The pervasiveness of opioid addiction was made clear to my husband and I, once again, on a recent trip. We were in California at one of our favorite Italian restaurants having a chat with one of the owners – catching up after not seeing each other for a few years. Somehow, yet very common for us, the conversation turned to the opioid epidemic and our son’s death from overdose. Our friend remembered us telling him about it, paused, and asked: “Do you mind if I tell you a personal story about heroin?”
He shared that when he was growing up in Italy 20 years ago, he had a friend who had become addicted to heroin. He and his group of guys tried their best, to no avail, simply to get their friend to stop using, not understanding the nature of the mental and physical addiction their friend struggled with. He would disappear at times and could never really be a part of the normal socializing that 20-somethings did. But our friend continued to keep track of him, search for him, and honestly talk with him about his problems urging him to think about his future life.
One day, no one knew where this young addicted man was and our friend went searching. When he finally found him, he had just overdosed. He resuscitated him and got him to the hospital and into rehab. He got clean, is now in his 40’s with a wife and children, and forever thankful to the friend who cared enough to not give up on him.
Several things struck me about this encounter with our Italian friend: First, he was sincerely appreciative to be able to share with others who cared about this life-changing event that he will never forget – he was almost in tears. When given the opportunity, the invitation, people feel better when they can share about subjects that are commonly viewed as shameful or unacceptable. Secondly, although the addicted person naturally became more isolated the more his addiction took over, his friends loved and cared for him enough to not dismiss him as hopeless or think that he wanted to be a slave to opioids – and continued to pursue him right up to death’s door.
I know from watching our son over the years, that most of our son’s non-addicted friends could not tell when JL was relapsing until he wasn’t hanging out with them anymore. They would not have realized that with the ‘normal’ socializing in our culture being centered around alcohol consumption, once JL began drinking, that was the first step in his relapsing. After that, opioids soon followed.
Years ago, JL had two friends who cared enough to pursue him as he disappeared from their common social scene. They knocked his door down because they thought he might be dying – he wasn’t answering their calls and they knew he was back to hanging out solely with his friend who was addicted. Fortunately, JL was still alive and because they contacted us, was able to start into a recovery program. By the time our son died five years later, many of his close friends were not aware of the fact that he had begun another relapse nor how much he needed them – and he died alone.