Seeking compassion for those cast aside


An interview and re-telling of Luna’s experience as a Pittsburgh methadone clinic worker. Luna believes heroin addiction to be a generational disease only worsened by incarceration.

By Brittany Hailer

Luna led a class with women in recovery last summer. She brought this trunk to represent the weight of their addiction. The women were asked to bring an object they wanted to "unpack." Luna says the result is "the story of why they started using and the anxiety of life in recovery." (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

VOICES UNLOCKED

Voices Unlocked is a project telling the stories of Pittsburgh-area residents whose life experiences have been shaped by the penal system.

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An interview and re-telling of Luna’s experience as a Pittsburgh methadone clinic worker. Luna believes heroin addiction to be a generational disease only worsened by incarceration.

Luna approaches people with a childlike wonder. She is small, packed with excitement. She flits around a room talking with her hands and giggling. She often speaks in metaphors and asks you questions most people would be afraid to ask. Or she says something that sounds like it was lifted from a fairytale: Are all of us witches? But, beyond all this candor is a quiet knowing.
On her wedding day, she parted from her family and friends, grabbed a shovel and dug a hole on the shore of Lake Erie. She buried an empty plastic dope bag, a letter from another woman’s abusive ex-husband, a journal detailing an eating disorder and other objects once owned by addicted mothers. Luna had asked these women to unburden themselves as a project in a creative writing class for women who are in recovery. Luna was their teacher. She told them: Give me an item you wish to unpack. Something you’ve been carrying for a long time. Something that represents a burden you no longer wish to bear. And on the day Luna decided to start a new life, she carried those objects from Pittsburgh to Lake Erie and put them to rest.

Luna is not her name.

I’ve had to disguise her in order to tell you her story. She works at a methadone clinic in Pittsburgh with a no-press policy.

Text in italics are Luna's words.

Luna created a diorama out of the objects the women brought in to the class. She stores their notes, cards and drawings in there as well. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


Luna loves her job, loves the families who come to the clinic in an attempt to better themselves and she wants to dispel the myth that heroin addiction is always a choice. Many users have been sucked into a generational pattern of addiction. For some, they are punished with stints in the county jail or state penitentiary. The incarceration often disbands families.

We have grandparents who come to the same clinic as their grandchildren. We have families, whole families that will come in together. When you're watching these children and you know that their grandma, and their mom, and their uncle, and all these people are also there, you're like, ‘Oh my god, you're going to be here again. I'm going to see you.’ That is how they saw their parents deal with pain. So when they grew up that's what they know and so that's how they deal with pain.

This generational disease is spreading rapidly. The opioid crisis is at an epidemic level. Rehabilitation is expensive and out of reach for most people affected. It’s jail or prison for them. Their children are often left in the care of a family member who may also be an addict or with strangers in foster care. Luna has watched this happen over the years. Luna’s message is simple, but not everyone will understand. She wants to see the penal system become a last resort, and she’s asking for compassion for the addicted, troubled —and yes, very flawed — people she sees every day. Especially the parents.

I think incarceration is the worst possible thing you can do for a parent who is a heroin addict. You are literally just taking a person who is struggling and is in pain and putting them in a really threatening, unsafe, uncomfortable environment, which is only going to make everything worse. People need to be rehabilitated. People need comfort.
You know that's not putting them back into society and turning them into amazing parents or making them feel better about the trauma that they went through as children. It's basically punishing them for suffering. People use because they hurt or because they weren't given the proper skills to live otherwise. So you're punishing them for that.

A close-up of the office within the suitcase's diorama. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


There was a particular family that Luna fell in love with at the methadone clinic. She’s known them for about two years.

After both parents were arrested, she watched their daughter turn into an easily triggered and broken child. The aftermath of their incarceration left Luna shaken; she considered leaving the methadone clinic altogether. She didn’t run, though. Instead, she decided to tell her story to me, so that I can tell it to you.

I love this family. The mom was the sweetest person. She was an amazing mom. She loved her children.

To protect the identities of the family members, we’ve given them pseudonyms. Michelle is married to Luke. Michelle and Luke bring their daughter, Maggie, to the clinic every day. Luke’s mother comes, too; her name is Rose.

Maggie, 3, doesn’t know her parents and grandmother are dosing when they are at the clinic. She loves coming to the clinic, loves the art on the walls, loves the kind adults: counselors, social workers, doctors and patients. She gets to play with other kids whose parents are also here for their medicine.

Maggie’s father is a drug dealer.

Truthfully, Luna is suspicious of him at first. She overhears him on the phone making deals while at the clinic. Luna goes to her supervisors and reports Luke in order to stop him from openly selling heroin while at the clinic. But one day, his mother, Rose, tells Luna a story: When Luke was little, perhaps the same age as his daughter Maggie, Rose would take him to the very same methadone clinic. Rose was arrested on drug charges during that time, and Luke ended up in custody of his father and stepmother.

For three days, Luke was locked in a closet by his stepmother while Rose was in jail.

And [Rose] said, ‘You know a lot of people think my son is an asshole, but they also don't know what happened.’ After I heard that story, I kind of looked at him with different eyes because that really affects you as a human.

Luna displays beads that were given to her by a woman in her class. The woman wore skeleton beads all the way up her arms to cover her track marks. Each class, she would give Luna several bracelets. “We both understood this to be a sign of strength. She was no longer trying to cover the truth up.” (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


A closeup of the office within the suitcase's diorama. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

When Rose got out of jail, she attacked Luke’s stepmother, putting her in the hospital. Luna believes that this display of violence and the trauma of abuse has shaped Luke permanently. And that kind of makes sense of where he's at now.
He started selling drugs to support his family. That's what he grew up with. That's what he knew.
Also, he was an amazing dad. His kids adored him. We’re given all the signs of abuse or that something is going wrong with the family. And they were like ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ He did everything for his kids. He was also very respectful to me.

Michelle and Luke were both arrested when Luke “jumped” someone during a drug-related altercation. Michelle was put into custody because she was present for the ordeal.

According to Luna, it is rumored Maggie was also in the car when her parents were taken away in handcuffs.

Afterward, Luna finds out the couple often had Maggie with them during drug deals. They’d put drugs in her diaper.

So they would bring the child with them because no one would suspect. Which was heartbreaking.

Rose gained custody of Maggie; she continued to bring her to the methadone clinic. Before her family was taken away from her, Maggie was gregarious and silly. She’d run into the clinic and greet Luna with great big hugs. But after her parents were arrested, Maggie changed.

She became a different child... You couldn't turn. You couldn't move. She just started bawling at the drop of a hat. I went to get something and she screamed. It was one of the saddest experiences that I've ever felt.
You are hurting that child by putting [her parents] somewhere else. It wasn't the child's fault. At all. And she needs her mom and dad. Anything that happens to you as a child, or as a human being in general, is going to sit with you the rest of your life whether it's positive or negative. You don't forget trauma. You don't.

Luna tells me this story in a room full of children’s paintings, poems scratched onto scrap paper, drawings of needles and crucifixes. Some of this art given to her by people who have no voice, who are in a jail cell and away from their children. The rest of it is from the children themselves.

Luna tells me: To be a voice for the voiceless, you’re supposed to pass the mic. But, many of the people she helps have overdosed or remain behind bars. Many are children who do not, could not, understand the scale of their situation.

This wallet made out of duct tape was given to Luna by a 9-year-old girl who was the daughter of a patient receiving treatment at the methadone clinic. "She’d always see me digging through my purse trying to find something, so she made me the wallet to keep me organized. She made a similar one for her mom. It amazed me how invested she was in taking care of adults.” (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


One reason I was really passionate about wanting to have this conversation with you is that by being so private about everything that goes on, I think we're not not sharing the truth. People won't know the truth and will only know what they can make up. And it's just so sad. And that's why I think even my family members, you know they're like, ‘Why are you doing this work?’ You get questioned a lot. Like why are you there? Why are you there? Why does it matter to you?
And it matters because they are there.

Luna wishes marginalized groups like addicts and those incarcerated weren’t hidden away from the general population. She wants to see community centers and clinics in nicer neighborhoods. She thinks that when we treat these individuals like pariahs, we are not helping them to get better.

While working at the clinic, Luna has come to understand that a mistake can define the rest of your life.

I think, in some respects, everyone has that. Every day, physically and mentally, [it] disrupts who they are as a human being, and it's very noticeable, and I don't think that's fair to just cast them aside for that.

Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of the Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Word Riot, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at BrittanyHailer.com.

PublicSource is collaborating with 90.5 WESA to produce audio stories for Voices Unlocked. Follow along! A new story will run biweekly for five months.