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.

I’ve heard it said that stories emotionalize information. Most of us already have acquired information about addiction and the escalation of deaths from drug overdoses – almost 100,000 in 2020 in the USA alone – we’ve seen reports on the news about the opioid epidemic, drug seizures at ports and borders, celebrities going to rehab. But to transfer that information from our heads to our hearts requires another step. This is where stories come in.

Stories are proven to connect us to others and, when told honestly and well, they should place us on common emotional ground with our listeners. Good advice can feel like a lecture whereas a vivid personal story relating that same information will more likely alter our views. Scientists have found that when we are listening to or reading an engaging story, our bodies become involved with symptoms such as sweaty palms, rapid or skipped heart beats, and facial movements. On functional MRI scans, many different areas of the brain light up when someone is listening to a narrative. Our brain waves actually start to synchronize with the storyteller. *

After getting trustworthy information, then allowing it to settle into our hearts and souls through the power of stories, the next step is taking action. What can you and I do to help bring about necessary change? Harris, and all those willing to share their painful stories on his podcast – and all the other excellent addiction and recovery podcasts now being produced – do so with the intent that sharing their narrative might energize others to be informed, share their stories, and help change the outcome for future generations.

It takes courage to be vulnerable and face the dark and scary places in our lives – and even more to share those stories. Billy Graham said, “Courage is contagious. When one man takes a stand, the spines of others are stiffened.”  

* https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/04/11/815573198/how-stories-connect-and-persuade-us-unleashing-the-brain-power-of-narrative

Gilded Grief

(Short topical blogs based on Opiate Nation – translation into most languages in tab on right.)

While reading Rising Strong by Brené Brown, I was struck by a thought she shared about our American culture and the absence of honest conversation and the hard work it takes for us to rise strong after a fall on our face – a failure. She worries that “this lack of honesty about overcoming adversity has created a Gilded Age of Failure.”

Gilding is a perfect word-picture for this characteristically human behavior: applying a very thin coating of gold to a plain, inexpensive object that gives it the appearance of gold. This is what we do when we are dishonest about our feelings. We are choosing to make our real, plain, and common story appear better than it is.

“We’ve all fallen…but scars are easier to talk about than they are to show with all the remembered feelings laid bare…We much prefer stories about falling and rising to be inspirational and sanitized…We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get to the sweeping redemptive ending.”  (Rising Strong, Introduction)

The irony of gilded stories is that the real and valuable story is what lies beneath and it never needed to be gilded. Our painful stories do not need to be covered over – they just need to be polished so they shine. “All that glitters is not gold” – the well-known saying from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice – reminds us that things which seem valuable many times are not. A fitting corollary – “All that is gold does not glitter” from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring – reminds us that the plain, sometimes homely things in life are truly valuable.

For parents such as us who have lost a child to a preventable death – by overdose, suicide, alcohol poisoning, gang violence, etc. – the regrets and accompanying guilt are a “failure”, if not to others, at least to ourselves. While we all know about the stigma related to these preventable deaths, there is equal stigma surrounding openly sharing about loss and grief. During times of grieving our loved ones, most of us have heard well-meaning friends share their discomfort with our expressions of pain and hurt by encouraging us to “just move on” and “you will feel better soon.”

All of us prefer to gild the pain we experience – our sense of self and pride want to appear strong and well and on top of things. But I think we all know that this is not a healthy way to live our lives, to be fully alive. As Brown stresses in her work on vulnerability and shame, we cannot learn and grow and change after failure unless, and until, we acknowledge and deal honestly with the real hurt, heartbreak, and fear.

And John and I have found, when we are vulnerable and honest about our own failures and the resultant deep grief and emotional pain, we then invite others to be more open and honest about their own experiences and feelings.

Grief: Closure or Finding Meaning?

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

When I finished writing Chapter 27, Grief Part 3: Accepting the Mystery, I didn’t realize what I had actually done. It was four years after our son had died, the pain from the first few years had diminished, I had gone through four of the Five Stages of Grief, and was moving forward in what I thought was the final stage, Acceptance. I was not dealing with denial, anger, bargaining, or depression any longer.

One day I was on a call with a friend. She was telling me her thoughts about the book and asked: “Do you realize what you have done?” No, I guess not. What? “You have gone through the sixth stage of grief: finding meaning. Your book was your way to find, and then share, meaning in the loss of JL’s life.”

She was right. But it wasn’t a goal I set out to accomplish. I think it was intuitive for me, something I had to do. Even after we finally accept the reality of a tragic loss in our lives, many of us want to find meaning. While we can’t find reason in the death, we can choose how we ascribe meaning to the life. I did not want JL’s life to seem meaningless.

Continue reading “Grief: Closure or Finding Meaning?”

Grief: Acceptance or Acquiescence?

(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.)

I have never been one to accept something without question – anyone who knows me well, knows this – and they live with the frustration my incessant questions create. But it’s the way I need to process what is happening to or in or around me in order for me to honestly make the decision to accept or reject whatever the issue is at hand. I don’t think I could live with myself if I pretended I agreed or accepted something when I didn’t – the dishonesty would keep me in turmoil. And many times, it is ultimately for self-preservation that I accept something distasteful or painful when I finally understand there is no other option.

Death leaves us no other option – it is not negotiable. For most of us, our survival instinct brings us to the realization that in order to retain our sanity, we must eventually accept death – even of those we love the most in this world – whether we like it or not.

Continue reading “Grief: Acceptance or Acquiescence?”

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.

Continue reading “Regrets: Endless Stairways”

The Paradox of Memories

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

Memories are strange things. How much control do we have over them? What triggers bring up which memories? How do triggers differ with each individual personality? Does grief affect memory? I know it does mine because I continue to experience new associations and memories being formed from what were once familiar items with no particular memory attached before—which now, after my son’s battle with addiction and death, have a specific memory related to him.

Like aluminum foil.

Continue reading “The Paradox of Memories”

Time & Eternity

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

Death naturally brings up thoughts and questions about existence beyond this life, this earthly existence. I love how John Milton said it: “Death is the golden key that opens the palace of eternity.” For us, after a death so intimate as our son’s, one can imagine how often we thought about it, particularly in the subsequent months.

One thought that continues to captivate John and I is the possibility that others can look into our time while they are in eternity, in heaven, like someone looking into a cell under a microscope at us, the human specimens. Or are they frozen in time, like being in a time capsule?

Six weeks after JL’s death, my journal entry highlights these questionings:

JL,

Mom here. I’ve been wondering, and wishing I knew the answer for sure, if you and others who are gone can hear us and are conscious of what is happening on earth and in our lives. Can you hear when Dad and I talk to you? If you can, I think you would be crying for us many times as you see and hear our pain. I hope we are not causing you any more pain…

Dad and I went out to dinner and talked about this. What he brought up was that eternity, by definition, is the absence of time as we know it here on earth. So, if those of you who are dead are also in “no time,” even though present with the Lord, you may not experience any consciousness between death and the final resurrection we believe in—it may just be a flash. Hmmm…I don’t like that concept. I want to know you hear me and my apologies and love and thoughts towards you.

Singer-songwriter Phil Keaggy’s song “Time” from his album Love Broke Thru expresses the limits in which Father Time exists:

My friend, David Such (a mechanical engineer, writer, artist) wrote a blog about the Elasticity of Time. Here is a relevant thought from that blog:

Most of us human beings are locked into “earth time” so it can sometimes be difficult to understand, but Einstein taught that “time” is elastic depending on one’s position, perspective, and velocity. I am merely a mechanical engineer and do not fully understand all the physics or all the mathematics, but I do understand the concept as follows. As we increase our velocity, we reduce the difference between our own speed and the speed of light. This is insignificant unless our velocity is extremely high. As we approach the speed of light, “time” slows to a standstill (and apparently, even “matter” takes on different shapes and densities).

https://dbsuch.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/on-the-elasticity-of-time-and-genesis-chapter-one/

In 1676, the Danish astronomer, Olaus Roemer, first successfully measured the speed of light: Lightspeed. For those of us who believe in God and that his intelligence designed the Universe, his words “Let there be light” have much significance. Eternity must at least be full of light, beyond time, beyond darkness and death. In death do we instantaneously exist in lightspeed and the absence of time?

If so, is JL zipping and zooming around the universe at lightspeed now, with all the other souls who have left this earthly constraint of time? I have no clue, but I smile at the thought.

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.

The Secret Keepers

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

National secrecy. Communal secrecy. Familial secrecy. Cloaked as “Discretion” it perpetuates problems. What it did for us when we found out that our son was addicted to heroin was to create a puzzle that we were forced to try to put together in the dark with many missing pieces. No one was talking – not friends, parents, school leaders. When the drug bust happened at his high school in the spring of 2005, and the administration didn’t call a meeting of all parents to alert us to what was going on, one wonders what motivation was behind that decision? Clearly, it wasn’t what was best for the rest of the students, families, or our community.

Years ago, while working through our angst with the systemic problems in organized Christianity, and continuing to run into absolute resistance, secrets, and denial, we came upon a quote that finally explained why we were not, and never would be, making headway: “If you speak about the problem, you become the problem.” This wisdom came from an important and insightful book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. But the subtle power of abuse is not limited to churches: governments, schools, communities, families—no one wants to be seen as part of the problem, especially with drug addiction and alcoholism. So, if we just keep troublesome or messy things secret, if we don’t speak about them, we can all just get along.

Continue reading “The Secret Keepers”

Guest Post

Fellow WordPress blogger, mechanical engineer, artist David Such has written a review of Opiate Nation and posted it on his blog site, Memoirs and Musings. Along with the review, David included some of his pen and ink drawings of our son, JL, and John and me. We feel honored and grateful for David’s desire to help reduce stigma and shame by bringing attention to the opioid epidemic that continues to steal the lives of our sons, daughters and loved ones.

I recently finished reading Opiate Nation: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Acceptance, by Jude DiMeglio Trang (with John M. Trang). I admit, this book was a difficult journey to travel.

Jude and John’s son, John Leif Trang (“JL”) battled various addictions from his early teen years. This story chronicles JL’s long and difficult struggle in and out of recovery up to his accidental heroin overdose and death at the age of twenty-five, and the long road through grief to emotional recovery for Jude and John that followed. Throughout the book, she includes excerpts from their private journals which provide an extremely personal perspective. She offers comfort and sage advice for others who may find themselves in a similar situation. The book takes you on a strenuous path, but is very well written and places the reader within all the confusion, family dynamics, regrets, and mixed emotions they experienced throughout this journey. The narrative is eloquently written, yet raw and purposefully honest in a bold attempt to shine a bright light on this “secret epidemic” that has destroyed many lives across North America and around the globe.

Jude is no stranger to grief. She had previously lost two brothers and a sister to premature death. The loss of JL would have been the final blow to anyone else who did not have a strong spiritual foundation. Don’t worry, though, she offers none of the trite Christian platitudes. John and Jude’s confusion and frustration are palpable. She is transparently honest about their generational family dysfunction as well as their own perceived failings as parents. Her authenticity is refreshing.

Readers will note that Jude is well-read, quoting relevant wisdom from sages throughout the centuries, from Leonardo da Vinci to C. S. Lewis, and from Beethoven to Bob Dylan. Numerous apt analogies help those not living with addiction to understand the nature of the struggle. I personally appreciated her intellectual rabbit trails into topics like the nature of time, and the physiology of memories. I also like the way she weaves together connected events throughout the years rather than marching through a dry chronological sequence. However, be forewarned, Jude does not hold back in her discussion of reality. Some of it is horrifying, but be reassured that the final chapter, “Stories of Hope,” is the reader’s opportunity to slowly exhale.

This book is a must-read for anyone who knows someone who struggles with drug addiction and/or alcoholism. However, the basic takeaway for all of us, even for those who consider themselves or their loved ones immune from addiction is this: The culture of “pain management at any cost” produces large profits for pharmaceutical companies (“Big Pharma”) at the expense of ruined lives. The default prescription for situations like a wisdom tooth extraction or a broken collar bone is almost always a heavy-duty opiate. Medical doctors “rubber stamp” these prescriptions every day. See the content of the book for details. PLEASE, don’t just fill a prescription because the doctor recommends it, especially if there is any family history of substance abuse or alcoholism. Search for safe alternatives, learn that pain is not an enemy to vanquish, and only reach for the opiate “solution” as the very last option

Opiate Nation was the well-deserved winner of the 2020 “National Indie Excellence Award” for best Addiction/Recovery Book. You will not regret traveling with them through their journey.

David B. Such

https://dbsuch.wordpress.com/