‘Do it now. Ask for help now’: Rep. Madeleine Dean and her son reflect on his addiction

‘The goal was just to be honest,’ Pennsylvania lawmaker says

For years, Harry Cunnane tried to keep his opioid addiction from mom Madeleine Dean. Now they’re still learning each other’s stories. (Courtesy Penguin Random House)
For years, Harry Cunnane tried to keep his opioid addiction from mom Madeleine Dean. Now they’re still learning each other’s stories. (Courtesy Penguin Random House)
Posted February 24, 2021 at 6:00am

Before her son came back from treatment, Madeleine Dean went downstairs and covered every bottle in the house with Saran Wrap. 

When he saw it, he had to laugh. Alcohol wasn’t his drug of choice, and he had already raided those bottles many times in high school, replacing the liquor with water. 

“Had anyone even opened them since then?” Harry Cunnane wondered as he looked around. The room was a shrine to his family’s political future, hung with pictures of his older brother working in the White House and his mom running for office, but the past was not yet behind them.  

“I envisioned someone at a political fundraiser ordering cognac only to receive a watered down, disgusting drink,” he writes. 

There are lots of mother-son moments like that in their new memoir, “Under Our Roof.” Switching back and forth between their perspectives, the book offers an unrelenting account of lies and good intentions, as Cunnane hides and then confronts his opioid addiction. 

“I was ignorant of so many things,” writes Dean, a Pennsylvania Democrat.

While other books focus on the act of addiction and end at recovery, “Mad and Harry,” as they call each other, wanted to do something different. 

“We wanted to show what recovery looks like — that it’s not easy,” Cunnane said in an interview this week alongside his mom, now serving her second term in Congress amid rumors she could run for Senate in 2022. “I don’t think you can fully understand just how joyous it can be without seeing the uglier side of it.”

Here’s a portion of our conversation, edited and condensed. For more, listen to the latest episode of our podcast, “Political Theater.”

Q: Why did you structure the book this way, switching back and forth?

Dean: I remember thinking, if I have to write half this book, I don’t want to know what Harry’s written, because I want to live my memories and not have them colored by his. 

In our first meeting, we said we’d like to write in our own voices, even chose the idea of having separate fonts. We created an outline together, and went our separate ways. 

The editor dovetailed our stories together. I thought I had some idea of what we had been through, what Harry had been through. But in reading Harry’s side of this story, there were such moments of heartbreak, things I had no idea about. 

Q: You describe how hard it was to understand your son’s addiction. But this is also a political memoir — usually people brag in those.

Dean: The goal was just to be honest. If I’m honest about what I was going through — my stumbles, my blind spots, my struggles, but also my tenacious love for Harry — then maybe somebody would see themselves in us. If I don’t tell the story honestly, it will come off like some sort of a patina. And that won’t help anybody.

Q: Are there policy arguments here? The book is light on statistics.

Cunnane: Mom has an opportunity in her work to talk about the different reforms and policies and laws that could be put in place. But we wanted to focus on what we had been through. It’s a mother and son love story. 

Dean: We wanted to make it a personal memoir, but of course, weave in the fact of my work, originally as a state representative and now in Congress. Speaking of statistics, as a measure during this pandemic of the drug overdose crisis, 81,000 people died in 12 months [ending in May 2020]. 

I call that a jetliner a day. We ground planes when we find they are potentially deadly. But in our country, a jetliner of souls a day is dying from addiction. So that's the largest policy statement I’ll say. What are we going to do as a society to deal with that?

Q: You push back against the old idea that addiction is a moral failing.   

Cunnane: That was a big factor that held me back from asking for help sooner. The stigma goes not just on the person who's struggling with it, but on the family members. We saw it come up in the most recent [presidential] election cycle. When it’s put out in that way on such a large scale, it just makes it harder. 

Q: How would you have handled a political attack, if Harry’s addiction had come up in your campaigns?

Dean: It was literally one week before my first full election to the Pennsylvania House that we discovered this, and he went into treatment on Oct. 30, 2012. I thought briefly of the consequences — could an opponent use this as an attempt to smear me? — but I quickly dismissed it. My top campaign managers were at the house when we were dealing with all this, and they said, don’t worry about it, focus on Harry. And then in my first election to Congress, it didn’t come up. It was not a secret, our whole family knew it, our neighbors and friends knew it. But it didn’t come up. And if it does, that will be a worse reflection on my opponent than it will ever be about me or about Harry.

Q: This is also a book about faith. You describe going to mass shortly before election day for your congressional race, and the priest saying during the homily, don’t vote for someone who is pro-choice, which was basically a dig at you. 

Dean: I was raised Catholic. I think of it as the gift of my faith that my parents gave me. Another person who influenced me was my uncle Walter, who was a Roman Catholic priest, an oblate of St. Francis de Sales. He lived with us at the end of his life. We were just very, very close. 

That doesn’t mean that my faith is with the church. I am a 50-plus-year member of a particular parish. So when I was sitting there that Sunday before election day, to hear those words from the pulpit made me incredibly sad. There are things about the Catholic Church and its administration that are very disappointing to me, but I won’t let that shake my faith. 

We named the book “Under Our Roof” because of a line in the mass: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the words and my soul shall be healed.” In that simple statement, there’s humility, and yet infinite possibility.

Q: You both write about the idea of timing. “When the boys were young, I remember worrying that running for office would somehow steal their mother from them,” you say, while Harry describes waiting for the right moment to get clean. 

Cunnane: If I could tell myself something earlier, it would be: Do it now. Ask for help now, as soon as you possibly can. A lot of people talk about the concept of rock bottom. Does somebody need to hit rock bottom? I don’t necessarily like that idea. The longer you go, the bottom just keeps getting lower. Sadly, a lot of people die. 

Dean: The car ride to treatment, that was a very quiet car ride, with [my husband] PJ driving in the front seat, and Harry in the back. We broke the silence to ask, “Did you ever think of asking us for help?” And he said, “It just never felt like a good time,” whether it was a holiday, or PJ traveling, or me running for something, or somebody sick in the family. And I thought his expression was exactly right. There is no good time. So ask for help as soon as you recognize you need it — or maybe even a little before.

For help and resources from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, call the SAMHSA hotline at 1-800-662-4357.