“Dear Mama, here I am writing you this letter, and it’s hard to find words,” wrote photographer Branislav Jankic, to his mother, Mila, in 2012. After struggling for years with pill and alcohol addiction, she had just been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. “In the last 29 years we went through a lot together. Now the end is mixed with tears and laughter.”
Jankic was born in 1983 in Vukovar, in the war-torn former Yugoslavia. Mila, a single mother, raised her two sons in the village of Borovo Selo, where she worked as a house cleaner and a nurse at a senior center. “She was a great mother,” Jankic says. “She played the role of a father for us, too. She gave us the freedom to speak up about anything.” But after she moved with her family to Munich, Germany to flee civil war, Mila herself didn’t feel free to speak up about her escalating addictions: To alcohol, sleeping pills, and, when back problems required several surgeries, prescription painkillers. As her habits spiraled out of control, “I approached the problem with anger,” Jankic says. “I was ashamed of her, and so was my brother.” Soon, he became estranged from his mother.
The brothers didn’t know how common their situation was: More than 10 percent of children in the United States live with a parent with an alcohol problem. According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 90.6 percent of the 17.3 million Americans with alcohol dependence or abuse don’t receive treatment. Reluctance to seek help often stems from stigma and shame, which can be especially acute in women facing societal pressure to be “good” mothers.
When I learned of my mother’s cancer diagnosis, a world broke under my feet…
“When I learned of my mother’s cancer diagnosis, a world broke under my feet,” Jankic, now based in Brooklyn, says. “I started reading everything I could about addiction, about recovery. I had only a little time left. I wanted to show her how much I love her.” As Mila’s disease progressed, Jankic embarked on a project dedicated to eroding the stigma surrounding addiction, and to fostering communication and reconciliation between addicts and their children.
With his close friend and producer, Goran Macura, Jankic took a road trip across the United States, visiting rehabilitation centers and halfway houses in 11 cities, from Oakland, California to Hanover, Massachusetts. In 11 days, he photographed 40 mothers struggling with addiction, both alone and with their children. He invited the mothers to write letters to their children about their substance abuse. If the children were old enough, they wrote letters in response.
These moving letters and black-and-white portraits are compiled in a new book, Letter to My Mother, published by Silvana Editoriale. They’re also the subject of a traveling exhibition, and a documentary about the project is in the works. “It was a monument I wanted to create for my mother,” Jankic says. “Looking back now, I have remorse for not having tried to understand or inform myself better. I didn’t see that behind my mother’s addiction, there was much more: she had unresolved trauma from her childhood, she had depression.” While the letters and photographs illustrate addiction’s devastating toll on families—many of the mothers pictured are working to regain custody of their children—they’re also a testament to the potential for reconciliation and recovery.
The 40 mothers who participated in the project hoped that doing so might help chip away at stigma. “Most of the women were very determined to tell their stories,” Jankic says. “For a lot of them, this was a chance to speak openly about their addiction, without shame, in hopes of lifting the stigma around the topic, to show addiction in a different light. For others, it was a chance to seek for forgiveness.”
Addiction doesn’t discriminate.
Ranging in age from teenagers to young grandmothers, the women pictured hail from every conceivable socioeconomic and cultural background. As Elizabeth, living in Santa Maria Hostel in Houston, Texas, put it, “Addiction doesn’t discriminate.” Wearing pearls in her portrait, Elizabeth describes being raised by an an addicted mother herself in what looked to outsiders like a “privileged, ‘Leave it to Beaver’” suburban childhood. Amanda, staying in the same hostel, was raised by gang members; she’d sought asylum after her ex-boyfriend tried to stab her to death. “What was common for all mothers was the love they all had for their children,” Jankic says.
During his road trip, the photographer encountered widespread misunderstanding of what the Big Book calls a “cunning and baffling disease.” “Some of the women who were interested in being part of this project had to give up because of pressure from their husbands or their families,” Jankic says. “That was the most obvious example of stigma. Those closest to them were treating their addictions with shame.”
These attitudes were painful echoes of Jankic’s response to his own mother’s substance abuse: a combination of shame, anger, and avoidance. In his early twenties, Jankic ran away to travel around Europe, working as a fashion model. Tensions escalated when Jankic developed his own drug problem; he didn’t know at the time that children of addicts are at considerably higher risk for addiction. Whenever he came home, he and Mila would get into “terrible fights”: She would “destroy everything in the house”; the neighbors would call the police; she would suffer from panic attacks; an ambulance would come to give her a sedative shot. Soon, Jankic fled the situation by moving to New York City to pursue photography, leaving his mother, and his own drug problem, in Europe.
Back in Munich, Mila stayed under the watch of Jankic’s brother. Along with the testimonies of mothers in the book, her story illustrates some insidious patterns common to addicted parents’ relationships with their kids. “She would go out in the night, get drunk, and call him at 3 in the morning, or write suicide letters, or disappear for days,” Jankic says. She went in and out of rehab. “It always looked like she would be fine and make it, but then after a while, she would relapse,” Jankic says. “I was so angry about that, it hurt me so much, I don’t know why. It literally burned in my inner self.” It wasn’t until after Mila’s cancer diagnosis that Jankic learned about the biological underpinnings of addiction and the staggeringly high rates of relapse.
In my life there was good, bad, and catastrophic—but the best was with you.
Just months before she died in 2014, Jankic photographed Mila, naked and frail, with a gold cross around her neck. The portrait is printed alongside her letter to her sons: “Forgive me for drinking,” she wrote. “I’m a frustrated alcoholic… In my life there was good, bad, and catastrophic—but the best was with you.”
Jankic wrote back: “Until now I didn’t understand that our hearts are the same and that words can stab like knives. I am very sorry that I hurt you a thousand times and that I left you alone when it was the most difficult for you.”