Brenda Thacker appeared almost puzzled by the question, as if it needn’t be asked because the answer was obvious. Why is she passionate about helping those who struggle with addiction and substance abuse?
I’m a mother, she says. I’m supposed to protect and nurture my family and those around me, she explained, and I wouldn’t be much of a mother if I didn’t do so.
Thacker’s reasoning is a bit more complicated and personal, but a lifetime of exposure to family and friends touched by addiction has shaped her and made her crusade as natural as breathing.
“I have always wanted to help those who were sick with this disease,” she says, “because they’re basically good people.”
Thacker, a 64-year-old self-employed bookkeeper and accountant, works tirelessly to erase the stigma surrounding addiction and substance abuse. She organized an annual Walk Against Addiction, now in its 10th year, to raise money and awareness for those who struggle.
She works part-time as Programs Director at the Dare County Detention Center, where she advises detainees and brings in counselors to help people find paths to sobriety and productivity. She is a certified advocate for children whose parents and families are caught in the grip of addiction.
“I think Brenda is spectacular,” says Tori Peters, who helped start the Walk Against Addiction with Thacker and remains committed to the event. “She will make things happen and she won’t stop until she makes her cause known. Very caring. She’s very diligent in her causes and she has the kindest heart I know.”
Thacker’s efforts are rooted in her upbringing. Her father was an alcoholic who was also addicted to Valium and Librium and who took his own life 40 years ago. She described him as a “great guy” whose mind and body were gradually shredded by substance abuse. She has since endured the effects of addiction within loved ones and friends, attending Al-Anon and substance abuse meetings and reading voraciously on the subject so that she can better understand it.
Thacker’s reading list is how she connected with Amanda Daniels, a former Wanchese resident and recovering addict who wrote a book, “Addict Chick,” about her struggles with drug abuse. Thacker approached Daniels at a Dare County drug task force meeting and told her that she had read her book. The two bonded almost immediately.
“She is absolutely amazing,” Daniels says. “She works so hard to educate people about addiction. I love her. She’s one of the best people I’ve ever met. The Outer Banks is so lucky to have someone like that who’s trying to educate people about addiction and working with law enforcement and Dare County.”
One of Thacker’s primary goals is to erase the stigma surrounding addiction and to make people more comfortable seeking help. She wants to shift the conversation from addiction as a law enforcement problem to a public health issue.
“There are still people who think: ‘Throw ‘em in jail, that’s where they belong,’” she says. “There’s still a stigma attached. People don’t want to think about it. It’s not going to happen to me, not going to happen to my kid – until it happens to your kid.”
Thacker has seen progress in recent years, due in part to the opioid epidemic that has gripped entire communities. Deaths related to opioid use increased from 8,000 in 1999 to 47,600 in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and more than doubled just since 2011. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimated that 20.7 million Americans age 12 or older needed treatment for substance abuse in 2017, but only four million people received treatment.
Thacker expanded her efforts and is a certified advocate for children through the state’s Guardian ad Litem program. In cases where children are neglected or abused and petitioned into the court system, which often occurs when addiction has taken hold, a district court judge appoints a GAL attorney and a trained volunteer to investigate the circumstances, to determine what’s best for the child and to empower the child’s voice in further court proceedings.
Local attorney Ricki Tillett, who worked with Thacker during her training and certification process, wrote in an email that she knew Thacker would make a good GAL. Thacker, she wrote, demonstrated insight into the effects of addiction on the individual, the family, and especially the children. She possesses a wealth of knowledge about substance abuse resources and services.
“Her desire to help families heal from a substance abuse issue is a perfect balance of empathy and accountability,” Tillett wrote. “I count our community as very blessed to have Brenda as an advocate not only for children in need but for people who are struggling with substance abuse.”
Thacker says that she became a GAL to be a voice for children when a parent or parents struggle with addiction. One of the best parts of GAL training, she wrote in an email, is determining the best course of action for everyone involved without judgment.
“We MUST meet people where they are in life,” she wrote.
Thacker has seen progress, but it’s slow. Addiction and substance abuse are still written off by many as a weakness or moral failing, if they are confronted at all. She knows that some people question the value of her efforts.
“I get lots of negative comments in my world,” Thacker says. “I say, at least you’re talking about me. Which makes me all the more determined to do what I do, because there’s so much that needs to be done.”
No matter how helpless or how hopeless people feel as they struggle with addiction, Thacker wants them to know that there’s at least one person willing to listen and willing to help. It’s what mothers do.