Our Electric Elastic Amazing Brains

 Translation to most languages available at tab to the right.

The human brain is a miracle – there is nothing on earth that comes close to its capabilities. Although the brain and the heart are the only two organs that can’t regenerate, our brain can form new connections and pathways. Neuroplasticity is this amazing ability of our neural networks to grow and reorganize – to change and adapt as a result of experiences.

Until recently, it was thought that neuroplasticity stops after about 25, but with new research, we now know that it isn’t all downhill from there. Neuroplasticity can be facilitated by physical exercise, paying attention, and learning new things.

Physical exercise that increases blood flow to the brain is now a no-brainer. Paying attention is when we are doing something that is not out of habit – when we switch off autopilot and pay attention to what is happening. This is called mindfulness. Learning new things and being open to change becomes harder the older we get – and it will become increasingly more difficult if we don’t intentionally challenge ourselves mentally.

But what happens when drugs – any drug really, but drugs/substances of abuse are my topic here – enter the scene? Neuroplasticity then becomes the facilitator of addiction as our brain learns to adapt to the new stimulus, increasingly over time.

Dr. Maria Mavrikaki explains it this way in the Harvard Health Blog:

“Our first decision to use a drug may be triggered by curiosity, circumstances, personality, and stressful life events. This first drug exposure increases the release of a molecule (neurotransmitter) called dopamine, which conveys the feeling of reward. The increased changes in dopamine levels in the brain reward system can lead to further neuroplasticity following repeated exposure to drugs of abuse; these neuroplasticity changes are also fundamental characteristics of learning. Experience-dependent learning, including repeated drug use, might increase or decrease the transmission of signals between neurons. Neuroplasticity in the brain’s reward system following repeated drug use leads to more habitual and (in vulnerable people) more compulsive drug use, where people ignore the negative consequences. Thus, repeated exposure to drugs of abuse creates experience-dependent learning and related brain changes, which can lead to maladaptive patterns of drug use.”(1)

In her article in The Washington Post, December 1, 2017, Dr. Sandra Block (a neurologist) gives further evidence as seen on EEG’s on the changes to the brain that opioids (and similarly, other drugs of abuse) cause:

“Neurologically speaking, opioids are crafty. They turn the brain’s own electricity against it, rewiring connections in an endless feedback loop for more drugs. They trick the brain into a death trap, as users chase the chemical bliss from the drugs with more drugs. Acute opioid usage (that is, the high itself) translates into slowing on the EEG. Usually, such an effect is transient, carefully monitored by an anesthesiologist during surgery, for instance. But when the patient becomes the anesthesiologist, the cycle can become lethal…the opioids overwhelm the brain’s respiratory center, causing cardiac arrest… I’m seeing brain death in people who haven’t lived their lives yet, whose brains haven’t even fully developed, brains that are literally killing themselves for drugs.”(2)

Brain death in people who haven’t lived their lives yet. Our amazing elastic and electric brains. Short circuited and rewired. The good news in this bleak report is that the very same neuroplasticity can help rewire the addicted brain and return it to health and a hopeful future. See one woman’s amazing story, below. (3) But it will take time and effort. Our best efforts then should be working on preventing the damage in the first place.

1.HARVARD HEALTH BLOG

Brain plasticity in drug addiction: Burden and benefit

June 26, 2020 By Maria Mavrikaki, PhD

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/brain-plasticity-in-drug-addiction-burden-and-benefit-2020062620479

2. What the opioid epidemic looks like on the screen of a brain scan

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/what-the-opioid-epidemic-looks-like-on-the-screen-of-a-brain-scan/2017/12/01/2d642caa-d4c0-11e7-95bf-df7c19270879_story.html

3. Neuroplasticity: How I Survived Psychosis and Jail

MAR. 08, 2021 By Victoria Harris, MD, MPH

https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/March-2021/Neuroplasticity-How-I-Survived-Psychosis-and-Jail?gclid=CjwKCAjwp_GJBhBmEiwALWBQkyeejxyO0PPwvJCmCe30tqEYUQzliKTZ7CfcGc–Brl5wS_feW9KnRoCSEwQAvD_BwE

Australian Real Drug Talk

Translation into most languages at tab to the right.

One of the things I have come to appreciate about the Australian way is their straightforward approach to life. They are easy-going yet they say what they mean and you know where you stand. A lack of pretense – with a large dose of slightly off-color humor added in.

I think that is why they are more advanced in their drug policies and treatments than America – they are more honest and have less taboos. They benefit from having had comprehensive public health for decades which has facilitated progressive drug policies such as clean needle exchanges, safe-injecting sites, and medication assisted treatment.

John and I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago here in Australia with Jack Nagel. Jack does the “Real Drug Talk” podcast from Melbourne and also runs the Connection Based Living Recovery Programs. We were preparing to record a podcast with Jack – see links below – and were asking about his experiences and what the current trends are here with drugs of abuse.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/saying-goodbye-to-my-son-in-a-body-bag/id1507177011?i=1000533422150

In discussing opioids, I wondered why methamphetamines seems to be the main drug of choice and why heroin is not as common here as it is in the States. Jack said that in the 1990’s there was a big problem with heroin coming in from the Golden Triangle of SE Asia and lots of overdose deaths. And the heroin use was IV, not smoking. So, there is a collective memory of street people using heroin and dying which created a lot of stigma and fear associated with IV use.

After that trend slowed, people began using meth – young people like Jack –because smoking or snorting meth seems more innocuous and a less intrusive way to take a powerful drug than IV. Jack said that there is a huge cohort of people who don’t live on the streets and who smoke meth for years. Sadly, they don’t seek help because the public messaging that portrays meth addicts as homeless people with sores and missing teeth doesn’t apply to them. But meth addiction will eventually burst that bubble and ruin their lives too.

There is also a growing problem with cocaine. While once considered the drug of the wealthy city dweller with some high-flying users in Australia spending $10-$20K per week, statistics reveal cocaine usage has now spread much further. Consumption has grown in other areas and demographics where prosperity has increased such as middle-class teachers, tradesmen, etc. Australia is now the highest per capita user of the drug in the world. And the rise in use is being driven by men aged in their 20’s, with Sydney leading the country in use. The most recent stats reveal that there are nearly 1 million weekly cocaine users in Australia out of a population of 26 million. (1,2,3)

We also talked with Jack about what the entry drugs are for kids here in Australia. After alcohol and pot, they usually begin with hard “party” drugs used at house parties and concerts like ecstasy/MDMA, benzodiazepines, GHB/GBL. All mood-altering drugs that create different types of euphoria, but which are dangerous because many times they are mixed with alcohol and other drugs, sometimes without the user’s knowledge.

Even though heroin is in the background in Australia, it is still available and becoming more dangerous due to fentanyl being mixed in to the supply of much of the heroin, and all opioids, along with other drugs of abuse. (4)

When our son, JL, began using Oxy’s he never thought he would even try heroin. Then, as Oxy’s became more expensive and heroin was cheaper, he started smoking heroin. He then swore he would never stick a needle in his vein – the danger and stigma to him was clear. Eventually, just like 95% of heroin users, he did just that. He was living under the delusion that smoking opioids – or any drug – would never lead him to become a “junkie”, an IV drug user.

My concern for the young people and families of Australia is that, as The Age reported in 2020, pain management with opioids has increased here too, although not to the degree it had in the States. Opioid-related deaths have increased in the past decade and today at least three people die from opioid harm each day and 150 are hospitalized. (5) Fentanyl is showing up in wastewater testing and drug overdoses of cocaine and meth, drugs where the users are not expecting a potent narcotic. Because it is synthetic and cheaper to produce in China and India, it brings its criminal networks a greater profit margin.

As I’ve said before and will continue to say: We will not treat our way out of the opioid/drug epidemic. Prevention is key. Let’s continue to stay aware and educated about what we all can do to keep our children and their future safe and healthy.

http://www.RealDrugTalk.com.au

1. Why cocaine is most used drug in Australia behind cannabis

https://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/national/why-cocaine-is-most-used-drug-in-australia-behind-cannabis/news-story/0fa9bbcec60dfe0ecfb52a5cb58a38f5

2. Australia the highest per capita cocaine user in the world

https://www.news.com.au/national/australia-the-highest-per-capita-cocaine-user-in-the-world/news-story/c91869d4e2b2adeef266917d82f705e0

3. Sydney and cocaine: an illicit love affair for the ages

https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/sydney-and-cocaine-an-illicit-love-affair-for-the-ages-20210225-p575uz.html

4. Fentanyl in the Australian illicit drug market

https://adf.org.au/insights/fentanyl-australian-illicit-drug/

5. Australia’s opioid crisis: How pain management got out of control

2021 International Overdose Awareness Day August 31

Translation into most languages at tab to the right.

The need has never been more urgent to alert us all to the risk of overdose facing millions of people worldwide. During the 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic, overdose deaths have risen approximately 30% in many parts of the world due to isolation, unstable drug sources, and lack of reliable medical and recovery help. Even the normal inadequate support services have been seriously disrupted and diverted. And the hope of C19 disappearing sometime soon is now seen as wishful thinking – it is a new deadly virus we will have to learn how to live with.

So, what can we do to help prevent further loss of lives for those already struggling with addiction?

Continue reading “2021 International Overdose Awareness Day August 31”

Teenage Perils

(Translation in most languages available at tab on right)

Int’l Overdose Awareness Day Sale on eBook & Paperback through Sept 1st

Most of us have heard that the category of “teenager” came about after WWII. Before that, in a mostly agrarian society, you were either a child or an adult and the demarcation was when you went from being directed and cared for by your parents to being responsible for yourself and caring for others.

The word “teen” was introduced as early as 1818 referring to a person who was 13-19, “teener” from 1894, and “teen-ager” from 1922 (1). But the terms didn’t stick and didn’t carry a sociological group identity until after WWII. Being a teenager became its own sub-culture that revolved around like-ness, popularity and a fear of being on the outside.

Increasingly, the modern teenager relies more on peer-pressure than family relationships and values. And, peer pressure and group dynamics is known to be one of the highest risks for adolescent drug and alcohol experimentation and use. In one chapter of Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson discusses teenagers at length (2). He writes, “Psychologist Laurence Steinberg, put people of various ages in a simulated driving game. Adults drove the same, whether or not they had an audience. But teenagers took twice as many “chances” when their friends were watching. Teenagers are exquisitely sensitive to the influence of their peers.”

Continue reading “Teenage Perils”

Connection is Crucial

(Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

During a recent podcast on Straight from the Source (1), David Higham (founder of The Well, a peer-run alcohol and other drug service in the northwest of England) spoke about his life.

For more than 20 years, David was a habitual heroin user more accustomed to life in prison than the outside world. He joined a 12-step program during his final stint. Upon release, he found that sustained well-being and recovery was rare and he knew he had to help change that. What interested me most from his story was this insight:

“Drug treatment is trying to find a solution for my solution…But what’s the solution for my problem?”

Continue reading “Connection is Crucial”

Looking Back to See the Future

(Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

When I am doing research for an upcoming blog post, I can get lost. There is so much information now on drug addiction and the opioid epidemic that I suddenly look at the clock and realize I’ve been wandering virtually around the world and becoming more discouraged with each new article or report: Scotland has more drug overdose deaths per capita than any European country (1); Fentanyl is  flooding California with overdose deaths skyrocketing (2); the use of over-the-counter codeine (an opiate) cough medicine among eighth graders in the US has increased (3); and, Australia now has the eighth-highest per-capita opioid consumption in the world (4).

Continue reading “Looking Back to See the Future”

What Would They Say?

(Short topical blog based on Opiate Nation – translation into most languages in tab on right.)

August 2nd is the seventh anniversary of our son’s death. JL died of a heroin overdose in the early morning hours of that Saturday in 2014. He was 25 years old.

In 2020 alone, 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the USA – hundreds of thousands more worldwide. Millions in the past few decades. These were beloved daughters, sons, partners, parents, friends, relatives. I think I can confidently say they did not want to be addicted and if they could have turned back the clock to the time before they began using drugs, they would have.

Continue reading “What Would They Say?”

Ghost Stories

(Short topical blogs based on Opiate Nation – translation into most languages in tab on right.)

When we hear the phrase “ghost stories” most of us think of scary and spooky stories shared around a campfire with the intended, and predicable, consequence of keeping us awake at night.

But when H Lee (aka Harris Insler) decided to call his new podcast series “These Ghosts Must Be Heard”, it wasn’t because he would be interviewing people with paranormal experiences. And although the stories his guests share aren’t scary in the ghoulish sense, they have kept their narrators awake at night for days, weeks, and months on end. John and I included. (To hear our interview with Harris, see links below for Podbean, Amazon, Spotify.)

https://theseghostsmustbeheard.podbean.com/

https://music.amazon.com/podcasts/3392919b-b8bc-46b4-a486-5e34b7d8dd1d/episodes/580578a3-691f-418a-a179-8bc5f72dd138/these-ghosts-must-be-heard-episode-2-jl

These are real-life experiences and these “ghosts” are the spirits of our deceased loved ones: children, friends, partners who have succumbed to premature and preventable deaths from opioid overdoses.

Continue reading “Ghost Stories”

Gilded Grief

(Short topical blogs based on Opiate Nation – translation into most languages in tab on right.)

While reading Rising Strong by Brené Brown, I was struck by a thought she shared about our American culture and the absence of honest conversation and the hard work it takes for us to rise strong after a fall on our face – a failure. She worries that “this lack of honesty about overcoming adversity has created a Gilded Age of Failure.”

Gilding is a perfect word-picture for this characteristically human behavior: applying a very thin coating of gold to a plain, inexpensive object that gives it the appearance of gold. This is what we do when we are dishonest about our feelings. We are choosing to make our real, plain, and common story appear better than it is.

“We’ve all fallen…but scars are easier to talk about than they are to show with all the remembered feelings laid bare…We much prefer stories about falling and rising to be inspirational and sanitized…We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get to the sweeping redemptive ending.”  (Rising Strong, Introduction)

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Mirror Mirror

(I am re-posting this from July 4th for those who were on holiday and missed it.)

Topical blogs taken from OPIATE NATION. Translation into most languages at tab on right.

I was listening to a young man who had been heavily addicted to crystal meth. As he told his story, one of his “ah-ha” moments was walking into a bathroom in his parents’ home and seeing himself in the mirror. As he looked at the vestige of his former self – an emaciated, festered, hollow-eyed man – he remembered who he once was: a happy and carefree young person with good friends, a star athlete, a kind and honest person, a loving son. That moment of realization caused him to reach out and ask for help which eventually led to the beginning of his recovery journey.

As I heard his story, a photo flashed before my eyes of my son, JL – one we found on his phone after he died from a heroin overdose. It was a selfie he had taken after he had relapsed, just days before he died, standing in front of a full-length mirror in a public bathroom. He was dressed for work in slacks and a dress shirt. No smile. I have always wondered why he took that photo. Was it to remind himself of who he really was? To be able to be honest with himself when he might look at it later when he was high? Was he attempting to make himself stop using? To ask someone for help?

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