, not just of the victims of the drug war — which isn't really a war on drugs, it's a war on people — but to family members as well. It's intended to reduce the stigma of the criminalization of drug use, support drug users, and help change the criminal justice system from criminalization to a public health approach."

The Empty Chair Honors an Absent Loved One

The Empty Chair Campaign uses the symbol of the empty chair at the family table to stand in for the missing family member and highlight their absence. To participate, you can change your Facebook avatar to the empty chair logo, or you can post a photo of an empty chair at your table with a photo of your loved one and a label explaining why they're missing: incarceration, accidental overdose, stigma, drug war violence.

Gretchen Bergman, the executive director of Moms United to End the War on Drugs as well as its parent organization A New PATH, spent decades living with the overwhelming fear and anxiety unique to parents of children with drug addictions. That anxiety grew as she watched two sons sink into the world of destructive shame, stigma, and involvement with the criminal justice system which is now inextricably linked with addiction, thanks to the drug war.

"My sons both tended to be leaders," Bergman recalls, "My younger son was always a risk taker. He was the guy who jumped off the roof and dove into the swimming pool...My older son was very thoughtful, more cerebral."

Perhaps it was that cerebral nature which helped Bergman's elder son, Elon, survive the prison system as he cycled through during his active addiction. He spent a combined eight years in prison, and three years on parole — and it all began when he was just 20, with a marijuana charge. Elon first acquired a taste for IV heroin behind bars, says Bergman, an addiction which would rule his 20s.

"Today, because of our change of laws, he wouldn't even be arrested at all," Bergman notes of her son’s initial marijuana arrest — touching on a bitter truth that the lack of drug law uniformity has created across the United States. Whether or not a person becomes caught in the destructive and self-perpetuating criminal justice system depends largely on when and where they were arrested. Marijuana arrests are also disproportionately weighted against people of color, with the American Civil Liberties Union reporting that black people have historically been 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than their white counterparts despite equal rates of use.

Family Celebrations Marred by Grief

For the Bergman family, the war on drugs became a constant, uninvited guest at their holiday celebrations. Year after year, Gretchen Bergman found herself faced with the decision: should she spend the holidays with her son in prison or with the rest of her family? Even when she decided to attend the big family dinner — knowing she'd spend the night nursing her broken heart as she thought of her son cold and alone in his prison cell — she didn't always have her youngest son Aaron with her, either. Though Aaron never got caught up in the cycle of release and re-incarceration that seems to follow people with felony convictions, he used IV drugs for decades. The shame that often accompanies this type of drug use, which is so heavily stigmatized that even other drug users feel superior to people who use needles, led Aaron to stay on the streets and miss family functions.

"We really thought we were going to lose him because his health was compromised, and he seemed so lost, and he became a multi-drug user," Bergman recalls. "But I always believed he was still there."

Today, both of Bergman’s sons are in recovery. Aaron, the younger son, managers a sober living home owned by his older brother Elon.

Julia Negron, who runs the Suncoast Harm Reduction Project in Florida, grew up around drugs. She ended up in the foster care because of her mother's drug use, and eventually battled her own heroin addiction. She has never known a life not touched by drug and alcohol misuse. And, not surprisingly, she has lost a number of friends and family members to drug-related complications, including overdose. But the experience that haunts her most was the total helplessness she felt as the mother of a drug-addicted child being forced through the criminal justice system instead of guided toward drug treatment that could have truly helped him.

"It’s just terrible," she says about the holiday celebrations when her son was absent. "It’s not just that they're not there, you feel they're unjustly being held somewhere. You feel like it’s a hostage situation." She recalls packing her family, including young grandchildren, into the car one Thanksgiving and driving them four hours across the California desert to get to the facility where her son was being held. "By the time we went through security and they had to strip search him and do all their stuff on that end," she says, "they managed to use the entire time allotted to visiting...We never did see him."

Parents and families of people incarcerated, distanced, or deceased because of the drug war live year-round with the unique suffering of loving someone whose pain you do not have the power to heal. During the holidays, that loss rises to the surface, almost as tangible as the missing person. The Empty Chair Campaign does not seek to cure this sorrow, which won't abate until the drug war is finally given the ceasefire we all need. Instead, it hopes to bring it to the surface, in order to raise awareness and honor those very real people who deserve their seat at the family table.

"What kind of kills you is you know the person inside, you know who he is," says Bergman, describing the experience of having a child who is incarcerated for having a substance use disorder. "Right at the time he needs treatment and healing, which would have involved introspection, he's behind bars, where in order to survive you have to harden your heart. You watch him disappear into that shell that he needed to in order to survive in that cold, concrete, violent atmosphere. It's terrible to watch."

Have you lost someone due to the drug war? Let us know in the comments.

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Elizabeth Brico is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. She got her MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University, where she justified spending more time shooting dope than doing homework because William Burroughs once taught there. Now, she writes about trauma, addiction, and recovery on her blog Betty's Battleground. She's also a regular contributor to the PTSD blog on HealthyPlace, and freelances as much as she can for The Fix and Tonic/VICE. Her work has also appeared on VoxStatOzyTalk PovertyRacked, and The Establishment, among others. In her free time she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction. Find her portfolio and ramblings about writing on, or stalk her on Twitter: @elizabethbrico (if you're interesting, she might even stalk you back).