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March 25th, 2010 - Anne McGrath

We both noticed the irony in the calm and soothing paint names as we painted alongside a hole where my son had punched his fist through the drywall. Warm Scones, Hot Springs, Grey Horse— Ten years ago a friend was helping me sample paint swatches on my living room wall. There were no paint names based in my family’s reality: Warm Needles, Hot Tears, Grey Overdose. Painting swatches is good for the soul. There’s a sense of control. All possibilities are open. The hope is that, get this right, and it might pull everything together.

While the paint dried we headed to the Garden Street Café for an organic juice. The girl behind the counter wore leather bracelets, sparkly nail polish, and multiple tattoos. She said to me, “Hey Cool Girl, the usual?” That, her calling me Cool Girl, was the reason I’d forever return for a $6 juice.

I decided on a late contender, Throne, before the paint even dried. The word represented power, dominium. But I never lost the nagging feeling that my nature was more Warm Scone than Throne. The type to look for immediate gratification rather than aim for control.

My sixteen-year-old son was a gifted blues singer and guitar player. He exhibited periodic bouts of above average intelligence followed by complete avoidance of tasks that involved sustained mental effort. One day he was playing with Pokemon and the next he was buying addictive drugs that he never seemed to enjoy—Xanax, Oxycontin, maybe Heroin, we’ll never know what all. I checked his drawers for contraband after he left for school each morning. ​​

I started a drug coalition later that year to raise awareness of the problem, mistakenly assuming that if the adults in our town knew what was going on they would do whatever it took to protect our kids from the drugs that were brought up by train to Rhinebeck, two hours north of New York City.

Adults in our town had their reasons for burying the drug problem: It didn’t lend itself to fundraising galas; it reflected poorly on parents who preferred to turn a blind eye; it made adults with substance abuse issues uncomfortable; it didn’t help kids get into college. They were busy raising public funds to send their kids to Nicaragua to help the poor and, more importantly, add some color to their college applications. Liberals feared anti-drug talk made them look conservative while conservatives saw it as a criminal or moral issue.

I was labeled uptight and uncool by liberals and not tough enough by conservatives. The prevailing attitude was: We see no kids dying. We hear no kids asking for help. We won’t speak of this issue again. Hundreds of kids in our county overdosed. Some died. Dozens will spend lifetimes in and out of rehab.

I lost friends. Got louder. Posted a picture of a dead bird on FaceBook, with the caption Dead Kids don’t go to College. Invited the Medical Examiner to speak and show pictures of teens who had died of overdoses. People thought I was going off the rails. I thought I was going off the rails. I went on NPR’s Round Table with a pediatrician and child psychologist to talk about what it’s like to watch the light go out of a young person’s eyes. They say you can get used to anything, but they are wrong.



2020 Update:

  • My eldest son has found his way in Brooklyn. One day at a time.

  • My Throne covered walls have held up pretty well. Aside from the deep scratch marks of three poorly-trained dogs, holes are patched.

  • I stepped down as the chairperson of the coalition after three exhausting years.

  • Local pediatricians and therapists said our work helped save young lives over the past decade, but the problem continues.

  • I pulled my kids out of the public school and sent them to a private school an hour away.

  • Since the Café closed a few years ago, no one has called me Cool Girl.

  • I watch birds at the feeder from my perch by the kitchen window with a cup of aromatic tea and a warm scone and wonder how to judge if I’ve done something wrong.

Anne McGrath's work has appeared in River Teeth, Ruminate, Lunch Ticket, Brevity (Blog & Podcast), and other publications. Anne is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine, a reader at Fourth Genre, and a graduate of the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a Virginia Center for Creative Arts Fellow. Anne urges you to learn more about WATTS of LOVE. Visit


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