John Leif Trang – March 10, 1989 – August 2, 2014
(Translation into most languages at tab on right)
On March 10th, our son would have been celebrating his 33rd birthday. That day is now a painful reminder of all the potentials and possibilities that a young person should be experiencing in the 4th decade of their life.
After JL died of a heroin overdose in 2014, I began the dreaded process of sorting through his belongings – which included his computer and phone. Many of the photos on his phone I had never seen and some have now become permanently seared into my visual memory. One is of JL with a Boa wrapped around his shoulders and neck.
Boas are constrictors. Constrictors don’t chase their prey. They are ambush hunters. A boa grabs its prey with its teeth, then quickly coils its body around the prey and squeezes. It doesn’t break the bones – it constricts so tightly that its prey can’t breathe. With each exhale, it tightens its coils until its prey dies slowly from an overwhelmed circulatory system due to blood not getting to the brain. Once dead, the snake swallows its prey whole.
This visual image matched up in my mind with the photo of my son as a perfect example of what addictions do to us – regardless of the addiction: substances, alcohol, gambling, shopping, eating, status, sex, money, etc. Addiction ambushes us – lurking in our normal environment, it can sink its teeth into us when we least expect it and squeeze the life out of us. Addiction constricts. It compresses. It strangles. It makes life narrower due to pressure and tightening. It squeezes the life out of us. Our social circle becomes smaller, our options diminish, our sense of self-worth turns to living in shame not only about what we are doing but who we are. By necessity we become self-absorbed and filled with self-pity.
What’s the solution? How can we escape the death-grip of addiction? It would seem that finding a way to release the strangle-hold is the place to start. The common first response to the panic humans feel if they are being constricted by a snake is to tug and pull at it. But this is ineffective and will cause the snake to wrap tighter around you. Instead, you unwind the snake gently but firmly from the tail along the body up to the head.
So too with addiction. We need to not panic and pull – trying to use force to fight an enemy that we don’t understand and that is stronger than us. We need to be informed about this enemy and know what will help release the pressure. For parents and loved ones of someone struggling with addiction, we can offer support and compassion. I’ve written at length about the harmful effects that public stigma and private shame have in deterring people from seeking help. If we understand that recovery is a life-long process with many ups and downs and that relapses are part of the process, we can be more of a partner on the journey than a hard taskmaster or harsh critic which only serves to discourage and ultimately deter someone from getting back up and trying again. Release the pressure.
For decades, there have been options that work well for some addictions and some people. Many people have succeeded in becoming, and staying, clean and sober through a 12-Step program. The principles are sound and the focus on spirituality is an important lifelong practice. But as we learned with our son and the new, powerful and deadly drugs available today, we need powerful options to counter them. Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) is not second-best – it is a recovery tool and we wish we had understood its vital role, especially in opioid addiction.
How can these insights help society, parents, individuals prevent lives from being swallowed up by addiction? Prevention, of course, is always the best tool. Educating society, parents, children about the science, snares, and dangers of addiction in general and family addictive patterns and genetics in specific. Sadly, some of our families are more susceptible to addictive behaviors due to genetic predispositions, going back generations. It is easy for us to think that addiction is something that only affects certain groups of people: the rich, the poor, the lazy, the weak-willed…someone from another area of our city. But as we now know, addiction is no respecter of persons.
For anyone fighting a battle with an addiction, I hope you will be encouraged to take the steps necessary to start on your path to recovery and to work towards the goal of being free of whatever is squeezing the life from you. Find someone who will be a support and encouragement for your efforts. Hold an image in your mind and heart of the boa constrictor releasing its hold on you and how your life will expand and enlarge in every way when you are able to live in freedom.
Here is a link to an informative podcast from Real Drug Talk with Jack Nagle chatting with professor Maree Teesson from The Matilda Center in Sydney, AU about her experience in running a Research Centre in Mental Health and Substance Use. Topics include:
Stigma, Lived and Living experience, Mental Health and addiction research, Meth and research around meth
Interesting info on constrictors: