Isolation Loneliness

It has been said thatthe opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection – to others, to a community.The Coronavirus pandemic has brought disconnection and magnified loneliness and stress for people the world over due to social isolation, economic instability, reduced access to spiritual communities, and overall national anxiety and fear of the future. “We certainly have data from years of multiple studies showing that social isolation and social stress plays a significant role in relapse…relapsing to drug use can play a role in overdose.” Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director NIDA.

The acronym HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, is used in Alcoholics Anonymous and most recovery programs. It is a simple reminder that when our basic human needs are not met, one is susceptible to toxic thoughts and self-destructive behaviors including relapse and suicide.

Regardless of where you live, there have likely been restrictions imposed to limit the number of people who can gather together – from dozens in some countries to only the members of your immediate household in others – in order to slow down the high-speed train that is Covid-19. For many of us, we have been able to maintain our emotional equilibrium because we know this is for a limited time and we can look forward with hope to the future.

But what about those vulnerable members of society who already struggle on a daily basis with insecure housing and food supplies and to maintain their mental health, sobriety, or recovery? In the midst of one of the most isolating crises the modern world has known, it is no surprise then that cities across America, and around the world, are reporting dramatic increases in drug overdoses, alcohol relapses, and suicides.

In-person community meetings are at the foundation of recovery programs. And no wonder. It is in community where individuals become part of something greater than themselves. And I believe it is in the breakdown of communal life in individualistic American ideology that has, to a great degree, contributed to the anxiety, insecurity, and depression that so characterizes our national psyche and has led to the pursuit of finding relief in so many unhealthy ways.

A friend of our son who is an alcoholic who has been working his recovery for the past 8 years, put it this way: 

“Self-isolation breeds relapse for people in recovery. With quarantine, people are losing the accountability they have relied on from in-person meetings and it’s a lot easier for people to further isolate and close off their emotions. Attending virtual meetings keeps me grounded and gets the message across as much as regular in-person meetings but lacks the fellowship aspect. This will no doubt expose many in recovery to loneliness.”

Even though increasing numbers of people around the world are vaccinated, it will not stop some of the isolation and loneliness. Is there anything those of us who are not isolated emotionally can do to help? The one thing my husband and I have made as a priority in our weekly schedule is to check in with friends around the world via texts, emails, letters, phone or video calls – including our young friends who are in recovery and elderly friends who just need to know they are not forgotten. With our social networks and finances, we can support organizations that are working the front lines to serve the addiction/mental health population. We can make or purchase masks, buy food and basic supplies, to give to those in need and support recovery programs in our area.

The Tattoo – Stigma

(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.

https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/recovery-advocacy/stigma-of-addiction

Recovery Communities

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right)

What is a recovery community and what should it look like?

The answer to these questions is not simple – real solutions to real problems rarely are.

To recover means to return to a normal state of health or strength. When someone is injured in an accident or undergone surgery, they usually recover in hospital for a period of time where they can receive the special medical care that is required to keep them alive. If the injury or illness was severe or life-threatening, after hospitalization they would be moved to a rehabilitation facility where they receive appropriate and specialized care and therapy as they convalesce – they wouldn’t just go home. Convalescing is the recovery process of returning to health.

Recovery can also refer to the process of regaining possession or control of something lost or stolen. In a real sense, those who have become addicted to a substance or damaging behavior have had something stolen. That’s not a cop-out if we consider what happens to a person’s brain when addiction takes over. The chemical changes that take place in the brain steadily decrease the individual’s original ability to think clearly and make logical choices. Especially with substances, I consider that capacity to have been stolen.

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Our Electric Elastic Amazing Brains

 Translation to most languages available at tab to the right.

The human brain is a miracle – there is nothing on earth that comes close to its capabilities. Although the brain and the heart are the only two organs that can’t regenerate, our brain can form new connections and pathways. Neuroplasticity is this amazing ability of our neural networks to grow and reorganize – to change and adapt as a result of experiences.

Until recently, it was thought that neuroplasticity stops after about 25, but with new research, we now know that it isn’t all downhill from there. Neuroplasticity can be facilitated by physical exercise, paying attention, and learning new things.

Physical exercise that increases blood flow to the brain is now a no-brainer. Paying attention is when we are doing something that is not out of habit – when we switch off autopilot and pay attention to what is happening. This is called mindfulness. Learning new things and being open to change becomes harder the older we get – and it will become increasingly more difficult if we don’t intentionally challenge ourselves mentally.

But what happens when drugs – any drug really, but drugs/substances of abuse are my topic here – enter the scene? Neuroplasticity then becomes the facilitator of addiction as our brain learns to adapt to the new stimulus, increasingly over time.

Continue reading “Our Electric Elastic Amazing Brains”

Teenage Perils

(Translation in most languages available at tab on right)

Int’l Overdose Awareness Day Sale on eBook & Paperback through Sept 1st

Most of us have heard that the category of “teenager” came about after WWII. Before that, in a mostly agrarian society, you were either a child or an adult and the demarcation was when you went from being directed and cared for by your parents to being responsible for yourself and caring for others.

The word “teen” was introduced as early as 1818 referring to a person who was 13-19, “teener” from 1894, and “teen-ager” from 1922 (1). But the terms didn’t stick and didn’t carry a sociological group identity until after WWII. Being a teenager became its own sub-culture that revolved around like-ness, popularity and a fear of being on the outside.

Increasingly, the modern teenager relies more on peer-pressure than family relationships and values. And, peer pressure and group dynamics is known to be one of the highest risks for adolescent drug and alcohol experimentation and use. In one chapter of Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson discusses teenagers at length (2). He writes, “Psychologist Laurence Steinberg, put people of various ages in a simulated driving game. Adults drove the same, whether or not they had an audience. But teenagers took twice as many “chances” when their friends were watching. Teenagers are exquisitely sensitive to the influence of their peers.”

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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.

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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?

Continue reading “Mirror Mirror”

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.

Regrets: Endless Stairways

(Twenty-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.)

Our family loves the art of Dutch mathematician and artist M. C. Escher: the buildings that open into themselves, the school of fish that become a flock of birds, the circuitous stairways that go up and down throughout multiple buildings without an end point. Yes, stairways that never get you where you want to go, but keep you endlessly retracing your steps. They are no longer interesting art to wonder at. They now mirror how John and I have felt many times since August 2nd—regrets—retracing the steps of our entire lives.

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Shredding A Life – Losing the Future

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

Nine months after our son, JL’s, sudden death, we were gradually unearthing our grief, as we gradually unearthed pieces of his life. We were miners searching for something precious, digging through the layers of years as if through layers of rock. Or perhaps we were more like survivors of an earthquake. Our entire earth, with everything we had built on it, was suddenly shaken to the point of collapse, and we were sifting through the remaining buildings and rubble to see what was left. Deciding what to keep and what to dispose of. “Dispose of” has new and unwelcome meanings now. Clothing, personal belongings, furniture, files, photos, childhood toys, keys, memorabilia.

John’s journal entry on May 12, 2015 expresses some of our feelings:

Dear JL,

It’s dad again. We are going through more of your things and I spent a half-day shredding your old papers and notes. It is so odd that much of our lives comes down to boxes of paper to shred. This is very, very hard for me. Shredding your life.

I love you – Dad

Grief is about what is going on inside us after a loss—how we feel. We have no more control over it than we have control over other feelings. Our choice involves how we deal with it.

Mourning is the action of dealing with our loss—what we do, the common rituals, the external part of the tragedy. Again, we choose how we mourn.

Some people put acts of mourning off indefinitely – leaving a deceased loved one’s belongings just as they were when they died until they die themselves. Others, urged on by society or their own distraught emotions, will almost immediately begin sorting and throwing. For us, there were some natural milestones when deep inside we seemed to know it was time to face the loss of another part of our son’s life. The grief-work we were engaged in – being aware of the various stages of grief and facing them as they surfaced – was our internal guide. We never let societal custom or any external pressure guide us, while we did read and listen to other’s experiences.

One thing became clear: this loss of our child was very, very different than the loss of our parents or siblings. Although each of those were difficult in their own distinct ways, the level of personal pain with our son’s death was unique. He was an intimate part of who we are – of course – he came from us. As he grew and became his own person, he yet remained a part of our life and more significantly, our future. All is engulfed in a thick fog. Which is why the quote in the photo is so poignant:

When you lose a parent, you lose the past. When you lose a child, you lose the future.