Rep. Dean, Son Pen Book About Substance Use Struggles

Rep. Madeleine Dean and her son, Harry Cunnane, detail Cunnane's substance use disorder in their new book "Under Our Roof."

Video Transcript

ALEX MILLER: Reading this book, I saw a completely different side of you, I think, than in so many of the conversations that we have had. What has it been like or what was it like for you to write this book and show a much more vulnerable side that on an issue that people, typically, choose to keep private?

MADELEINE DEAN: I realize that the book reveals a lot about us. It reveals a lot about me, and my ignorance, and my stumbles, and my struggles to figure out what was going on here. But it was a powerful experience.

ALEX MILLER: Early in the book you wrote about a neighbor coming over and saying that Harry looked lousy. And you wrote, "In that moment, I was offended. Looking back, why did the truth offend me? Did I think we were too good for it? Damn the stigma." Can you talk about those moments where you clearly knew something was wrong but your perspective was kind of colored by stigma?

MADELEINE DEAN: It's absolutely the case. I knew we had a serious problem. I suspected it was drugs. And I suspected it was addiction. And yet to have it reflected at me by a neighbor who we love so dearly, I recognized, in the writing of it, I recognized that it offended me because I was living that stigma.

ALEX MILLER: You wrote that you became somewhat of an at-home chemist, but also accepted that you were going to die this way. And you didn't think you were going to make it to your 25th birthday. But you said no matter how scared you got, you never thought about asking for help, even though your parents were clearly involved and wanted to figure out what was going on with you. Why do you think it's so difficult to get to the point of asking for help for so many people?

HARRY CUNNANE: I know, for me, a big part of it was the immense amount of shame that I felt. You know, I knew what I was doing was horribly wrong. And I hated that I couldn't stop it. And I also, at the time, I didn't know of a pathway to recovery or way out of it. It was just, all I could see was the negatives. So at the end, every night I went to bed, I would beg and plead and tell myself that tomorrow is going to be different. Tomorrow I'm not going to do this. I'm not going to steal. I'm not going to use. Everything will change tomorrow.

And every morning when I woke up and it didn't change, it just continued to break down any sense of self-worth, self-confidence, self-love, that I had to a point where I hated myself. I knew my family loved me. But I also was afraid that if they knew what I was really doing, they might not.

ALEX MILLER: You tried. You talked about doing it for your daughter, Aubrey. You talked about possibly becoming a police officer and all these things that you were trying to help yourself through, going all the way to Charleston for school. So talk to me about the day when they confronted you about stealing. What was it that flipped the switch for you right in that moment and made you feel like this was the time to get clean?

HARRY CUNNANE: My mom, originally, kind of had this small comment on a Friday night, saying there's something wrong with our bank account, which I knew what was wrong with the bank account. And I had until Tuesday before I was confronted. And over that span of time, I spent the entirety of it trying to find an excuse, a justification, a reason. And I was so broke and I just had nothing. And at that point in time, it finally got to this breaking point of desperation where it just it finally was easier to not tell a lie.

MADELEINE DEAN: And people had told me, you're going to need an intervention. You're going to need an interventionist. You need professionals here. And so I just decided, no. We're just going to put these bank statements out on the table, show him the truth that we know, and see if he can face the truth himself. And so when he said yes, it took my breath away.

ALEX MILLER: Well, and on that note, you wrote-- I think it was when you took him to Karen-- that you hate the phrase, rock-bottom. And you hate the phrase, he has to want to get help. I mean, those are phrases, frankly, that before I read that, that were going through my own mind as I was reading your story. Why do you think that's the wrong way to describe it?

MADELEINE DEAN: I thought that was sort of nuts. How are we supposed to know what rock-bottom is? And I think they keep people at a distance for either getting the help or giving the help. There might be a time where you're not really rock-bottom, but you're wounded enough, or open enough, or vulnerable in a moment to say, oh my gosh, you're offering me help? Yes, I'll take it.

ALEX MILLER: You talk a lot, multiple times in the book, about the cost of going to treatment and how expensive it is. And you wrestle with where to go and how long to stay there. You know, so many people don't have that opportunity. What can be done to make sure that this is available to people and they don't just have to turn themselves away because of the cost, which is enormous?

MADELEINE DEAN: We have to have health care for all. And health care has to be about mental health care, about substance abuse. To your point, some people have to go back into treatment. We have to get everybody covered, insurance to pay it or Medicaid to pay it, have beds available, have robust treatment available for everybody.

ALEX MILLER: You write in the book about privilege a lot. You're acutely aware throughout the entire thing. You said, "The color of my skin, the address on my license, the car that I drive, they were pillars that held together my freedom at my lowest moments. It's not fair that I am free and others are not." What are some tangible things that you see through your work that should be done?

HARRY CUNNANE: For sure. I mean, at the surface level, we're way too often dealing with a mental health issue with the criminal justice system. And we're throwing people into the criminal justice system. And we know that that's not done in a fair way. You know, there's a lot of bias there. The privilege that I have most certainly gave me so many advantages. And one of those now, sort of, in recovery, is my record is clean, right? So I've been given a place and an opportunity to grow in recovery, in a career, and not be shackled by a criminal record.

I mean, we need to look at what everyone is doing, and how we're dealing with this, and looking at it-- because I think if we switch the conversation from sort of the moral failing, the criminal aspect of it, to the disease part of it, you know, even just the small thing of being able to go back and volunteer at CFCF, a prison in Philadelphia, it's hard, right? Because I go in there and I have every reason to be on the other side of the bars.

The things that I did, I mean, just the simple fact of the way that we view this, just possession. I could have been charged with possession every single day for years. And it never happened. And we have people who get arrested for that, can't afford bail, and sit-in jail for an incredible amount of time. It's not fair. And it's not right. And it's not helping people.

ALEX MILLER: When you go into treatment, it's because you need to be away from the environment that you're in. What has it been like for the people that you're working with virtually, dealing with the pandemic and addiction at the same time?

HARRY CUNNANE: Going to support groups and meetings virtually, it's really hard for people. You know, a lot of people are really struggling right now. For me, a huge part of recovery was making meaningful connections, and friendships, and relationships with people who had a similar goal through recovery, to meet new people, to change all of my old friends into friends who were a positive influence.

And so much of that was being together. It wasn't just going to a meeting, but it was hanging out, and talking, and just being around people that you can relate with. And with a lot of the support group switching to Zoom and other virtual platforms, yes, you can get some help sort of in that set meeting. But you don't have as much of the time to really connect.

ALEX MILLER: You talk about these two moments. You talk about your moment of clarity on that night. And then you also talk about the miracle that you're waiting for throughout the whole book. Can you talk about the moment when you realized you had moved past and moved to the next phase of this recovery?

HARRY CUNNANE: For sure. So I literally got the chills when you said that. Because that moment for me-- I remember when I agreed to go to treatment. I had seen people get to go to treatment. And the people that I had seen weren't actively going for recovery. So I didn't know that it could work. I didn't know what it would look like. I remember being in the shower. And it was in the evening, and just realizing that I hadn't even thought about drugs, not just didn't think about wanting to use them, but almost an entire day had gone by and I didn't even think about them.

But just the freedom that that's given me moving forward-- I still have to work towards recovery every day. You know, you're never cured. It doesn't go away. But it gets a lot easier.

ALEX MILLER: You said to me once that you wanted to write the book because so many people didn't get a chance to get to that point. Can you talk about what you hope this book brings for people that are going to read it?

MADELEINE DEAN: From May of last year to May of this year, 81,000 people died of addiction overdose. 81,000 people, if you do the math, that's 222 people a day, yesterday, today, tomorrow, 365 days. If we can save anybody, if we can connect anybody to hope to recovery, the story will be worth it.