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:

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Celebrating Freedom and New Life

April 4, 2021

 (I am taking a break from the chapter by chapter topics from Opiate Nation to focus on the significance of this holy week. Translations into most languages available at tab to the right.)

Spring is the season of regeneration, freedom, new life. The time of year when the whole earth seems excited to be alive after being dormant all winter. For the northern hemisphere, March and April are Spring – for our friends and family in Australia, right now it is Autumn. Regardless of what season it is where you live on this planet, it is Easter Sunday and the end of Passover week. Both the Christian and Jewish traditions celebrate the freedom from bondage and the beginning of a new life, although from differing perspectives and beliefs. Both begin the time with reflection and prayer. (I don’t understand Islamic tradition well enough to comment on it except to say that Ramadan is observed around this same time of year with introspection and fasting in remembrance of Muhammad receiving the Quran.)

For Christians, the freedom is from the bondage to sin in one’s life; for Jews, it is the freedom from bondage that the Israelites suffered under in Egypt. Both faiths look to an historical event in the past. They also remind us that while bondage was dealt with symbolically once – whether personally or communally – it is an ongoing problem in this imperfect world.

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The Important 0.1 Percent

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

DNA sequences for any human is approximately 99.9 percent identical to every other human. That means that only 0.1 percent of our genetic makeup is unique to us. Genes are functional units of DNA that make up the human genome. But don’t be fooled into thinking that 0.1 percent variation is insignificant. It is nearly 3 billion base pairs of DNA which boils down to 3 million differences that determine our physical features like hair and eye color and health risks or protection from diseases such as heart disease, diabetes – and addiction. Genes influence the numbers and types of receptors in peoples’ brains, how quickly their bodies metabolize drugs, and how well they respond to different medications.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that family studies that include identical twins, fraternal twins, adoptees, and siblings suggest that as much as half of a person’s risk of becoming addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs depends on his or her genetic makeup. Scientists estimate that genes – including the effects environmental factors have on a person’s gene expression, called epigenetics – account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s risk of addiction.

Epigenetics – epi meaning “above” – is the study of functional, and sometimes inherited, changes in the regulation of gene activity and expression that are not dependent on gene sequence. This means exposures or choices people make can actually “mark” (remodel) the structure of DNA at the cell level. So epigenetic regulatory systems enable the development of different cell types (e.g., skin, liver, or nerve cells) in response to the environment. These epigenetic marks can affect health and even the expression of the traits passed to children. For example, when a person uses cocaine, it can “mark” the DNA, increasing the production of proteins common in addiction which is believed to correspond with drug-seeking behaviors.

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An Ounce of Prevention

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

In 1735, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his own newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, where he used this now-famous phrase: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. He wasn’t referring to a pandemic or keeping your roof in good condition so it won’t leak or changing the oil in your car so you won’t ruin your engine or, my personal example, brushing your teeth to avoid tooth decay and gum disease.

When I was growing up in the 1960’s, brushing our teeth every day was a new habit for most Americans. Even though the toothbrush was invented in 1857, it wasn’t until after WWII that we got in the habit of regularly brushing our teeth. When I was young, I didn’t give much thought to personal care and it seems I didn’t brush my teeth often – I was too busy living life – which is why my two older sisters gave me the endearing nick-name “moss-mouth”.  (FYI, I must have good teeth genetics because I didn’t have my first cavity until I was 30.)

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Who Is My Neighbor?

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

(I am re-posting this blog due to a glitch on some platforms in January)

In 2020, overdose deaths have increased worldwide, and by as much as 25% in the US. Deaths from acute intoxication have also increased dramatically. People are isolated and anxious, their treatment and recovery programs have been disrupted, and the illicit drug supply has become dangerous. Health officials believe that the majority of these deaths have occurred because hospitals are full and emergency services are overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, thus removing the urgent, lifesaving care of overdose reversal that has been established in the past few years. Funding for all mental health services has also been diverted to pandemic care, which has complicated access to basic resources. Suicides are rising at an alarming rate.

A conversation that I believe is relevant to the current times came to mind this week. A lawyer asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” as he was trying to wriggle out of the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus told him about a man beaten and robbed while on a journey. As the man lay almost dead on the road, he was passed by several religious leaders who refused to help him. Then a man, who was not the same nationality or religion, came and bandaged and rescued him and paid for his care until he was well. Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which of these men proved to be a neighbor?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed compassion.” Jesus responded, “Go and do the same.” *

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Avoiding Pain

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

We are living in particularly precarious times – for people born since WWII, unprecedented problems the world over – seemingly beyond our ability to control or to deal with effectively. With the Coronavirus pandemic, complex problems have arisen for our global society to attempt to solve, from the manufacturing and transport of medical supplies and personal protective equipment to the best medical treatments and the development of a vaccine – which is viewed by many as the magic potion but only if the majority of people could be convinced to ‘get the jab.’

During this extraordinary year pain has come into most of our lives in ways we have not experienced previously: physical pain from contracting Covid19, emotional pain from being isolated or from watching those we know or care for becoming sick and dying, and mental pain from the anxiety caused by all the unknowns surrounding the pandemic. For people living in poverty, these problems are compounded.

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What’s Inside the Shell?

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

Shells are beautiful and fascinating to me. Each and every one is unique, differing from others just like our fingerprints. John and I just spent time at the central eastern coast of Australia and on our daily walks on the beach I just couldn’t stop picking up shells – especially the Nautilus shells with their logarithmic spirals of every size, shape, and color. These are empty shells that were once the home of a sea creature.

The exoskeleton of mollusks is the hard, outer layer that protects the tender creature inside. As the creature grows, layers are added to accommodate it. One day, as I was picking up shells in the surf, the inhabitant was still inside. It immediately retreated as far back into its shell as possible.

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Woefully Unprepared

(Today begins a series of topical blogs based on excerpts from Opiate Nation, chapter by chapter, that will run for 28 weeks. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

It’s a bit ironic that as I begin blogging through Opiate Nation we are in the midst of a pandemic. Ironic in several significant ways.

Opiate Nation was written because of the opioid epidemic – which, in reality, is a pandemic. Every industrialized nation, and many emerging and third-world nations too, are dealing with the results from the ease of availability of opioids, whether natural and home-grown, or synthetic and imported. Or both, as is the case in America.

And like the Coronavirus pandemic that crept up on us so gradually that it’s deadliness caught us by surprise and mostly unprepared as nations, the opioid epidemic crept up on us too. In both cases, certain international players were unscrupulous for various reasons, causing delays in awareness when there might have been a chance for all of us to not be caught off balance.

The “inoculation” that should have happened, especially in the United States, by way of accurate scientific information disseminated by responsible leaders, didn’t happen. Instead, false information fueled by political agendas and financial motivation created a scenario that so crippled a timely public health response that, for many nations, it became too little too late.

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Loneliness Pt. 2: Unemployment Anxiety & Isolation

We are a global community – like it or not. We are connected down to the minutia of life, from what we breathe, to what we eat, to what we think, to what infects us. And right now, the world, our world is in a life-or-death struggle with a microscopic enemy that seems to keep gaining the upper hand. The result in just one area is massive unemployment and the subsequent loss of access and funding for public and private support services.

I don’t want to get in to the politics of whether economies should be opened up regardless of Covid-19 and suffer the consequences in lives lost, verses lives ruined by no work and massive personal and societal debt. What I am concerned about are the consequences of what so many millions of people are facing from having lost their means of livelihood, and in particular, those whose lives were already balanced on a knife edge on a daily basis.

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A Lament and A Love Song – for Our Son

Lament for a Son is an intensely personal tribute by Nicholas Wolterstorff to his 25-yr-old son who died in a climbing accident. It is eloquent and unforgettable as he gives voice to a grief that is both unique and universal: the tortured pain of losing an individual, a child, your child.

We lost our 25-yr-old son to a heroin overdose six years ago on August 2, 2014. Lament for a Son has been one of our go-to books since that time. Wolterstorff expresses the incomprehension and sense of unfairness that, I believe, parents worldwide feel when they lose a child – someone who is supposed to bury you, not the other way around. It doesn’t fit with the cycle of life we expect – it is jarring, unsettling, bewildering, frustrating, disquieting.

In the Preface he relates:

A friend told me he gave a copy of Lament to all of his children. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s a love song,” he said. That took me aback. But, Yes, it is a love-song. Every lament is a love song. Will love-songs one day no longer be laments?

Yet, while the book expresses the common feelings brought on by sudden unexpected death, what he doesn’t share with those of us who have lost a child to drug/alcohol addiction are the previous long years, sometimes decades, of turmoil, anxiety, fear, and depression that we experience on top of all the normal grief.

And shame.

There is no glory in being the parent of someone who is an addict or alcoholic.

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