(Third in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
Chapter 1: The Letter
Most of us have felt like we were “in over our head” at some point in our lives. Maybe it was in a job, or a class, or a relationship. Perhaps in the ocean, or on a steep mountain trail or having made a commitment to an event or project that turns out to be more involved and time consuming than we thought. When we finally realize there are more problems than we can handle or a difficulty that we just can’t surmount, what do we do?
I remember one time when John and I were in Morocco and the friends we were traveling with were gone for the day. We decided to explore a lighthouse we saw ahead. As we walked through an opening in a wall that surrounded it, we started to feel we might not be in a safe place. We felt fearful as we saw trashed looking apartments and expensive cars with black tinted windows. What made us turn and literally run was the sound of mean dogs barking. As we ran back through the opening, several came in view with their spiked collars and bared teeth. Thankfully, as we hit the main street, their owners called them off.
When we realized our 16 yr old son was using Black Tar Heroin – crudely refined heroin from Mexico that is heated, liquified, and smoked or injected – we were shocked. When he came home from his summer job, we sat down together and told him what we knew. At first he denied it, but eventually he admitted he had smoked some but “it wasn’t often and it wasn’t a problem.” He just couldn’t admit to us, or to himself, how addicted he was. He was afraid. Terrified is probably closer to the truth.
I don’t think his fear was from pride – the fear of losing face with us. He knew we loved him regardless of what he was doing. He probably figured he would lose some privileges and possibly be sent away somewhere like several of his friends. I think it was more the fear that he knew he was in over his head. He had tried to cut back on his own, but couldn’t. No one had told him when he started with prescription opioids and then smoking BT heroin that he wouldn’t be able to control it, let alone stop. And he had friends who had gone through withdrawal and he knew it would be horrible. What he didn’t know, and we didn’t either, was withdrawal was going to be the easiest part of beating opioid addiction.
It is hard for most people to admit they’ve made a mistake – there are books and seminars for learning how to not be afraid to own up, sincerely apologize, and make amends. These are important social skills that most of us want to be good at. But facing a mistake that has serious physical consequences can be daunting, especially to a teenager or young adult. And once we have admitted we have made a mistake, along with the fear, there is shame. Shame for having become addicted and shame in feeling that you are weak because you can’t seem to live without this drug.
Our son was able to get through withdrawal and an outpatient recovery program that helped him stay clean for several years. For that period of time, he was free from the feeling of being in over his head.