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.
(Translation into most languages available at tab on the right.)
My husband and I learned years ago that in many areas, we see and experience the world in very opposite ways. I live in the future, he enjoys the present. I am content with less, he needs more. I want to get to the destination, he enjoys the ride. Our theme song is The Beatles Hello Goodbye: ‘You say Goodbye, and I say Hello’. After living together so many years, some of our ingrained predispositions have begun to change as we have rubbed off on each other – and this is a good thing as I believe it makes us each a more balanced human.
This thought came to mind this week as I began to work on this blog post. Sometimes I am so focused on my destination or goal and being faithful to stick with it that it takes a while for me to realize I am not enjoying the ride. As I wondered why, I realized that it’s not that I don’t feel passionately about advocating for those struggling with addiction and mental health issues. Rather, it’s that I have begun to feel stretched too thin – which is not comfortable or healthy. With the holidays approaching, there are increasing family commitments and events that I want to enjoy and not just endure until they are over. The path to this goal is to be more realistic about what I can and cannot do within my finite energy and allotted time.
This contrast in ideologies applies to recovery strategies as well. When our son was trying to recover from opioid addiction 10-15 years ago, the goal was to complete a recovery program and once and for all become clean and sober – get to the destination. As unrealistic as this seems to us now, it is still a prevailing goal for many recovery programs. Sadly, what it did for our son – and for us – was to set us up for discouragement and shame with every inevitable relapse. Failure.
What I hear from current recovery advocates is that recovery is a goal and a process. If your desire and goal is to become clean and sober, you will embark on a plan of some sort. It is absolutely essential that you get to your destination because with many drugs, continued addiction often leads to death. But it’s also absolutely essential that you understand that it will be a journey with many ups and downs – and that you need to be able to enjoy the ride, the process, as much as possible so that you will have the continued desire to make it to the goal. And that those who are advocating for you, riding with you, will understand and assist you on your journey.
So, in attempting to take my own advice, I am going to discontinue weekly blog posts for a while. Instead, I will write blogs as often as I can and I look forward to your comments and ‘likes’ – every ‘like’ helps with visibility and brings new readers. After almost four years of posts on all aspects of addiction & substances, grief & loss, and mental health, if you search the site, you should find something to bring insight and encouragement for the issues that you are facing today. Let’s enjoy the ride as much as possible as we head toward our destinations.
(Translation into most languages at tab to the right.)
A few months ago, John was on a phone call with a physician who was asking his input about a new drug to help with opioid addiction. John shared about our son’s addiction and death and how we hoped that by speaking openly about his life and writing our book and blog we could help in some small way. His response was something I did not expect and will never forget. He said, “Don’t underestimate advocacy because it is the surest way to change things. Science and medicine take a long time and have limited effectiveness.”
An advocate is someone who works by speaking, acting, or writing truthfully on behalf of a person or group in order to promote, protect, and defend their welfare and to seek justice for their rights. To speak out for those who have no voice. But advocacy is not cheerleading. A cheerleader is someone who only supports their team or player – since they are in competition against another team. They are indiscriminate about what their team does or doesn’t do. They don’t necessarily look at the big picture or causes and effects. Their role is to simply cheer on their team or player and boost support from their fans with slogans that may or may not be true.
Serious problems that affect the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and entire societies, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, addictions, and racial prejudice and inequality, are not helped by cheerleading. People in danger and suffering need advocates who have compassion, who are truth-tellers, and who will vigorously and untiringly work for a solution.
When I see a young person on the streets, homeless and struggling, enslaved to a substance that is stealing their life – or anyone living with addiction of any sort – I long to be helpful in a meaningful way and become discouraged at my inability to do so. And if I feel discouraged, how must they feel? What will help bring real, substantive change and hope to these lives and in these circumstances?
As parents of a son with a deadly addiction, we were sometimes cheerleaders when we needed to be advocates. Cheering him on and telling him he could do it without any medical help was not being realistic or being the advocates he needed. I think it is difficult to be an effective advocate for those we love because we are too close to have a clear perspective. Which is why a supportive recovery community – for both the family and the one struggling – is vital. We must try and use whatever resources we have: our voice for those who are not being heard, our writing to bring clarity to public thinking, our physical presence to stand or march with others, and our time, energy, and finances to step in where we can or offer help to find those resources.
There are as many ways to be an advocate as there are needs in this world. I have friends involved in racial justice, in refugee struggles, in stopping sexual exploitation and abuse, homelessness and poverty – the list is endless. The question is: How can each one of us be an advocate for the people and needs we are aware of and that we have a passion for?
(Translation into most languages at tab to right.)
In the Greek and Roman worlds, a stigma was a tattoo or brand, especially for a slave, identifying the person as “inferior.” As stigma moved into English, it referred to a mark you couldn’t actually see but which was nonetheless powerful. Social stigmas are based on perceivable characteristics, associated with certain behaviors that distinguish a person from other members of society. They convey disapproval and disgrace. Dis-approval. Non-approval. Dis-grace. Non-grace.
In an article on The Stigma of Addiction from Hazelden Recovery we learn: “The stigma of addiction stems from behavioral symptoms of substance use disorder…which can result in negative consequences including legal, occupational and relationship problems. Understandably, these consequences cause embarrassment and shame among those affected. They also create stigmatized attitudes and perceptions among the wider public, a response that perpetuates and exacerbates the private shame associated with drug addiction. For generations, this combination of personal shame and public stigma has produced tremendous obstacles to addressing the problem of alcoholism and addiction. Today, the stigma of addiction is seen as a primary barrier to effective addiction prevention, treatment and recovery efforts at the individual, family, societal levels. Addiction stigma prevents too many people from getting the help they need.” Yes, only one in 10 people struggling with addiction receive treatment. The article goes on to discuss the irony that many of these stigmatizing behaviors diminish and/or disappear when a person is appropriately treated in recovery.
When talking recently with some of our son’s friends, they have been unwilling to let their past drug use become public knowledge because of the potential negative repercussions they justifiably fear in their careers and relationships. How much worse would it be if they were still living with addiction? What does this say about us as individuals, communities, employers, and society in general? When an individual is seen as having a moral failure instead of a chronic health condition, stigma is the logical result. But no one makes the decision about how their brain will react to a substance and whether they will become addicted after minimal use or hate how it makes them feel and never use it again.
Negative labels stick like glue to our hearts and soul and, for those struggling with addiction and alcoholism, the personal shame becomes how they define themselves. The public stigma that follows is the tattoo they never asked to have. If we can reject stigmatizing and instead provide a safe and listening ear to those struggling with addiction, inviting them to share their stories and encourage them to consider recovery options, they may be willing to join the many people who do learn to manage their disease and successfully recover. Let’s remember that they are just as valuable and able and worthy of love – and as human – as you and me.
Translation into most languages at tab to the right.
A few weeks ago, John and I were interviewed by Jeff Simone for his Surviving the OpioidEpidemic podcast (see YouTube link). We had a really great conversation about our family living with a teenage son with opioid addiction and how his death from overdose affected us and changed our lives. Jeff serves the addiction community with a coaching service called Reaction Recovery.
Here are some insights into his recovery approach.
Reaction Recovery is a private coaching service designed to help individuals thrive in their life of recovery from substance use disorders. It is a one to one, intensive behavioral approach to help individuals identify areas to make focused and intentional lifestyle modifications. Dr. Simone has been formally trained in clinical pharmaceutical and dietary supplementation advisory and management. He has earned degrees in nutrition, physiology, is a certified life coach, and has personally worked with over 200 people recovering from substance addictions.
Why ‘Reaction’ Recovery? Who is reacting and to what?
Reaction Recovery was started as a “reaction” to the current treatment approach to addiction. The medical community is doing a good job offering short-term acute care crisis management for addictive disorders, but are doing poorly offering long-term treatment for those who have become abstinent but not yet stabilized. This describes our son’s – and most others we know – situation perfectly. Addiction needs long-term care and support.
The basic coaching approach addresses the physiology of the addiction, post-acute withdrawal syndromes, nutritional interventions, dietary supplementation, and how this all can safely integrate with other pharmaceutical treatment strategies that might already be on board.
Based on what Dr. Simone has called the ’12 Daily Rules for Recovery,’ their coaching techniques will systematically and methodically help the individual identify specific areas to be adjusted and then develop individually tailored strategies to affect real change.
The 12 Rules focus on building up a support community – first and foremost – then developing a healthy and consistent morning routine, understanding the importance of full-day nutrition, ensuring the body is receiving all nutrients necessary to support a strong and optimal brain and body, establishing a safe and appropriate dietary supplement regimen, expanding the mind with helpful books and information, developing a realistic exercise routine, carefully auditing the external distractions in our lives, constructing a regular nighttime routine, and more.
When these considerations get repeated across thousands of iterations, and with a little guidance and accountability, they become a foundation upon which the rest of the individual’s recovery will be built. Eventually – through ruthless repetition – new neural pathways begin to form until eventually this life of abstinence doesn’t feel so difficult and a sustainable, meaningful recovery is able to take shape.
Jeff’s approach of community as essential and creating new, healthy habits to replace old, destructive ones has been the topic of several of my blogs (see below). Whatever habits we create will become automatic and will serve us and our life-goals well as we go through each day.
Translation into most languages at tab to the right.
The need has never been more urgent to alert us all to the risk of overdose facing millions of people worldwide. During the 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic, overdose deaths have risen approximately 30% in many parts of the world due to isolation, unstable drug sources, and lack of reliable medical and recovery help. Even the normal inadequate support services have been seriously disrupted and diverted. And the hope of C19 disappearing sometime soon is now seen as wishful thinking – it is a new deadly virus we will have to learn how to live with.
So, what can we do to help prevent further loss of lives for those already struggling with addiction?
(Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
When I am doing research for an upcoming blog post, I can get lost. There is so much information now on drug addiction and the opioid epidemic that I suddenly look at the clock and realize I’ve been wandering virtually around the world and becoming more discouraged with each new article or report: Scotland has more drug overdose deaths per capita than any European country (1); Fentanyl is flooding California with overdose deaths skyrocketing (2); the use of over-the-counter codeine (an opiate) cough medicine among eighth graders in the US has increased (3); and, Australia now has the eighth-highest per-capita opioid consumption in the world (4).
(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.
(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.
(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.