Requiem for my father

(Content note: This column includes a description of an uncompleted suicide.)

I don’t know the exact circumstances under which my father passed away. I hadn’t even spoken to him in over a year when I got the call from my Uncle Bruce, two weeks ago, to deliver that particular piece of news.

I had tried to stay in contact with my father, but my text message history with him consists of a long series of messages with no reply. Nearly every “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Fathers Day!” I had sent him for the last two years might as well have been sent straight into outer space. I had suspected my dad might have ended up homeless, a fact my Uncle Bruce confirmed to me when we talked on the phone about my fathers’ passing.

I know from my Uncle Bruce that my father had been ill and suffering from sepsis in his final days and that he had checked himself out of the hospital against the advice of his doctors. My dads’ body was found two days later. What I do not know is where his body was found. I do not know if my father had made it to a homeless shelter where would at least not have died alone or if he died outside, sleeping under a park bench or beneath a bridge, in pain and with no one around.

What I do know is that my father struggled with many issues, including drug addiction and mental health problems for most of his life. To call my relationship with him complicated would be like saying the Grand Canyon is kind of big.

As a society, we treat the issue of drug addiction as a sin and therefore, we believe we must punish addiction via criminalization while completely dehumanizing the sinner. We do not treat drug addiction as the issue for which it most obviously is: a public health problem.

The war on drugs, the phenomenon by which we criminalize drug use and lock up users and suppliers alike, is often justified by pointing to people like myself who are the relatives of those who experience substance abuse issues. But frankly, after all the years I watched my father struggle with addiction, I cannot point to any particular way the war on drugs helped him or myself.

What is known is that the war on drugs disproportionately punishes people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and those experiencing poverty, while doing little to prevent drug addiction or abuse. Furthermore, it can render it harder for those with disabilities and serious health issues to access necessary medication and supplies.

For example, when I was first diagnosed with diabetes, I remember the unnecessary difficulty I had in obtaining the needles I needed to inject insulin, a difficulty that was created by society simply to make it harder for those with substance abuse issues to obtain needles.

In an ideal world, most recreational drugs would not be illegal for adults to sell or possess, but instead heavily regulated and taxed. Recreational drugs with a high potential to cause deadly overdoses should be legally required to be sold and administered only under medical supervision.

I know how easy it is to dehumanize people who are addicted to drugs. I went through periods of my life where I hated my father. When he moved to California when I was in sixth grade, I thought I would never be able to forgive him. But I never wanted him to die alone and in pain. That much at least, was never a fate I wished upon him.

At the same time, our society’s attitudes towards homeless people is little better than our attitudes towards those with addiction issues. We criminalize homelessness with the same ruthlessness and cruelty we criminalize recreational drugs.

These issues are also closely tied up as well in our flawed healthcare system. A lack of universal healthcare for example, can help create barriers to those who need treatment for substance abuse issues because many people are not going to be able to afford the price tag that comes with private drug rehab centers. I also have always felt the ads for private drug rehab centers make many of them feel extremely predatory and exploitative. In any case, better solutions are necessary and the war on drugs is not going to provide them.

Issues such as homelessness, drug addiction, and healthcare access are all issues that get exacerbated by the ways people are marginalized by their race, gender, and disability as well as their gender identity and sexuality.

It is well documented that LGBTQ individuals experience higher rates of homelessness and substance abuse. Around 40% of homeless youth identify as the LGBTQ. Local queer activists were well enough aware of the issue of the negative impacts of drug addiction on LGBTQ individuals to be throwing “chemical free” parties in the 1980s. This all exists in addition to the nightmare that transgender and non-binary people can experience when trying to access or recieve healthcare.

Wouldn’t it be great if, rather than spending money to lock up large numbers of people of color and LGBTQ individuals simply for the crime of drug possession, we instead legalized and taxed drugs and used that money to fund necessary social programs? It would be even better if some of that money went towards ensuring culturally competent training for doctors and nurses to help minimize racism and queerphobia amongst healthcare providers.

My father was a complicated man and as such, I have memories good and bad. It was perhaps somewhat ironic that my father would wind up homeless himself, given that in his later years, my father was a passionate advocate for homeless people, using money he had inherited to support those in less fortunate circumstances than himself.

He was argumentative and his relatively brief marriage to my mother was toxic. My earliest memories are therefore of my parents fighting.

When I was in Cub Scouts, we won ‘Best in Show’ in a baking competition with an elaborately frosted cake designed to look like a truck. I also remember him once stopping to assist an elderly man who had driven his car into the ditch in a remote area. First by driving the man back into town to call a tow truck (this was the pre-cell phone era) and then waiting with the man by his car until the tow truck arrived. I watched the original Star Wars trilogy pretty much every weekend I stayed with him when I was a kid. I don’t how he didn’t get sick of it, but if I asked to watch it, he always let me.

One weekend after my parents had divorced while I was still in elementary school, I was staying with him. I remember him getting sicker and sicker, until he had to call my mom to come pick me up before his time with me was up.

Given how sick he had been when my mom picked me up, my mom later called one of his neighbors to check up on him, which is how we found out that he had been hospitalized. When we visited him, I remember thinking it odd that he was able to walk about and talk. Weren’t most hospital patients typically bedridden?

When I was older, I figured out that the reason he was able to walk about was because he was in the psych ward. Eventually, I came to realize that the reason he was there was because he had attempted to end his life while I had been staying with him.

Goodbye dad. May you find the peace in the next life that you weren’t able to find here.

Write to Jeremy Redlien at

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