A Granddaughter's Tribute

June 6, 2018 | Addiction Policy Forum

Jessica Hulsey Nickel with grandmother Alzoha Breaux

I love superheroes. Captain America. Superman. Wonder Woman. The bravery and strength--not the costumes--call to me. They always have.

And I think I’ve figured out why. My gram, known as Zoe, was my original superhero. You see, my early childhood was not exactly idyllic. My parents struggled with heroin use disorders and it was not an easy life -- instability, neglect, hunger, homelessness, foster care.

Until Gram.

When I was 8 and my sister was 6, my grandma and grandpa pulled us out of foster care and we went to live with them full-time. At 43 years old, gram took in two little girls and changed their lives.

She was a safe haven, pure and simple. We had a bedroom with two twin beds, my sister within arm’s reach and safe. There were brand new bedspreads--blue striped fabric that felt like a sea of tiny, knotted polyester bubbles. I’d run my hands over those blue bubbles that covered my bed and I’d think “mine.” We had enough to eat, and not just in one refrigerator, but there was an another refrigerator in the garage--bulging with food.  

And it wasn’t just the staples; it was the woman. My grandma fought for us. Fought for our safety. She was fierce and strong, my anchor in the strange world of instability we had emerged from. And when I say fierce, I am not exaggerating. She was formidable,but the steel of her spine was the perfect superpower I needed -- the strength to still the storm. A hero.

She watched every cross-country meet, every school event, every step. She planned beach trips and summer camps, took us to church --she beat out a path of normalcy by force.

And my grandma has a lot to do with me finding my calling – helping the families and people most impacted by addiction. In desperate moments of heartbreak and sadness; in holding abandonment and neglect in my hands, trying to reconcile it; in comparing how my parents behaved, how invisible I was to them in the midst of their addictions, to all of the parents around me doting on their kids—kids who are clearly seen and loved—it was my grandma that helped me put that despair in order. “Jessica Marie,” she’d say, “hate the drugs, not the people. This isn’t your mom doing this, it’s her disease.”

And mine isn’t a rare story -- our country is in the midst of debilitating epidemic to which we lose 174 people every day to drug overdose. 174. That’s like a plane crashing every single day. What is not often discussed is the impact of addiction on the entire family and children in particular.

One in eight children in the United States – nine million children–  are impacted by parental substance use disorder. And so many more are in kinship care or the child welfare system due to parental substance use disorder. There are thousands of grandmas like mine, straddling the worry or heartache from their own child’s addiction and trying to care for their grandkids.

My grandma, Alzoha Breaux, passed away last week at 81 years old. Still sassy. Still the fierce one to me.  I’m proud to be her granddaughter and grateful for the brave, superhero part she played in my life. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.

So in her memory, we have established a memorial fund called “For Zoe,” to support programs and resources for the children impacted by this disease, the kinship care providers and other programs that can help us support families struggling with addiction. If you’d like to make a donation to support this work, click here and select "Zoe's Fund."

And to my grandma, thank you for showing a little girl that superheroes exist.

Topics: OpEd

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