No Magic Bullets

Last week here in Tucson, Arizona, some young people were together at a house using heroin. They were unaware it was laced with fentanyl. Friends ran to a nearby restaurant and flagged down police to help one person who was unresponsive from an overdose. He was revived with Narcan (naloxone). The officers were then taken to the house where six others had overdosed. One 19-yr old did not make it. Tucson Police all carry naloxone because they are usually the “first responders” to victims of overdose. Sadly, our Pima County Sheriff officers do not carry it – with the line of reasoning being that it is too costly for the training and they are not usually the first responders.

Naloxone (Narcan, Evzio, injectable or intranasal spray) was patented in 1961, and is an opioid antagonist—meaning that it binds to opioid receptors and can reverse and block the effects of other opioids by displacing them from the opioid receptor sites in the brain. Whereas an agonist causes an action, an antagonist blocks the action of the agonist. It has been used in hospital “code arrest” emergency situations for decades. It is being carried by emergency personnel and families of addicts because it can very quickly restore normal respiration to a person whose breathing has slowed or stopped as a result of overdosing with heroin or prescription opioid pain medications.

But it is not a magic bullet. Statistically, most opioid overdoses happen when the user is alone. By the time they are found, usually many hours later, it is too late for resuscitation. Another reason is that public safety experts are concerned, and rightly so, because addicts may be less motivated to find a way to quit using opioids since they can be revived. Their family and friends will also feel less anxiety and less concerned about urging their addict to get long term help. A recent news special interviewed several opiate addicts who had been revived multiple times with naloxone. One was an older man who is a “career addict”. He has no real desire to get clean and carries naloxone in case any of his friends need it. The other was a young woman who had overdosed and been revived several times and had finally gone through a recovery program and is clean and sober. She is very thankful for the times she did not die because finally, finally she was able to get to the point where she wanted to leave her miserable life of addiction and be free. But let’s remember: she needed a recovery program option. We cannot just turn those addicted to opioids back onto the streets after reviving them.

She is an example of the recent statistics that it takes on average 10-12 recovery attempts before an opiate addict can stay clean and sober long-term. Ten to twelve. It is a fact that relates to the addictive quality of opioids. For many of those addicted to opiates, those 10-12 attempts will never happen without overdoses and then being revived with naloxone. We, as a society, must be willing to offer this chance to those who are trapped by addiction to substances that have poured onto our streets and into our schools at an unprecedented rate. Our son went through several recovery programs and was at the point of really wanting to be free of his addiction. But without the needed medication, such as Suboxone, his last relapse proved fatal. He died of a heroin overdose at 25 yrs old – alone. There was no magic bullet for him.

STIGMA, Part 2: How to Remove Stigma

Although name-calling is childish and something most parents teach our kids to not do––even when provoked––it’s surprising how many families use it as a weapon and carry its poison into adulthood. The name-calling and negative labeling we have been subjected to from prominent political leaders in the past few years must have been learned at home and seems effective with others who are similarly immature. I was raised with the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” as a way to deflect hurtful, shaming words. As I came to realize when I grew up, it is the farthest thing from true. Negative labels stick like glue to our hearts and souls, and for those struggling with addiction and alcoholism, come to define them––especially to themselves.

When words are dismissive and disdainful they telegraph judgment of addiction as a moral failure, chosen and desired, for which a person deserves to be shamed. Let’s change our vocabulary with true words that describe addiction for what it is: a chronic disease of the brain. Change the inaccurate and stigmatized word “abuse” to “substance-use disorder”: a health issue that can be treated successfully with medication, group involvement and support, and therapy.

Hazelden says their “fundamental addiction stigma-smashing strategy is to shine a light on people who are in recovery and expose the reality that people actually do recover from addiction; that it’s a chronic disease that can be successfully managed for life; and that it affects individuals who are every bit as moral, productive, intelligent, talented—and humanly flawed—as the next person.” That means you and me.

Also, educating health care professionals is very important as they work on the front lines in many areas: in prescribing medications and monitoring patients more closely in order to get them the right help as early as possible. They need the basic knowledge to recognize substance use disorders, understanding the complexity of the disease and the recovery process. Statistics show that physicians are still over-prescribing opiate pain medications, especially after accidents and surgeries, and not making use of physical therapy for pain management. In Dr. Jana Burson’s blog about stigma she cites one doctor who is pro-stigma, saying is “a good thing because stigma discourages deviant behavior and has a civilizing effect on society… and people with substance use disorders are irresponsible.” This doctor said of people who relapse back to drug use repeatedly “it is a behavior almost always under one’s control…” Dr. Burson says, “Loss of control over substance use is one of the hallmark criteria for the diagnosis of substance use disorder.” See her blog for the remainder of this important discussion.

https://janaburson.wordpress.com/2018/07/16/stigma-and-substance-use-disorders/

And prevention. This is the best weapon we have to fight against the epidemic that is taking the lives of over 70,000 mostly young people every year in our country. Trying to stop the immoral manufacturers of addictive drugs in illicit labs in China and Mexico––and by big Pharma in US––is a lofty goal and worth continued effort. But those drugs would have limited consumers if we focus our attention on clearly and openly teaching our children about drug and alcohol addiction from an early age and continuing the dialogue as they mature and experiment. And yes, even as some of our own children become the the 20% who find that, among all of their friends that try the same drugs at a party, they are the ones who can’t just walk away, they would know they can come to us without shame and stigma and ask for help.
The AMA and Am. Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) have a good article on stigma:
https://www.asam.org/resources/publications/magazine/read/article/2015/12/15/patients-with-a-substance-use-disorder-need-treatment—not-stigma

STIGMA, Part 1: What and Why

In the Greek and Latin worlds, a stigma was a mark or brand, especially for a slave, identifying the person as “inferior”. When stigma began to be used in English, it meant the kind of mark or stain you can’t actually see. (Merriam-Webster). 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. Being dissed.

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… impaired judgment or erratic behavior, 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.” 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.

In my family, and in most others, alcohol and drug addiction is considered private, and “is something only whispered about. Even when the symptoms of the disease are obvious to all around, individuals and families avoid seeking help for fear of even acknowledging the problem. This is one reason only one in 10 Americans with a substance use disorder receives professional care.” (ibid.) When talking recently with some of our son’s friends and former addicts, they are unwilling to let their past drug use become public knowledge because of the potential negative repercussions they justifiably fear in their careers and relationships. What does this say about us as individuals, communities, employers, and society in general?

Hazeldon, with almost 60 years experience treating alcohol and addiction, says “the same undercurrent of addiction stigma keeps addiction under-diagnosed, under-treated, under-funded and misunderstood by many, especially as compared to other chronic health conditions such as heart disease, asthma and diabetes.” Why? The individual is seen as having a moral failure instead of a health problem. I have an anecdote I share with people when we discuss addiction. When I have been given oral opiates when leaving the hospital after surgery, I take one or two and then opt for the pain because I hate the way they make me feel: disoriented, unable to sleep deeply, and not myself. My husband recently had surgery that he was warned would be painful for 4-6 weeks following the procedure. That was an understatement. He was given a prescription for 10 days of opiates. We thought that would be unnecessary. We were wrong. When he was taking the pain meds as prescribed, he was his normal, cheerful self – it was like magic. As soon as they wore off, he was cranky. Of course he was in pain, but it was more than that. Why?

For us, it’s not difficult to understand. He has the “addiction” gene, as we call it. There were alcoholics in both of our mothers’ families. He got the gene that I seemed to have dodged. Did he ask to have that gene passed down to him? Did he decide he would feel good taking opiates for pain? Of course not. And neither did our son. Nobody makes the decision on how their brain will react to different substances. It happens. The issue is what a person does once they know that a mind-altering substance spells “pleasure” to them? Do they keep a safe distance from it as John has done or do they play with fire? For parents with addiction in our family trees, prevention is our best and most powerful weapon. Two books to aid parents in prevention are:
The Teen Formula : A Parent’s Guide to Helping Your Child Avoid Substance Abuse By  Dr Dave Campbell and Drug-Proof Your Kids by Arteburn and Burns.

Had we known then – when our son was an adolescent – what we know now, we would have made significantly different decisions regarding our attitude towards pain medications, drugs, and alcohol – and especially begun discussing addiction in general and in our family in specific. I believe our son would still be alive if we had.

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

A Different Death

Yesterday, my husband John, and I, along with family and friends, celebrated my father’s life of 92 years with a beautiful memorial service. He was buried with military honors for his service during WWII. In the week since his death, friends have asked me how I was feeling about his death – knowing that this death is the now the fifth death in my immediate family since 2001. First my younger brother at 40 from AIDS, then my sister at 56 from breast/brain cancer, then my son at 25 from a heroin overdose, then my other brother at 51 by suicide – and now my father.

This death, of a great-grandfather, is different than the previous four in so many ways. Not only do we expect grand-parents to pass away before their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, but we know by the 10th decade of life, the day to meet our maker is fast approaching. For my father, he was doing quite well mentally, but his health was declining rapidly this year. By August, we knew his days were numbered – and so did he. The dying know they are dying, and for my father, it made him sad. He loved life and he loved his family. And even though he had a strong Christian faith and confidence in waking up in a new and unimaginable existence with his loved ones who went before him, he still had a very natural trepidation of the process of dying.

His last two weeks were marked by no appetite and finally no ability to even drink – his body was done with this life. With John holding his hand, he took his last breath and his spirit left the room – and left this earth. How did I feel? Sad because we will no longer enjoy his presence, and his death marks the end of an era of the large Italian family dinners and parties. But I was also relieved that he was no longer suffering in a body that was giving out.

The unexpected death of our son from a heroin overdose was different in every way imaginable. I look back now and wonder how John and I made it – how we didn’t end up institutionalized under heavy medication. I remember in the first few months feeling that my mind was on the verge of splitting in two – my heart was already broken – but it is our minds that hold us together. The love and support from our close friends and family surely were part of that glue. But the real potion that caused us to not tip over the edge was the mercy and grace of God. Without Him, we wouldn’t have had the courage to go on or the strength to look ahead with hope of an eternity with our son and with our other family members.

For those of you with friends who have lost a child to a drug overdose, please remember that a sudden, unexpected, preventable death is different from all other losses. These deaths are not natural, the lives were not completed, the parents and family can not just move on. They need your love and support – and prayers.

The Best Laid Plans

Mac Miller – 26 year old rapper – died of an apparent overdose last week. One more beautiful young person lost in the prime of life. Friends and fans have unanimously said he was one of the sweetest guys they’d ever known with a great sense of humor. Miller spoke openly about his struggles with addiction over the years: “It just eats at your mind, doing drugs every single day, every second. It’s rough on your body.”

August 31st is International Overdose Awareness Day. I think we are all very aware of the enormous and continuing-to-rise number of drug––mostly opioid––overdose deaths. It is clear from conversations with many of the famous and not-famous users, like our son, that they have every intention of controlling their addiction and no intention of overdosing. But something goes wrong…

Dr. Jana Burson, an addiction treatment physician in North Carolina, has a great blog (https://janaburson.wordpress.com/) with insights gathered from her patients, many of whom are long-term opiate abusers. “I’m not gonna overdose. I know my limits.” Dr. Burson writes in August 2017: “I really hate hearing these words. Usually patients say this in response to my concerns about their pattern of drug use while I’m prescribing methadone or buprenorphine. But many patients feel they are the experts. They can’t imagine making a deadly mistake with their drug use. But I’ve heard this phrase from people who are now dead from overdoses.”

She recently cited a study in Australia 2013, where overdose deaths have risen steadily since 2007. In that country, unlike the U.S., heroin use is declining while prescription opioid misuse is rising. This study looked at non-fatal overdoses in very experienced people who inject drugs––an average of 21 years of IV drug use––half of whom were in a MAT (Medication Assisted Treatment) drug program.

Most of these overdoses happened in private homes––many the subjects said they were impaired by alcohol or benzodiazepines. Over a third of the subjects had used fentanyl, a very powerful illicit opioid, leading up to the overdose. The authors of the study concluded that these experienced drug users were aware of common risks for overdose, yet drug intoxication from sedatives such as alcohol or benzodiazepines may have clouded the user’s thinking when injecting opioids. They also found that unexpected availability of drugs contributed to overdoses.

This was our son’s story: It was his first night after 6 months in sober living––but it was not his first night using again. He had been on Percocet for oral surgery (a huge mistake) a month before he overdosed and then had returned to IV heroin use the week before his overdose. He had been drinking with friends the first night in his new apartment––his decision making abilities were impaired. We are not sure exactly how much heroin he injected, and since it was Black Tar heroin from Mexico, the strength is absolutely unpredictable. What we do know from the autopsy is that he had many times more heroin in his body than a fatal dose. His was an overdose that he would not survive. Was this his last conscious thought: “I’m not gonna overdose. I know my limits.”?