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.

I wonder what our loved ones would say to us if they were here today? Would they tell us how they regret they cared so much about whether their peers thought they were ‘cool’ or ‘dope’ or ‘sic’? Would they’ve wished they’d been able to talk with us or a trusty role model about their struggles as a young person in an overwhelming and fast-paced society? Would they have longed to live their life without anxiety over the difficult and numerous decisions in their future? Would they be the most vocal advocates for prevention through easily accessible information, uniformly available access to medication and recovery programs, and promptly implemented changes in drug laws and public policies?

As a mom and dad who tried so hard to be the best parents to their kids, you can imagine that we sometimes ponder these things and wish we had known more about the real struggles our young adults were facing and how to help them navigate the twists and turns in the path of life.

Although we have adjusted to living life without our son and are not crushed by grief as we were during the first year or two after his death, we are still saddened by the knowledge that every day, 90 more precious people will die from a preventable death – and their loved ones will join a group they never wanted to be a part of.

JL’s death has shaped our lives and focused our energy on working to help bring about real change in families, communities, and society that will result in declining statistics and lives saved.

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.

I’ve heard it said that stories emotionalize information. Most of us already have acquired information about addiction and the escalation of deaths from drug overdoses – almost 100,000 in 2020 in the USA alone – we’ve seen reports on the news about the opioid epidemic, drug seizures at ports and borders, celebrities going to rehab. But to transfer that information from our heads to our hearts requires another step. This is where stories come in.

Stories are proven to connect us to others and, when told honestly and well, they should place us on common emotional ground with our listeners. Good advice can feel like a lecture whereas a vivid personal story relating that same information will more likely alter our views. Scientists have found that when we are listening to or reading an engaging story, our bodies become involved with symptoms such as sweaty palms, rapid or skipped heart beats, and facial movements. On functional MRI scans, many different areas of the brain light up when someone is listening to a narrative. Our brain waves actually start to synchronize with the storyteller. *

After getting trustworthy information, then allowing it to settle into our hearts and souls through the power of stories, the next step is taking action. What can you and I do to help bring about necessary change? Harris, and all those willing to share their painful stories on his podcast – and all the other excellent addiction and recovery podcasts now being produced – do so with the intent that sharing their narrative might energize others to be informed, share their stories, and help change the outcome for future generations.

It takes courage to be vulnerable and face the dark and scary places in our lives – and even more to share those stories. Billy Graham said, “Courage is contagious. When one man takes a stand, the spines of others are stiffened.”  

* https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/04/11/815573198/how-stories-connect-and-persuade-us-unleashing-the-brain-power-of-narrative

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)

The irony of gilded stories is that the real and valuable story is what lies beneath and it never needed to be gilded. Our painful stories do not need to be covered over – they just need to be polished so they shine. “All that glitters is not gold” – the well-known saying from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice – reminds us that things which seem valuable many times are not. A fitting corollary – “All that is gold does not glitter” from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring – reminds us that the plain, sometimes homely things in life are truly valuable.

For parents such as us who have lost a child to a preventable death – by overdose, suicide, alcohol poisoning, gang violence, etc. – the regrets and accompanying guilt are a “failure”, if not to others, at least to ourselves. While we all know about the stigma related to these preventable deaths, there is equal stigma surrounding openly sharing about loss and grief. During times of grieving our loved ones, most of us have heard well-meaning friends share their discomfort with our expressions of pain and hurt by encouraging us to “just move on” and “you will feel better soon.”

All of us prefer to gild the pain we experience – our sense of self and pride want to appear strong and well and on top of things. But I think we all know that this is not a healthy way to live our lives, to be fully alive. As Brown stresses in her work on vulnerability and shame, we cannot learn and grow and change after failure unless, and until, we acknowledge and deal honestly with the real hurt, heartbreak, and fear.

And John and I have found, when we are vulnerable and honest about our own failures and the resultant deep grief and emotional pain, we then invite others to be more open and honest about their own experiences and feelings.

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?

I’ll never know.

But after listening to this other young man, I’m guessing my son had similar thoughts going through his mind. Yet, what seems to have happened is that his addicted mind told himself that he could handle it on his own – that he could just cut down his use and not have to go through withdrawal one more time, not have to be embarrassed by telling us he had relapsed after 6 months of sobriety, not have to start all over again.

Perception refers to how we interpret things and it is the motivation behind our actions and reactions. His perception of his ability to use his willpower was skewed, because our self-perception is influenced by many factors including our perceived needs, our experiences, and our expectations.

Beneath self-perception is our self-concept, our view of our self, which influences our decisions, our feelings, and our judgement. It may include genuine self-knowledge or varying degrees of distortion.

Many times, we choose – albeit unconsciously – to be self-deceived because it is too painful to be honest with ourselves, to interpret what we see in the mirror with unbiased and accurate judgement. There is a saying written in the first century AD that sums this up:

“Those who hear (a clear direction) and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are or what they look like.”

Because of this very human tendency, we all need a few close friends and a safe community who love us enough to honestly reflect back what we saw in the mirror – which we can so conveniently forget.

Mirror Mirror

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?

I’ll never know.

But after listening to this other young man, I’m guessing my son had similar thoughts going through his mind. Yet, what seems to have happened is that his addicted mind told himself that he could handle it on his own – that he could just cut down his use and not have to go through withdrawal one more time, not have to be embarrassed by telling us he had relapsed after 6 months of sobriety, not have to start all over again.

Perception refers to how we interpret things and it is the motivation behind our actions and reactions. His perception of his ability to use his willpower was skewed, because our self-perception is influenced by many factors including our perceived needs, our experiences, and our expectations.

Beneath self-perception is our self-concept, our view of our self, which influences our decisions, our feelings, and our judgement. It may include genuine self-knowledge or varying degrees of distortion.

Many times, we choose – albeit unconsciously – to be self-deceived because it is too painful to be honest with ourselves, to interpret what we see in the mirror with unbiased and accurate judgement. There is a saying written in the first century AD that sums this up:

“Those who hear (a clear direction) and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are or what they look like.”

Because of this very human tendency, we all need a few close friends and a safe community who love us enough to honestly reflect back what we saw in the mirror – which we can so conveniently forget.

Peter’s Story: Alcohol The Gateway Drug

(Thirty-fifth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

This week’s Story of Hope is from a friend of JL’s, Peter (not his real name). Here are some excerpts from his story in Opiate Nation (5 min read):

My name is Peter and I’m an alcoholic and addict. This is how I introduce myself at the AA meetings I attend several times every week, as I have done for over 10 years. I am from a fairly affluent family, raised with high moral standards, and attended the best schools. So how is it that I became an alcoholic by the time I was a senior in high school and an opioid addict and dealer by the time I was 20?

The first time I used alcohol was in my junior year in high school. I was new to the school and I felt like I didn’t get the playbook for how to be a part of the group. I had been raised with strong values against using drugs and alcohol – but I wanted to fit in with the popular kids.

I tried a capful of vodka—that was it. I hated the way it tasted. The next day I was sick—not so much from the alcohol, but with guilt. This would be a consistent theme in my drinking and using: I always felt guilt and the consequences of doing something soul-crushing and bending the moral line I had deep within me. Once that barrier had been crossed, then anything was permissible. Initially I only drank on weekends at parties so that I wouldn’t be the outsider.

I barely graduated high school. If I wasn’t drinking, I was restless and discontented and my skin was crawling. As soon as I got little alcohol in me, I felt like I just need a little bit more to feel like I did the first time I drank. But I would get to that tipping point and then would go until it was a blackout again.

Looking back on it, it was so selfish. My family was paying for my education and I was just wasting it. It was continual, repetitive drunkenness and waking up in horrible shape and feeling worse each time. I would continue to screw up and manipulate my parents so they would let me get back into a situation that was really detrimental to me. I was just continually enabled with the free apartment, the no-consequences lifestyle. It was like being a celebrity: you don’t have any responsibilities or pay your own bills—just party.

When I was 20, I first smoked weed. Within a week I was selling enough so that I could smoke for free. It was the first thing that calmed my ADHD. I felt like I could breathe again, and it slowed my rapid thinking way down. It did for me what I was hoping alcohol would do for me. Pretty soon, I was drinking and smoking weed at the same time: “cross-fading.”

Then I tried Percocet and 30 minutes later I felt like I had melted in my seat—I’d never had painkillers before. But then I was on. I’d have one or two of those when I was at work. I felt like I was Superman. I had no anxiety, no problems, living in the moment every moment. I took them with alcohol and pot for over a year. We took them at first as a party drug—deceptively advertised as “non-addictive”. But one time turned into needing it every day.

I got into selling hard drugs and started meeting a lot of very shady people, going to places my friend and I would never have gone to in the past. The majority of buying Oxy’s was from people who were way over prescribed. Every time I had more money, I used more—I was a junkie and there was no profit. Also, when you get blackout drunk every night, it’s easy to give away more product than they pay for, you’re hanging out with pretty seedy people who are stealing things from you—it just goes like that.

Finally, I got pulled over by a cop. They searched the vehicle and found weed in the trunk. I was put on probation. I started back to work, taking cabs, and I started going to AA meetings every day. My dad took me to a meeting. Every member of my family is an alcoholic—both parents’ sides. My dad had been an alcoholic and sold drugs before I was born, and he had gotten clean and sober through AA.

I didn’t think I was an alcoholic. What I failed to realize was alcohol is a “drug,” because you are using it in the same way: for the effect. I thought I could just smoke some weed and drink a beer now and then. But for me, that’s not an option—I can never just have one or two. Within two months I started drinking again, then heavily and blacking out all the time. With court dates looming, I was a mess emotionally and physically—I was broken and decided I would kill myself.

Before I did this, I had a moment of clarity and wanted to call my mom. She had brought me into this world, and I should tell her before I took myself out of it. And I didn’t want her to feel guilty for what I had done. She didn’t try to tell me not to do it. She told me I was right, that I was going to die because I was really sick. She asked, “Are you willing for the first time in your life to put 100% effort into this and abandon every idea that you could ever drink or use again on the hopes that you could have a life that would be normal?” I said yes. Not hearing her say “I love you and it’s going to be ok,” but her telling me the truth is what made the difference.

The next day, I went to a meeting, broken and finally ready for a change. An old guy there said he’d be my sponsor. As we talked, he said I should get quiet and calm, hit my knees every morning and night and thank God for my sobriety, one day at a time. Get to one or more meetings a day. If something feels wrong, don’t do it and call me. It wasn’t easy.

I went through all the 12-steps. Even today, with over 10 years sober, I am tempted because I still can only see the dishonest part of drinking—the fun times, not where that one drink will take me. I need to stay connected and going to meetings because my sobriety is my priority.

*Please listen to SURVIVING OPIOIDS new podcast for relevant discussion re early alcohol use, childhood trauma, and recovery – link at right

Anne’s Story: Cultural Influences

(Thirty-fourth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

This week’s Story of Hope is from a young friend of ours, Anne (not her real name). Here are some excerpts from her story in Opiate Nation (5 min read):

I was eleven years old when I first experienced shooting heroin. Looking back, I can hardly believe it and I am so thankful to be alive, and to be sharing my story.

My boyfriend and I watched the movies Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream and they really piqued our interest in drugs. The way it was portrayed in those movies made me think using heroin would be an amazing dream sequence, when in actuality, it made me violently ill. My boyfriend insisted we keep trying. He became obsessed with all drugs: ecstasy, LSD, cocaine, and various pills and so I tried them all.

Continue reading “Anne’s Story: Cultural Influences”

Hank’s Story: Drinking Loneliness

(Thirty-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.)

This week’s Story of Hope is from our son’s friend, Hank (not his real name). Here are some excerpts from his story in Opiate Nation (5 min read):

I grew up in a loving home – the youngest of seven kids in a Catholic family. Although there are no alcoholics in my immediate family, my mother’s side of the family consists of proud Irish New Yorkers where alcoholism runs rampant. I experienced my first drunk at the age of 13.

Continue reading “Hank’s Story: Drinking Loneliness”

Stories: Common Threads

(Thirty-second in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

During the years since our son died, we have been encouraged and supported by his friends –many of whom have awe-inspiring recovery stories. We asked several of them to share their stories in Opiate Nation with the hope that they will give insights for parents and encourage other young adults to know they can be sober and have a meaningful life full of joy, love, and hope.

What we learned from these stories – and from the many stories we have heard in recovery meetings, in the news, and in books – is that there are some common threads that run through the lives of people struggling with addictions. And although there are no formulas for raising kids who will not use drugs or abuse alcohol, becoming aware of the common threads and risk factors in families with addiction and alcoholism is a good place for parents to start. If these commonalities are understood and taken into consideration, they might help avert tragedies such as the one we experienced.

I have written about each of these threads in separate chapters of Opiate Nation, but I will summarize them here:

Continue reading “Stories: Common Threads”

Grief: Anticipation Anxiety

(Thirty-first in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

There is something about the rise of a full moon that I just love. I’m not sure why it holds such fascination for me, but it always has. I’m greedy about it – I wish we had a full moon every night, like we have the sun every day. When I was growing up in Tucson, Arizona, I loved anticipating the moon’s first peek as it came up over the mountains on the eastern edge of our valley, creating a silhouette of Thimble Peak. Then, it was as if the moon just popped up and suddenly the entire valley was bathed in moonlight. I loved walking in the desert under its light. The movie, Under the Same Moon, captures the beautiful thought that regardless of where we are in the world, we can look up and know we are under the same moon as those we love.

Anticipation can bring pleasure or anxiety as we are waiting for or pondering a future event. Expectation – like a child waiting for their birthday. But during the Covid Pandemic, there is a sense of anxiety from there being no known end in sight. The anticipation is open-ended and we are unable to plan ahead, which has caused instability in many areas: our health, jobs, housing, food supply. We may anticipate a not-so-good outcome and the future is not predictable or knowable. Not that any of our futures are predictable or knowable, but there are fairly reasonable assumptions we can make when life is close to “normal”.

Continue reading “Grief: Anticipation Anxiety”