US Representative Madeleine Dean and her son write memoirs about her addiction and recovery

On October 30, Harry Cunnane, the second son of US Congresswoman Madeleine Dean, celebrated his ninth year of recovery from addiction. To mark the occasion, Inquirer reporter Rita Giordano sat down with Cunnane and Dean to chat Under our roof: a son’s fight for recovery, a mother’s fight for her son, their heartbreaking and common tale of a horror experienced by too many American families.

Published last spring, Under our roof chronicles Cunnane’s struggle, as a teenager and young adult, with opioid addiction and substance use disorders and its impact on the Dean-Cunnane family. The duo also co-wrote You are always loved: a story of hope, a children’s picture book to help young people cope with the absence of a family member due to drug addiction.

Cunnane, 31, now works as a regional vice president with Because we, the treatment center where he received help nine years ago, and lives with his wife and three children in Audubon, NJ Dean, 62, represents 4th Congressional District of Pennsylvania; she is vice-chair of the House Judiciary Committee, sits on the House Financial Services Committee and co-chairs the bipartisan House Women’s Caucus.

Madeleine Dean: We had one thing in mind: If we told our story and it helped someone, it would be worth it. Until I read the part of Harry’s book – and we started writing it when he was over six years old – there were stories I had no idea. I knew we had been through something very, very difficult and yet I did not know the real ugliness of addiction, how it steals and empties a person.

Harry Cunnan: Everyone knows someone who is affected; the more we talk about it, the more we break down the stigma associated with substance use disorders. But we also wanted to tell a story of hope, to remind people that healing is possible.

Dean: I would say to parents, “Trust your instincts and educate yourself. My gut told me there was something terribly wrong. But I had older brothers; growing up they had experimented with smoking, weed and drugs. There was this tussle between my questions “Is this a normal adolescence?” And fear that this is clearly not normal.

Cunnan: In terms of advice, it’s so important to find someone to talk to – a professional who’s been through this who you can lean on. Too often people do not recognize this is the disease and do not seek help.

Dean: I wish I had had direct and honest conversations with Harry. We were fighting so much – really, I was scared to death for him – that it was difficult to have a calm conversation.

Cunnan: My mother would have liked to be able to talk to me, but I didn’t want to open up; I felt such shame. From an early age I was taught that drugs are bad, that experimenting is bad. The moment I needed help I felt that if I let someone know it would shame everyone around me.

Cunnan: In the mind of a young person, it is intimidating not only to stop using drugs and alcohol, but also to completely change his social interactions and everything he does. The life I had built – all of my friends and social interactions – was so drug and alcohol based that I was afraid to lead this boring life. But I had more fun recovering than I ever had when using. Being free from this opened up for me to do so much more and meet amazing people. I have built stronger relationships than any friendships I had before.

Cunnan: Teach it in a way that allows children to understand the real consequences and risks of drugs, make it more scientific so that it’s not this emotionally charged thing, good or bad; talk about it as they would any other disease. I remember leaving one of those prevention classes and swearing I wasn’t even going to smoke a cigarette because it was so bad. By the time I started it all, it was so strengthened in me that it was the wrong thing to do that I couldn’t let anyone know what I was doing until I got to a point where I was. no longer have any control. We have to understand that children are likely to experiment. It’s reality. And it’s fine for a parent to say, “I understand that you or your friends can experiment, but we love you and we’re here to help. It could open the conversation earlier.

Dean: You don’t go for 28 or 30 days, and then everything is fine. Recovery requires a complete change in physical health, mental health, and worldview. I knew right away that a month was not going to do it. And that was a fight we had with Harry, about two or three weeks after he started treatment, when he heard Caron was going to recommend follow-up. It takes time. So do not judge whether a relapse occurs. And I say this in the light of day: We saw the statistic last year – 93,331 people overdosed during COVID. It is a bewildering and horrible number.

Dean: The bipartisan Congressional Addiction and Mental Health Task Force has several bills. A room addresses the access. When Harry went into treatment I remember analyzing where he could get the most effective treatment possible and recognizing that we could look for expensive places; a lot of people are not so fortunate. And we need to make sure it’s not just a simple detox, because recovery takes months and months of work. So we need to do more in terms of affordability. One invoice I have is the MORE Saving Act [Maximizing Opioid Recovery Emergency Saving Act], which will eliminate cost-sharing such as user fees and opioid treatment deductibles and support long-term treatment.

The other element is criminal justice. Too many people are faced with an arrest rather than a recovery plan, so they end up with a case, which then hurts their future economic capacity. What happens to their family when this happens? We need to decriminalize behavior related to substance use disorders. I co-sponsored the PREP law [Promoting Reentry through Education in Prisons Act] with the late Elijah Cummings to help people get education and treatment both while incarcerated and upon release. Sadly, we were recently at a hearing where one of the members across the judiciary platform – a former prosecutor – said he believed the inside of a prison cell to be a good place for someone to recognize that they have a problem and should just stop. I told him, “This is not an effective treatment plan. We need to change the way of thinking that incarceration and a criminal record are a deterrent to drug addiction.

I have another (bill), the END Stigma Act (Education for New Dispositions on Stigma Act), which funds college and university programs that educate students about the reality of substance use disorders, helping to remove the veil of shame surrounding drug addiction.

Cunnan: We need to do everything we can to save lives, and maybe recovery is a different part of this journey for later.

Dean: When I think of supervised injection sites, I think of places like the Love Lot in Kensington [a parking lot on Ruth and East Clearfield streets where volunteers offer free food and other services to those in need]. One day I was there and a young woman was having serious problems. These wonderful volunteers took her aside, monitored her health, and made sure she was not going to die of an overdose. But help shouldn’t be so hit and miss. I think the data backs it up [safe-injection sites] really help. The point is not to encourage people to use; it’s to connect people to treatment and recovery. It is to consider them as human beings, not as drug addicts unworthy of being helped.

I remember being in State House and fighting for Narcan – eight, nine years ago – and how this conversation originally started. Literally the people on the floor of Pennsylvania House were like, “Well, how many times do we have to cancel an overdose for someone?” Until that person recovers.

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