Families and communities across the country are being torn apart by addiction to opioids. Senator Tammy Baldwin knows their pain. For most of her life, Baldwin's mother struggled with addiction to prescription drugs.
For years, even as she pushed for additional funding to fight the crisis, Baldwin didn’t mention that part of her biography. This month, that changed. The 56-year-old Wisconsin Democrat, facing a tough reelection battle back home, began speaking candidly about her mother’s mental illness and abuse of prescription drugs at events and in an emotional new campaign ad.
“I remember what it was like to come home from school and not be able to get into the house,” Baldwin says in the first few seconds of the video. “I'd pound on the door but my mother wouldn't answer. She'd be passed out inside.”
The decision to open up about something so personal wasn’t easy, but to Baldwin, it was an important step. “Families keep these things secret, and that’s not helpful for anyone,” Baldwin tells Bustle.
Throughout her decades-long career in public office, Baldwin has acknowledged her grandparents primarily raised her, but she never explained why. She says she chose to keep her own family’s secret for so long to protect her mother. “My mother, for the most part, was really embarrassed and felt shame that she wasn't able to raise me,” she says.
After her mother died in August 2017 at age 75, Baldwin began opening up. Mourners at the memorial service talked about both her mother’s caring and humorous demeanor and her struggles with addiction. Baldwin joined them. “That was really the first time I had told the more intimate pieces of this, of all the dimensions of her life and my life with her,” she says.
“My mother, for the most part, was really embarrassed and felt shame that she wasn't able to raise me.”
This year, after hearing families impacted by addiction tell their emotionally-charged stories in front of a Senate panel, Baldwin was inspired to speak out about her own experience. She began telling her story on the campaign trail at the start of May. Days later, Baldwin released the ad recounting what it was like to grow up unsupervised, with a parent battling addiction. “I had to grow up fast, very fast,” she says in the ad.
Baldwin hopes her openness will comfort families dealing with the crisis and let them know that they are not alone, that the stigma can be defeated. “We’re stronger when we work together, listening to one another,” she says. “I know how hard this fight is, but we can make change when we work together and have somewhere to turn for help.”
“Families keep these things secret and that’s not helpful for anyone.”
Of course, talk alone isn’t enough. Baldwin says more funding for treatment and prevention is essential. She’s fighting to dedicate more federal dollars to the issue, including through a new tax on prescription drug companies to help cover the treatment of opioid addiction. She knows how important access to treatment can be. As a teen, she successfully encouraged her mother to seek help. The decision led to a period of sobriety.
“It’s not a matter of simply throwing money at the problem, but one of the acute needs right now is treatment resources that are accessible and available to people,” Baldwin says. “Those treatment opportunities that do exist often have waiting lists and frankly, if you don’t do it when someone is motivated immediately, chances are you’ve lost your opportunity.”
She also wants to see more resources to support children and teens in homes where family members are struggling with addiction and the inevitable — and painful — instability that follows. “If it’s someone who they’re close to, they’re probably experiencing the trauma and unncertainly and powerlessness,” Baldwin says. “[They can’t] fix it or change it, and it’s scary and traumatic, and we need to do a better job there.”
“I had to grow up fast, very fast.”
The Democratic senator didn’t want to give the Trump administration a grade on its effort to combat the crisis, but she does say she’s disappointed the efforts haven’t gone farther. “There’s been more words than actions, but I don’t want to discount the importance of those words,” Baldwin says. If he declared a full public emergency, Baldwin says, it would allow more cooperation between federal agencies to come at the issue from all sides.
Baldwin said she won’t stop speaking out — or fighting — on the opioid crisis anytime soon. If anything, the response she’s heard, both from families back home and fellow members of the Senate, she’s determined to fight harder.
“It feels like I’m doing an important thing,” she says. “I think my mother would want to know that her story is helping others.”