The D.A.R.E. teachers said my life wasn’t normal. But for kids with addicted parents, I was.

By Tiffini Simoneaux

May 24, 2018

Tiffini Simoneaux holds a photograph of her father, Donny Gorman, and her as a baby in Carrick, the neighborhood where she grew up. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/PublicSource)

Part of the PublicSource series

The Fix

Stories about the opioid epidemic
in the Pittsburgh region.
About this series.

When I think of my dad, I think of the happy times we shared once he got clean — working on my little house together, walking our dogs in the park, going to Eat’n Park for breakfast.

He was sensitive, funny and kind, and I miss him every day.

But I also think of what it was like as a kid when my dad was using heroin. Driving to street corners in Carrick and Knoxville to buy tiny balloons, touching the cigarette burns in the couch from when he ‘fell asleep’ and missing the living room TV because he had sold it.

From a very young age, I knew my dad used drugs. I mentally prepared myself for the very real possibility that, at any moment, he could die. I would play over in my mind what his funeral would be like and what he would look like in his casket. It sounds morbid now, but I am a planner by nature and it made me feel more at ease to know what would happen once the inevitable call came.

Tiffini Simoneaux with her father, Donny Gorman, in the 1980s. (Courtesy photos)

My parents separated when I was 5, and my brother and I lived with my mom. Living with a single parent in poverty is never easy, but my mom always provided for us. I would see my dad on weekends, often between stints of rehab and jail. I would always investigate him and his apartment during these visits. Was he using? Was I safe? Is this finally the time when he would choose his kids over heroin? When I spent time with him, I tried to keep myself detached, refusing to let myself depend on him being in my life. He would buy me presents and take me to the Page Dairy Mart in the South Side for frozen custard, but I knew that I couldn’t really count on him.

I grew up during the ‘Just Say No’ years with classroom visits from police officers who explained to all of us how worthless addicts were. On D.A.R.E. day [Drug Abuse Resistance Education], I would feel hot shame course through my body as I was again reminded that my life wasn’t considered normal. I felt so alone. Who would I grow up to be? Could someone like me ever be ‘normal?’

My dad finally got clean when I was 15. He went out of state to detox. When he returned to Pittsburgh, he lived at the Salvation Army shelter until he could get his own place. Within a few years, he owned a house, a rental property and had a thriving construction business. He was alive in a way that I hadn’t seen before. He worked constantly and picked up new interests like golfing and riding his new motorcycle around town. It took a long time for me to see him as my dad and not as someone who would float in and out of my life. I resented him deeply and the way he just walked back into my life. But he didn’t give up and eventually the walls I had put up over the years came down.

"When I spent time with him, I tried to keep myself detached, refusing to let myself depend on him being in my life."

When I was 23, my dad started to have serious health issues. He was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a potential complication of the Hepatitis C he had contracted while using drugs. It was difficult watching him deal with a chronic illness. His decline was slow but didn’t stop. It was hard to watch him sell off his motorcycle and tools and then lose his house. Toward the end, he weighed under 100 pounds, used a cane to walk and needed dialysis three times a week.

He passed away nine years ago when I was 27. He was 51 years old. We got about 12 real years together.

When I went to college, I chose to major in education because I felt that, with my experience, I could relate to kids who needed the most help. When I was a kid, I got good grades but I spent so much energy trying to hide my dysfunctional family. When teachers would ask about my dad, I would lie. It was easier to say he moved away than to say that his phone was turned off and no one knew where he was. I never felt comfortable sharing what was really happening in my life.

"From a very young age, I knew my dad used drugs. I mentally prepared myself for the very real possibility that, at any moment, he could die." (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/PublicSource)

School was a place I loved, and I deeply admired my teachers who seemed so perfect with framed photos of their families on their desks. I had a hard time imagining that someone like me could be successful. I try every day to make it easier on the kids who, like me, don’t feel normal or like they had the support to make something of themselves.

Never was the need for this more tangible than when I had a job coordinating an after school and summer camp program. The program served kids from the North Side who are experiencing poverty and considered to be at risk. One of the many components of my job was to pick up kids in the program in a large passenger van. One day while driving down Brighton Road, one of the kids said he was happy because he had gotten a letter from his uncle who was incarcerated. I told him that when I was a kid I also really loved getting letters from my dad when he was in jail. All of the kids in the van were shocked. “Teachers have dads in jail?”

I spent the rest of our trip explaining that yes, lots of people have parents and family members who are incarcerated and that it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. Those were the words I had always wanted (and needed) to hear as a kid.

(Left) Tiffini Simoneaux’s dad, Donny Gorman, in 2001 after he got stopped using heroin. (Right) Tiffini Simoneaux (center) with her mom, Cathy Hutton, and dad, Donny Gorman, who was suffering from Guillain-Barré syndrome at this time in 2007. (Courtesy photos)

Tiffini Simoneaux is the early childhood manager in the Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment in the Office of Mayor William Peduto. She is a native of Carrick and resides in Stanton Heights. She can be reached at or on Twitter @tiffini_gorman.

Edited by Halle Stockton and Mila Sanina.

Web design and development by Natasha Khan.

This project has been made possible with the generous support of the Staunton Farm Foundation.

If you liked this story, please share it on Twitter and Facebook.

More in this series