In the summer of 2005, we discovered our 16 year old son was smoking “BT” ––Black Tar Heroin. A few weeks later, while we were in the midst of his withdrawal and simply putting one foot in front of the other as we searched everywhere trying to find the next step, I was rushed to the ER. After going to bed one night, my heart began racing and pounding out of my chest. After an hour, John called 911. At the hospital, I was given tests to see if I was having a heart attack. No. The diagnosis: extreme anxiety––deep, un-verbalized, foreboding. I was given IV morphine and as my heart rate slowed down, I slept. Who else but our children can affect our hearts at such a fundamental and unconscious level?
Anxiety was not new to me, although I had never previously experienced it to that degree. I don’t remember being anxious as a child. My life was pretty secure and happy when I was young. Looking back, I think anxiety began creeping in after adolescence––when those momentous changes in hormones that affect us from our brains to our bones take place. I began to have difficulty getting to sleep at night due to an inability to shut down my mind. I needed more time alone but in a large family and without being taught self-awareness, I just learned to live with it until after high school. That is when I learned about prayer and meditation. I didn’t become a calm person––but I have been able to access peace when I purposefully let go of anxiety and fear.
But what about after our son died? Here is a section from our upcoming memoir, a journal entry from a month after JL’s overdose death:
Mom here. Every time I walk past the large photo of you in the Arizona room––a place I walk past many times each day––I take “an anxious breath.” That’s what I call the involuntary, short catch breath that happens to me when I am anxious or upset. It lives below my level of consciousness, and I can’t control it. The pain of your death is so deep…
In Woman of Substances, Jenny Valentish discusses anxiety and self-medicating at length in Chapter 5, “Amateur Alchemy.” She says “In the initial pursuit of partying, people are likely to find themselves drawn to certain families of substances, and they will discover that these additionally offer relief to symptoms of mental illness, distress, or emotional pain.” She goes on to discuss the sedative drugs that are used for self-soothing anxiety such as heroin, benzo’s, alcohol, opioid prescriptions and cannabis, and also the drugs commonly chosen for depression, bipolar, OCD, and ADHD. While Jenny’s research is of particular interest to women and the difference in how they are viewed, diagnosed and treated for any behavioral anomalies, it also sheds light on the high percentage of individuals who abuse substances who are also struggling with mental health issues, diagnosed or not. For those of you who think that most mental illness is an excuse for––for exactly what?––this might help: Most of us know someone who is on a prescription stimulant to calm their ADHD. Why does speed have the opposite effect on them compared to the rest of us? Clearly, their brain chemistry needs something different than ours. It is for the same reason that for many, their drug of choice is a sedative. Their brains need something to turn off the rapid-fire stimulation that can be almost constant.
Sarah Fader, the CEO and Founder of Stigma Fighters (a non-profit that encourages individuals with mental illness to share their personal stories, http://stigmafighters.com/) has written a book of anxious thoughts called #This is What Anxiety Feels Like, illustrated by Michelle Hammer. Sarah lives with Bipolar type II, OCD, ADHD and PTSD while she raises her two children and runs a publishing company. Michelle is a graphic designer and artist living with paranoid schizophrenia. Their stories are examples of what individuals can accomplish when they are diagnosed and treated properly––and when those around them reject the stigma and associated shame that society has so long attached to mental illness.
In a similar way, my hope is that through this blog and our soon-to-be-released memoir, we can help bring understanding to some of the reasons for addiction and repel the shame that makes it so much harder to become clean and sober. As I have said before, neither my son nor the majority of the 75,000 people who die from overdoses annually in the USA alone wanted their life to be controlled by addiction. Once our society understands this, we can then move forward together to find real solutions to help change this tragedy.