By Danielle Olson
Whenever I thought about my mom, I asked myself this question: Why? Why couldn’t she find it in herself to get better? Why wouldn’t she think of her four children? Why couldn’t she just stop taking her pills? It’s taken me a long time to understand that something else was controlling her.
For as long as I can remember, my mom was addicted to prescription medication. She was in and out of rehab most of my life. Going to the emergency room for her morphine fix became just another weekly task. By the time I was old enough to understand her addiction, our relationship was in a place where I was just angry with her. I didn’t want to be around her. I was embarrassed to call her my mother. I wasn’t in a place where I was accepting of her disease, and I didn’t have the time or resources to get her help. I was a teenager with limited access to anything that could have helped my mom, and now I wish that wasn’t the case.
Every day I’d look into my mother’s dilated pupils and listen to her slurred words, wishing that I had a different mom or at least the mom I knew before I could fully comprehend what was happening to her. It’s true what they say about the innocence of a child, that they see the good even if actions tell another story. When I was a kid, my mom was my hero. She comforted us when we were sad, put Band-Aids on our cuts, made us laugh and made us feel safe.
After my parents divorced, I started to see through the filters of my childhood and noticed that things weren’t right. I noticed the pills she took every day, and the people she’d have over that, I would later find out, were providing drugs to her. This is when I started really comparing my life with those of my friends and came to the conclusion that I wanted a lot more from my mom. I wanted her to get a job like the other moms and cook us meals every night instead of telling us to pop a TV dinner or frozen burrito in the microwave. I wanted her to be a contributor to the household and do chores with us instead of having us do everything. I just wanted her to be a better mother to my siblings and me.
My mom was severely depressed, and although I will never know all the reasons why, I know that part of it is a result of sexual abuse during her childhood. This is something I’ve never shared outside of my family, but I feel it’s necessary to include as it’s this type of trauma that can contribute to unhealthy behaviors such as addiction.
Her addiction finally took over when I was a senior in high school. She had no motivation to do anything, not even to leave the house. She was always sleeping, which left me (a teenager at the time) to take care of my 4-year-old sister after school. She essentially wasn’t herself anymore. It made me frustrated, angry and, unfortunately, instilled a sense of hatred against my mom. When I left for college, I finally felt free. I was free from all the responsibilities she had put onto my shoulders, and I could finally focus on myself. As soon as I left, I spoke to my mom as little as possible, and it’s something I regret every single day.
On Sept. 20, 2008, I received the news that my mom had passed away due to, what the autopsy report said, prolonged use of prescription drugs, which is just another way of saying opiate addiction. It was one of the most devastating days of my and my siblings’ lives. My youngest sister was only 4 years old when our mom died, and, to this day, I feel guilty that she didn’t get to know our mother before her addiction became apparent and took over her life.
Despite my mom’s addiction and the strained relationship I had with her, she was a loving mother. She wanted her children to have more than what she was able to provide, and I know she loved us with her entire being. As I was going through her belongings, I found a letter she had written to me during one of her stays in rehab. She never personally gave me this letter, but I think she wanted me to find it after she was gone. I remember that day so clearly. I was distraught, going through the all the things she had saved. Our report cards, finger paintings, baby books. That’s when I came across the letter, and I instantly started crying, but to my surprise, they were happy tears.
The letter said:
I just wanted you to know how special you are to me. God blessed me when he gave you to me. You are a special girl, and you should know that. Please always remember that. Even when Mom has problems, she thinks of you. You can always make my day sunnier and bright. You are so smart and kind. Keep being you. You are so important in my life. Without you, my life would not be complete. I love you so much. Thank you for being you, the wonderful person you are. I love you.
Since the day my mom died, I’ve combed through every memory I have of her, trying to focus only on the good ones and, at the same time, trying to forgive her for all the ones I wish I could forget. It’s a difficult process to forgive an addict, but it’s even more difficult to forgive yourself. I always tell myself that it wasn’t my fault, that I did all I could, but it’s not always that easy.
Unfortunately, there are many children who have gone through the same things I have. Although each story is unique, we all share the same types of feelings watching people we love fall into the pitfalls of addiction. Sometimes addiction becomes a vicious cycle. and the children eventually become addicts themselves. But there are many who take the struggles of their parents and decide it’s not a life they want to live. These are the individuals I want to help. I want them to know they aren’t alone. About six years ago, I decided that I wanted to create a scholarship fund, but I didn’t have the means to pursue this dream until now.
In September 2015, to honor my mother’s life, I created the Lisa Michelle Memorial Fund, which provides scholarships to students who have lost a parent to substance abuse. My mom had passed away when I was a sophomore in college, and I almost dropped out to take care of her affairs and cope with my loss. I’m happy to say that I didn’t drop out, but that year was the toughest for me. There were days I’d have to leave class to go cry in the bathroom. It was hard to focus on school when I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about how I should have helped more and how I should have insisted on another stay in rehab. I had an immense amount of guilt, and to this day, it still creeps up on me. Finishing college was something I had to accomplish in order to make a better life for myself and become the person I wanted to be. My education has done so much for me and now I can help other students with their academic journey.
This fund was established to assist and recognize students who have watched as addiction took their parents’ lives but are pursuing something more for themselves. Many of these students see this scholarship not just as something that provides some financial relief for tuition but also as something that’s helping them come to terms with their loss.
To quote our 2016 scholarship recipient:
“I think the essence of [this scholarship] foundation is something I have a lot of respect for and understanding of. While dealing with my father’s death, his mental illness and especially his alcohol abuse for 20 years was an extremely hard part of my life, I do appreciate the opportunity that even this application has given me to reconcile with the past and honor the fact that — despite the hardships in his life — he was a good man who wanted nothing more than to be there for his children. Even if I’m not given the award, I have a lot of admiration for its purpose and am glad that a deserving student who has faced things I am all too familiar with will be given this academic opportunity.”
I want to help as many students as I can with the Lisa Michelle Memorial Fund. In our first year, we received submissions from all across the country, and this shows that addiction affects people everywhere. It’s not isolated to one area, one type of class, race or gender. Our applicants’ stories were extremely diverse, and each one brought me to tears. I wish I could have given every single student a scholarship, but right now, it’s not possible. At this point, I can only offer one $1,000 scholarship each year, but my long-term goal is to offer at least five per year. It’s an ambitious goal for a startup nonprofit, but I truly believe I can get there someday and have a positive impact on students who have lost a parent to substance abuse.
Coming to terms with my mom’s addiction is something I still struggle with every day. For years, I’d cry myself to sleep, mostly on Mother’s Day, her birthday and on the anniversary of her death. Although these days are still sad for me, I don’t have this extreme sense of loss and guilt anymore. Perhaps this is a selfish thing to say, but the Lisa Michelle Memorial Fund is helping me forgive myself and continues to help me cope with losing my mom. I feel that I’m honoring her memory by helping these students, and I hope to continue this journey I know my mom would be proud of.
Danielle E. Olson, Lisa’s eldest daughter, serves as president and CEO of the Lisa Michelle Memorial Fund, responsible for all fundraising, marketing, communications, events and overall operations activities. She received her bachelor of science in business management and master of business administration degrees from Woodbury University in Burbank, California.