Madeleine Dean and Harry Cunnane, UNDER OUR ROOF

Madeleine Dean and Harry Cunnane, UNDER OUR ROOF

“Don’t give up hope.” Congresswoman Madeleine Dean and her son, Harry Cunnane, have a candid conversation with Zibby about Harry’s past struggles with addiction. They discuss learning new truths about each other while writing their book, the toll addiction takes on the family system, and the role of hope in healing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Madeleine and Harry, to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” We’re going to discuss Under Our Roof: A Son’s Battle for Recovery, a Mother’s Battle for Her Son, your amazing book. Welcome.

Madeleine Dean: Thank you. Thanks for inviting us.

Zibby: From the very first page of this book, I was trying to push my kids aside to read it without interruption. I’m like, this is so intense. This is so good, edge-of-my-seat kind of writing. I love how the two of you go back and forth. First of all, tell me about your decision to write this book and second of all, your decision in the format of it and to write it jointly like this.

Madeleine: Harry, why don’t you roll with this?

Harry Cunnane: I’ll start. First of all, writing the book was not our idea. My older brother is a writer. He had a published a book after his time in the Obama administration. His agent came to him and said, “Would you like to do another book?” He said, “No, but my brother and my mom might.” That’s where it all started. The sense of how we decided to do it in terms of dual voices, for us, was such an important aspect of it. My mom, she was particular on, the fonts had to be different to show our different voices. What we did is really wrote it completely separately. We came up with an outline of key events and what we wanted to write on. We didn’t read what each other were writing. We didn’t want to skew our memory or change our perception to try to match with how the other experienced it. Our editors, of course, did a wonderful job of really sewing it back together. For us, it was really a very individual process when we first went through the first pass of it.

Madeleine: I’ll add to that. We didn’t think of this on our own. When Pat and his agent came to us, I was pretty surprised. I thought, this is a daunting project. Then I thought, wait a second, I have to write only half, so maybe I can get this done. You know about being busy moms. We were certain that we wanted to do a couple of things, make sure by way of the font to signal two different voices. Literally, we chose a serif font for me and more masculine, non-serif font for him to signal voice and age and gender and roles. The other thing that we did was intentionally not read each other. You might imagine — maybe you wouldn’t. When I read some of his chapters, there was so much in there I had idea about. It was kind of stunning. As Harry said, the editors did a really nice job of weaving our two stories together.

Zibby: What was that like learning about some of the stuff? That must have been rough. There’s a lot in here. Sorry, Harry, if you were my son and I was reading this, that would be a tough afternoon on the couch.

Madeleine: I don’t believe it’s any longer chapter five, but I kept saying to Harry and to Pat, “I can’t get through chapter five.” It was originally chapter five that was really just overwhelming to me in its depths and sorrow of addiction. I kept saying, “I can’t even get through chapter five.” In any event, we’ve gotten through it. I think we’ve learned a lot along the way.

Zibby: What about you, Harry? Were there parts you were surprised to hear from your mom’s point of view?

Harry: There definitely were. What was interesting was when we started this process two years ago at this point, I had been in recovery for six years. My mom and I’s relationship has grown. We had already had a wonderful relationship. Once you get a little bit of distance from the active addiction portion of it, a lot of these things you just don’t talk about. Maybe you don’t need to talk about them. You don’t need to go into the details. There was so much there that she didn’t know and a lot of people around me didn’t know. From my side, what was so valuable was, I always had these assumptions of how I had hurt her, how I had impacted the entire family, but never really knew. I was fortunate. When I got into recovery, my family was incredibly supportive. They didn’t hold a lot of these things over me. I knew there was pain. I knew that I had caused it, but I didn’t know exactly what it looked like. It was very interesting to go back and read. My mom wanted to hire a private investigator to follow me. I had no idea that these things were going on. I thought I had it a little bit more hidden than I did, which turned out not to be the case.

Zibby: Madeleine, there were a lot of times where I found you wondering, should you have known? Was this a sign? Why did you miss this? I felt like you were maybe not completely beating yourself up, but just, how could you have missed it? Tell me about that and looking back. I can see the pain. It’s still painful, all of what happened. Any time a child is in pain in any way, it’s just almost unbearable for the parent. Tell me a little bit about how you feel the mothering piece of it was looking back. Talk about that.

Madeleine: A couple of things. I knew there was something desperately wrong in our house. I likened it to a fire in the walls of the house. I felt like I was the only one who knew it. There’s something desperately wrong going on here. You see maybe in our writing that it’s also met with a bit of denial. Is this just normal experimentation, a kid being a teenager and being a jerk to his mother and the fighting and all of that? In one sense, and particularly because of how Harry was changing from the lively, buoyant, young boy that he was to something becoming flatter and sicker and so unproductive and flatter — there was a darkness to his bright eyes. This is something that comes on slowly. If you’ve ever been around someone who is sick, when you see them before they were sick to when they’re desperately sick, you can’t believe the difference. If you’re living it every day, just little pieces of him seemed to be ebbing away. I kept saying, it’s got to be drugs. You can see I struggled. I ineptly drug tested him.

Zibby: I saw that, yes.

Madeleine: Just absolute nitwit of a mother trying to figure out what was going on. Also, I didn’t understand. I thought I understood addiction as a disease. Was it drugs? Was he addicted? I didn’t really understand at all until we got into treatment, recovery. I learned so much more about the depths of addiction because of Harry’s honest writing. I had some vanilla view of abuse of drugs and what it might be. You can see through this story and the honesty with which Harry tells it that addiction is a very ugly place to have to go.

Zibby: Yes. I was delighted to see him looking so cleaned up and in a blazer and everything. I’m like, thank god, as I’m reading this book.

Madeleine: He’s all about the look now. I’m telling you.

Zibby: You were so sneaky, the amount of times you sneaked out of the house and took the car. I think I need to put some sort of alarm system in place before my kids start doing this stuff. Even, I couldn’t believe when you were in the ER with that horrible allergic reaction and you hadn’t told the allergist that you were taking Percocet and whatever else at the time, and so you went into anaphylactic shock. Multiple epinephrine shots didn’t do the trick. You went to the hospital and you actually took the blood that they took out of you so you could hide it. Unbelievable. I just couldn’t believe it, the extent to which you would go to hide what was going on. Tell me a little more about that.

Harry: I think it’s just summed up in the desperation of keeping that secret and hiding it. In hindsight now into recovery, it almost seems silly how terrified I was to expose what was really going on. That’s, for me, a huge part of the stigma around this. I didn’t view it as a disease. I didn’t view it as anything other than, I knew what was right and wrong. I knew I was incapable of making the right decision, especially consistently. I just looked at myself towards the end as this horrible, horrible person. Without any of it coming from outside, the shame that I felt was so intense that I was willing to risk anything. Stealing the blood and shattering and trying to hide the vials of blood so they couldn’t test me, everything that I did was a defense mechanism to protect my secret. That’s part of why I wanted to get this out there. In hindsight, it’s clear to see. At that moment, the stigma and the shame and all of the things that go around this topic really just paralyzed me. The last thing I’ll say is when I was in treatment — I wrote it in the book. It was such a powerful moment and such a simple statement. When Father Bill, who was a priest at Caron Treatment Centers where I went, told me, “Harry, you’re not a bad person trying to be good. You’re a sick person trying to get well,” that little thing just flipped my perspective on what I was dealing with because I had no sense of that before.

Madeleine: I didn’t know about the vials until he wrote that in that chapter. I was so desperate to get to the answer. He fought me about going to the hospital. It was darn scary. I thought, I’ve got him. This will be the ultimate drug test. Of course, it was concealed yet again.

Zibby: I feel like there’s such a history in your family, Madeleine, from what you wrote about your mother and how amazingly giving the people in your family are. When your dad was sick and ended up, I’m so sorry, passing away and your mom was stuck across the country taking care of one of your siblings, she said something that I couldn’t believe. She really, obviously, wanted to be there when her husband passed away. She said, “Maybe it was meant to be that I wasn’t there. If I had been there, I would’ve taken too much of his time. Instead, he got to spend more time with all of you.” What a selfless comment that is. That just really stuck with me.

Madeleine: That tells you everything you need to know about my mom. She was an only child who went on to have seven children in part as a gift to her own mother who wanted more children, for whom I’m named, Madeleine Eaton. My mother was just like that. We dealt with my grandmother who mourned the loss of her husband desperately, daily. When my father died so suddenly, I worried, oh, my gosh, will Mommy slip into that same sadness? Instead, that was her reaction. The generosity of spirit, I couldn’t believe it. She said that immediately when we met her. She said, “Maybe that was meant to be. You all got more time with him.”

Zibby: Wow. Your generosity of spirit and how you took everybody into your home and all the people you’ve grown up with from your niece to your uncle, your house is like Grand Central Station in a way. I’m wondering now, what’s the home life like now? Are you living by yourself? What is it like?

Madeleine: We’re still trying to adjust. You should have seen our house on trash day, the trash cans lined up like we had a real group home going on there. I loved that. I worried sometimes that maybe it was a little too much. Was I sapping any of the time from the children? I thought, we’re here. We have all this. We should share it. We just sold our family home, the big house that we lived in and where all of this took place, to downsize because it was just PJ and me. Sometimes it was just me. Sometimes it was just PJ. We’ve downsized at least our main house. We bought a condo. I have an apartment in DC where I’m by myself. It’s a very different world. We have a place in Cape May that we all come to. That is the place that is a magnet for all of the kids and now the grandkids.

Zibby: Which hopefully has better plumbing than the place you got at the Shore that summer which sounded horrific. Oh, my gosh.

Harry: Slightly better accommodations.

Zibby: Good. The thing about your addiction, Harry, which I’m sure is true of so many, is that you really communicated in the book, your desire to stop at many times and yet the complete inability to do so, especially when your girlfriend gets pregnant. Tell me about that experience and how when you knew you were going to be a dad, what that did to your desire to get sober again.

Harry: I’m glad you picked up on that because I think there’s often an impression that this is what they want to do, for somebody who’s caught up in it. When I found out I was going to be a father, I was twenty or twenty-one years old. No, I was twenty years old.

Madeleine: Twenty.

Harry: Completely caught up in addiction. My life was a complete disaster. I was failing at school and working in a warehouse. Nothing was going well, but I was immediately filled with this sense of hope. Naively, I believed that was the willpower. That was it. I knew the kind of father I wanted to be. I just believed that I was going to do it. For me, it was such a hopeful moment. As you see, it wasn’t the cure that I thought it might be. I really, really struggled afterwards. That struggling after was just the most hopeless and soul-crushing experience that I could’ve imagined. I knew before, it was a problem. Every day after she was born, every decision I made was counterproductive to the person I wanted to be, the person I knew I could and should be. It just brought me to a point where I believed there was nothing that could pull me out of this. This was my life. I was going to die this way.

Zibby: It’s soul-crushing. What was that period of time like for you? I know you were so upset, Madeleine, when you heard the news about becoming a grandmother at this point where Harry was only twenty and kind of a mess in his own life. Now he was bringing a baby into the world. Tell me about that inflection point.

Madeleine: It was a very dark moment. We were struggling with somebody who was twenty, who seemed arrested in his own maturity and development some years back, struggling to be successful, struggling to succeed whether it was in high school or college, struggling to stay with his work, sickly. I just thought, so sad that his would-be childhood was coming to a very abrupt end. I didn’t think he was taking good care of himself. Clearly, he wasn’t able to at that point. It was just dark that he would now face becoming a father. I’ve had other mothers who had a son or daughter with an unexpected pregnancy. That same kind of darkness comes over you, the same feeling. I have to tell you how beautifully it’s lifted, a baby on her way. For that time, I was very blue. Obviously, the new life and the gift of our granddaughter, Aubrey, changed that dramatically.

Zibby: Meanwhile, you weren’t just at home being a mom trying to help her son. You were also becoming a congresswoman along the way and getting involved in politics in all sorts of different ways and going door to door. You had a whole separate thing going on which is giving back to the world at large. Tell me about the intersection of what you were trying to do at home versus in the bigger political sphere and even now.

Madeleine: In those days, I had been teaching. I was lawyer as a younger woman. Then I had the chance to teach at La Salle University for ten years which worked really well with the balance of family life. I really loved that. It helped me work with young people finding their way and their words. I always knew, I had an itch in me from the time I got started in politics at eighteen, literally ran for office for this little position called committee woman.

Zibby: And you won.

Madeleine: And I won. I turned out an incumbent. It was ridiculous. In my thirties and forties, I thought about getting into politics, running for office. I thought, that’ll rob the kids. We don’t get to do this childhood twice. We’re so busy as it is. That would rob them. I got itchy. I turned fifty, maybe I’m a late bloomer, and had the chance to go to school first, take a couple courses at Penn, and then was asked to run for township commissioner. All of this is going on as I’m struggling with this newness of running for office and then serving. When you have a problem in your house, the problem can become all-consuming. It was difficult to navigate those two worlds, but somehow, we muddled through and we did it.

Zibby: Wow. If you could go back and tell yourself while you were going through this, for anybody who is going through this, any moms who have a child who they suspect is struggling in some way or they know to be fighting addiction or any of that, what would you say to that mom or dad?

Madeleine: The reason we wrote this book was we thought maybe our story could help somebody else, that if we reveal and be honest about — obviously, in this book, you see honestly, the mistakes I made, the things I didn’t know, the stupidity, the stumbles, and yet a mother’s desperation to find out what’s going wrong with her beautiful son. I would say reach out to others. Ask for help. Bounce this off somebody else. There was a person in the book who helped me just by having coffee with me a couple of times and talking to me and saying, “Your instincts are probably right, Mad. He’s lying about it. He’s tried to cover it up. He’s tried to say maybe it’s gambling, maybe it’s something else. Your instincts are right. Stay with it.” I did homework on where he could get help if I could ever get him to the point of admitting what was going on. I would say to mothers and fathers or loved ones, give yourself a break. It’s not easy to try to discover what’s going on with somebody else if they’re dealing with addiction. Don’t give up hope. That’s the worst. The words that you’re using, whether it was desperation, desperation is a loss of hope. Don’t give up hope. There is always hope. That’s what I would say. Be self-forgiving. Don’t give up hope.

Zibby: How about you, Harry? What would you say to parents of people who are even maybe — I don’t think any kids are listening, but what would you say to anybody about your story that might be helpful?

Harry: The areas where my mom and I have disagreed, this isn’t one of them. I think that, really, there is help even though it often does not feel that way, just a constant reminder of that. The other thing I’ve learned both through my experience receiving treatment and also in my current work in the treatment field is there are so many resources out there. There’s so many different pathways to recovery. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. It’s not, this is what you have to do. Everybody’s different. That’s why there’s a lot of different resources out there. Find somebody that you trust and talk about it. That can be a friend, a neighbor, a therapist, whatever the case is. Start talking about it. It’s not as scary as it seems to talk about this. What I’ve found and what we’ve found in doing this is — I tried to hide it. Our family didn’t talk about it that broadly. This is happening in so many households. Almost everybody knows somebody. It might not be in their immediate household, but just about everyone knows someone who is struggling. I’ve found once you strike up a conversation, they may be a little bit more open to sharing their experience with it. Find somebody that you trust and talk to them. Just remember there is always, always hope.

Zibby: Just to close, I know you had this beautiful quote at the beginning of the book, which of course now I won’t be able to find, but something to the extent that an addiction affects the whole family. It brings the whole family down. It’s not just about the one person. It’s about the whole system. I know how you held your older brother, Paton, in such high regard. You can see that. I don’t know what your relationship is like now. Although, if we had another half an hour, I’d want to talk about that because you clearly just thought he was — you had such an idolized relationship of him. How great that he’s the one who now got you guys to write this book. In terms of family systems, what can we all do to help families that are struggling? What do you think? We all know, as you said, people. When there are family systems that are weathering the storm who have this internal fire in the walls and don’t quite know what to do, is there anything we can do to help others?

Harry: My dad flies a lot, or pre-COVID, flew all the time, a little bit less now. What he has always said, which I think is valuable when looking at the family system or looking at the person who’s suffering, the analogy of when the oxygen mask falls, secure your mask before assisting others. When there’s this fire within the house, you can’t control what the person who has a substance use disorder is doing. You can’t fix it. You can’t manage it. You can be there and try to offer help and solutions, but what you can do is work on yourself and try to be able to find some comfort, some peace within yourself. If you can’t heal, then it’s going to just be even harder for the person who is struggling to heal. If they see you healing, it may give them hope. I think that’s something that’s so important. No matter what’s going on, the only thing you can control is what you’re doing for yourself and self-care.

Madeleine: The quote you were thinking of was something my friend Lois used to say all the time. Lois Devida used to say a family is a like a mobile. When one spins out of control, the whole mobile tries to go to compensate. I saw that in my own family when I was a child growing up when a brother was drafted and served in Vietnam, how the whole family suffered and struggled with that. What I would say to your audience is that’s really true. A family dynamic moves in synchronicity or out of sync together. The outcome for us, I never could have foreseen. As Harry was spinning out of control and we were desperately trying to figure out what was going on, once we figured it out and he said yes to recovery, which is a miracle moment, something he can be extremely proud of, to simply say yes, to be vulnerable and say yes, what happened then, I could not have predicted, which was his brothers. PJ was always going to be there. I was always going to be there. His brothers, without any judgement, came in and surrounded him and doused him with love and support and a lot of good humor, a lot of ribbing, and a lot of good fun. It actually made us stronger as a family by coming face to face with this disease and the reality that it could take your life. For us, it was a very powerful, terrible time to go through. On the other side of it, I think it made the love bond in our family stronger.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Wow. Thank you. It’s so nice to meet both of you having just read this book, which was so good, Under Our Roof. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s really powerful and I’m sure is going to help so many other people. Well done. Thank you.

Madeleine: Thank you, Zibby. Someday, you’ll have to tell me about you. I’d like to interview you. You putting this podcast together, I think it’s very terrific.

Zibby: Aw, thank you. Anytime. I’m around. Thank you.

Harry: Thank you so much. Bye.

Zibby: It was so nice to meet you. Take care. Buh-bye.

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