Peter’s Story: Alcohol The Gateway Drug

(Thirty-fifth 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 friend of JL’s, Peter (not his real name). Here are some excerpts from his story in Opiate Nation (5 min read):

My name is Peter and I’m an alcoholic and addict. This is how I introduce myself at the AA meetings I attend several times every week, as I have done for over 10 years. I am from a fairly affluent family, raised with high moral standards, and attended the best schools. So how is it that I became an alcoholic by the time I was a senior in high school and an opioid addict and dealer by the time I was 20?

The first time I used alcohol was in my junior year in high school. I was new to the school and I felt like I didn’t get the playbook for how to be a part of the group. I had been raised with strong values against using drugs and alcohol – but I wanted to fit in with the popular kids.

I tried a capful of vodka—that was it. I hated the way it tasted. The next day I was sick—not so much from the alcohol, but with guilt. This would be a consistent theme in my drinking and using: I always felt guilt and the consequences of doing something soul-crushing and bending the moral line I had deep within me. Once that barrier had been crossed, then anything was permissible. Initially I only drank on weekends at parties so that I wouldn’t be the outsider.

I barely graduated high school. If I wasn’t drinking, I was restless and discontented and my skin was crawling. As soon as I got little alcohol in me, I felt like I just need a little bit more to feel like I did the first time I drank. But I would get to that tipping point and then would go until it was a blackout again.

Looking back on it, it was so selfish. My family was paying for my education and I was just wasting it. It was continual, repetitive drunkenness and waking up in horrible shape and feeling worse each time. I would continue to screw up and manipulate my parents so they would let me get back into a situation that was really detrimental to me. I was just continually enabled with the free apartment, the no-consequences lifestyle. It was like being a celebrity: you don’t have any responsibilities or pay your own bills—just party.

When I was 20, I first smoked weed. Within a week I was selling enough so that I could smoke for free. It was the first thing that calmed my ADHD. I felt like I could breathe again, and it slowed my rapid thinking way down. It did for me what I was hoping alcohol would do for me. Pretty soon, I was drinking and smoking weed at the same time: “cross-fading.”

Then I tried Percocet and 30 minutes later I felt like I had melted in my seat—I’d never had painkillers before. But then I was on. I’d have one or two of those when I was at work. I felt like I was Superman. I had no anxiety, no problems, living in the moment every moment. I took them with alcohol and pot for over a year. We took them at first as a party drug—deceptively advertised as “non-addictive”. But one time turned into needing it every day.

I got into selling hard drugs and started meeting a lot of very shady people, going to places my friend and I would never have gone to in the past. The majority of buying Oxy’s was from people who were way over prescribed. Every time I had more money, I used more—I was a junkie and there was no profit. Also, when you get blackout drunk every night, it’s easy to give away more product than they pay for, you’re hanging out with pretty seedy people who are stealing things from you—it just goes like that.

Finally, I got pulled over by a cop. They searched the vehicle and found weed in the trunk. I was put on probation. I started back to work, taking cabs, and I started going to AA meetings every day. My dad took me to a meeting. Every member of my family is an alcoholic—both parents’ sides. My dad had been an alcoholic and sold drugs before I was born, and he had gotten clean and sober through AA.

I didn’t think I was an alcoholic. What I failed to realize was alcohol is a “drug,” because you are using it in the same way: for the effect. I thought I could just smoke some weed and drink a beer now and then. But for me, that’s not an option—I can never just have one or two. Within two months I started drinking again, then heavily and blacking out all the time. With court dates looming, I was a mess emotionally and physically—I was broken and decided I would kill myself.

Before I did this, I had a moment of clarity and wanted to call my mom. She had brought me into this world, and I should tell her before I took myself out of it. And I didn’t want her to feel guilty for what I had done. She didn’t try to tell me not to do it. She told me I was right, that I was going to die because I was really sick. She asked, “Are you willing for the first time in your life to put 100% effort into this and abandon every idea that you could ever drink or use again on the hopes that you could have a life that would be normal?” I said yes. Not hearing her say “I love you and it’s going to be ok,” but her telling me the truth is what made the difference.

The next day, I went to a meeting, broken and finally ready for a change. An old guy there said he’d be my sponsor. As we talked, he said I should get quiet and calm, hit my knees every morning and night and thank God for my sobriety, one day at a time. Get to one or more meetings a day. If something feels wrong, don’t do it and call me. It wasn’t easy.

I went through all the 12-steps. Even today, with over 10 years sober, I am tempted because I still can only see the dishonest part of drinking—the fun times, not where that one drink will take me. I need to stay connected and going to meetings because my sobriety is my priority.

*Please listen to SURVIVING OPIOIDS new podcast for relevant discussion re early alcohol use, childhood trauma, and recovery – link at right

Hank’s Story: Drinking Loneliness

(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.

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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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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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Choosing to Look Away: Pain avoidance

In these weeks of living life in a new way with the Coronavirus pandemic, I have found myself doing something I am not normally inclined to do: choosing to look away from the ongoing Opioid Epidemic. Sadly, it has been easy to do. John and I arrived in Melbourne in March on the last flight from LAX allowing non-residents into Australia. When we planned our trip in January to be here for the completion and delivery of our new Tiny Home, Covid-19 was barely in the news.

After our 14-day quarantine, and during our first few weeks here, we were supposed to speak at two events which were cancelled. When the meetings switched over to Zoom, we were then able to share the story of Opiate Nation. It was well received and appreciated, as it brought to light pitfalls and vulnerabilities that parents and their children face in the 21st century. Since then, we have been busy setting up our new home, arranging installations, and finding furniture and appliances. We are thankful and feel blessed to be able to be here with our daughter and family – and to be in a country where the leaders have been honest and proactive, where the government has a wide social safety net and comprehensive health care for everyone, and where the public is almost uniformly willing to trust and follow their stipulations.

Meanwhile, in the back of my mind, I have continued to think about people struggling with addiction and wondering what their lives are like during these times that are challenging – even for the rest of us. With the restrictions to help slow the spread of the virus, many rehab and recovery programs are now not an option. For those who have had jobs, many of which are hourly-wage or temporary positions, they may now be unemployed. If they are taking medication as part of their harm reduction/medication assisted treatment, how will they pay for it?

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