(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 Nationwith 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:
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.
It has been said that the 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…and 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.
As the months have passed since Opiate Nation was released last October, we have received many very encouraging reviews and comments. I have gathered some of them together and created a new page entitled “Recommendations & Reviews.” (see Menu) If you have wondered whether our story is worth the read, especially if you have no personal experience with addiction or heartbreaking loss, then perhaps these reviews will have some insight that will inspire you to order a copy for yourself or a loved one. If you have already read it, we would love to hear from you and know how you have been supported and reassured through our book. It is the reason we have written and published it.
When life on this earth results in tragedy and loss – personal, communal, international – we are immediately faced with choices we did not anticipate nor plan for. An untimely death, an assault or abuse, financial ruin, a health crisis, relational trauma, anxiety: the list is endless. What do we do? Most of us want to just turn and run while we also know there is no place to run to or to hide from the turmoil within. So how do we take the next step forward when everything in us doesn’t want to and we are facing a challenge we have never faced before?
We remember that we all have choices even when it seems there are none. It is what makes humans unique. Referring back to my blog “Darkness & Light” and the thoughts from Jerry Sittser in his book A Grace Disguised, when we choose to move towards the darkness knowing we will eventually see the sun rise, we find gifts along the way that we could have never imagined. But we also find more choices. Sittser cites Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, reflecting on his time in a Nazi death camp and how “the prisoners who exercised the power to choose how they would respond to the terrible loss and darkness of their circumstances displayed dignity, courage and inner vitality. They found a way to transcend their suffering…and so grew spiritually beyond themselves…they learned that tragedy can increase the soul’s capacity for darkness and light, for pleasure as well as for pain.”
When I was growing up, this metaphor was commonly espoused: “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public.” That is, you shouldn’t reveal things from your private life that people usually don’t want others to know and they don’t want to hear anyway. Things like inappropriate confessions and unpleasant family secrets. Everyone will be embarrassed and people will feel ashamed.
Now we are more likely to hear someone respond with “TMI – Too much information” when someone goes beyond the bounds of information that no one wants to hear – either too creepy or medical or personal. Totally understandable.
But is it airing dirty laundry for us to speak openly about conditions or situations that are of a communal nature? Topics such as physical or sexual abuse, or complicity and criminal behavior by politicians or leaders, or suicide, or addiction? Of course, there are some details about issues that plague us as a community that do not need to be part of the public discussion in certain situations. But that is different than bringing an issue into the light of day so that it can be discussed in order to work towards a solution.
When I was in Melbourne, Australia recently with our family, I was starkly reminded of the ubiquitous presence of opium in the past as well as the present. Not that I can ever really forget it’s demon-like presence. But when I am asked what I do and I respond that I am a new author, the next question is what my book is about. After I give a short description, I am always surprised at how many people have stories of their own involving this ancient plant – a plant that truly offers humankind a double-edged sword. It can so wondrously relieve pain when our bodies have been injured or undergone surgery. Yet it has a mysterious way of latching on to a large percentage of we mortals who, having once legitimately used this soothing balm, then find the memory of that bliss like an oasis in the desert that we chase after at all cost.
Within a week, I heard three stories. One seems like something out of another era. A 60-yr old man, after hearing about our son and Opiate Nation, began to tell me about his years growing up in Singapore. He explained that both his mother and his father were addicted to opium and would regularly go to the opium dens to smoke. He remembers the intoxicating smell when he would go to find them to use the opportunity of their being in a blissful state to get money from them. He never wanted to use that drug or any other.
I want to pass along a blog from Shatterproof.orgthat says pretty much everything I try to remember – especially during the holidays – even though I’m not in recovery. The only thing I would add is while starting a new tradition, consider a way to volunteer. If you want to experience joy that no substance can come close to matching, give sacrificially for just a little bit of time. I guarantee you, you will be anxiously awaiting the next opportunity. I am an ambassador with Shatterproof, an amazing non-profit that works tirelessly in the battle to help reduce the addiction rate by means of education, information, and legislation. Check out their website – link below.
9 Tips for Enjoying the Holidays While Maintaining Recovery
By Holly Jespersen, Shatterproof’s Senior Communications Manager
This is my eighth holiday season in recovery. At this point in my sobriety, I am very comfortable with my new life. I have learned to live without substances, and have a life that is full of loving, supportive relationships. In the beginning, I had assumed that recovery would be boring. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My life these days includes a job that I love and a very packed social calendar full of fun things with people who bring joy to my soul. But it’s not always easy. The holiday season, especially, can be a stressful time for people in recovery like me. Luckily, there are ways to get through it. Here are a few of my top tips for enjoying the holiday season without jeopardizing your health. Continue reading “Holidays While In Recovery”
John and I just returned from San Diego where we spoke at the 13th Annual CAHM Forum (Community Alliance for Healthy Mindshttps://www.cahmsd.org/ ). Our dear friends, Rex & Connie Kennemer, began CAHM after their 25-yr-old son, Todd, died by suicide. The theme this year was “The Power of Your Story” and we were among the presenters who shared our story of living with our son and his decade-long battle with opioid addiction. We then led a break-out group where we answered questions and discussed the nature of addiction and treatment.
Some may wonder what an addiction story has to do with a forum on mental health. The answer is simple: everything. Now that we have available data covering decades, the connection between individuals who struggle with the entire spectrum of mental health issues and those who are struggling with any addiction co-exist in almost half of those populations.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), “45% of people with addiction have a co-occurring mental health disorder. Individuals who frequently abuse drugs or alcohol are likely to develop a co-occurring behavioral or mental health disorder. While it is widely accepted that a mental health disorder can induce a substance addiction – and vice versa – researchers are uncovering what causes both conditions to occur simultaneously.” Continue reading “Mental Health & Addiction”