(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. If you feel this blog is important, please repost to your social media using the buttons below. Thank You!)
When our 25 yr old son died of a heroin overdose in 2014, the statistics for the average life-span of a heroin addict was 5 years. Five years. Not very long if you are 15 or 20 or even 30, the age when most young adults’ nowadays are just getting in gear with their career, a long-term relationship, and planning a family. To have your life swept away before you have a chance to experience some of the most wonderful years of living on this earth is painful to consider.
(Today begins a series of topical blogs based on excerpts from Opiate Nation, chapter by chapter, that will run for 28 weeks. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
It’s a bit ironic that as I begin blogging through Opiate Nation we are in the midst of a pandemic. Ironic in several significant ways.
Opiate Nationwas written because of the opioid epidemic – which, in reality, is a pandemic. Every industrialized nation, and many emerging and third-world nations too, are dealing with the results from the ease of availability of opioids, whether natural and home-grown, or synthetic and imported. Or both, as is the case in America.
And like the Coronavirus pandemic that crept up on us so gradually that it’s deadliness caught us by surprise and mostly unprepared as nations, the opioid epidemic crept up on us too. In both cases, certain international players were unscrupulous for various reasons, causing delays in awareness when there might have been a chance for all of us to not be caught off balance.
The “inoculation” that should have happened, especially in the United States, by way of accurate scientific information disseminated by responsible leaders, didn’t happen. Instead, false information fueled by political agendas and financial motivation created a scenario that so crippled a timely public health response that, for many nations, it became too little too late.
Lament for a Son is an intensely personal tribute by Nicholas Wolterstorff to his 25-yr-old son who died in a climbing accident. It is eloquent and unforgettable as he gives voice to a grief that is both unique and universal: the tortured pain of losing an individual, a child, your child.
We lost our 25-yr-old son to a heroin overdose six years ago on August 2, 2014. Lament for a Son has been one of our go-to books since that time. Wolterstorff expresses the incomprehension and sense of unfairness that, I believe, parents worldwide feel when they lose a child – someone who is supposed to bury you, not the other way around. It doesn’t fit with the cycle of life we expect – it is jarring, unsettling, bewildering, frustrating, disquieting.
In the Preface he relates:
A friend told me he gave a copy of Lament to all of his children. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s a love song,” he said. That took me aback. But, Yes, it is a love-song. Every lament is a love song. Will love-songs one day no longer be laments?
Yet, while the book expresses the common feelings brought on by sudden unexpected death, what he doesn’t share with those of us who have lost a child to drug/alcohol addiction are the previous long years, sometimes decades, of turmoil, anxiety, fear, and depression that we experience on top of all the normal grief.
There is no glory in being the parent of someone who is an addict or alcoholic.
With so much distress in the world with the Covid-19 Pandemic, especially the effects it is having on the weakest and vulnerable members of our societies, I have hesitated to announce a personal accomplishment. Yet, my hope is that as Opiate Nation gains more visibility, it will get into the hands of people who could be most encouraged and benefit from our story.
I am a member of a group of 35,000 women called “The Addict’s Mom” on Facebook. I confess, I rarely read the posts because it is so depressing: Story after story of mom’s who have been holding out for years to see their daughter or son released from the hell-hold of addiction to drugs, only to then post that “…today I lost my daughter/son…can someone tell me how I will survive this?” It is for these mom’s and dad’s and siblings and friends that we wrote Opiate Nation, but one of the stipulations of being a member of the group is no self-promotion. So I hope that, with more visibility and more reviews and re-posts on social media, our book will get to these most desperate of people.
“Drug Overdoses Soaring: Suspected overdoses nationally jumped 18% in March, 29% in April, 42% in May, data from ambulance teams, hospitals, and police shows.”
As a young man in America who wanted more than anything to be free of his deadly heroin addiction, how would he be weathering the Covid-19 pandemic?
“The drug-overdose-and-death epidemic already was hurting communities before COVID-19, but during the pandemic there have been reports from every region of the country on spikes in opioid-related calls to first responders, visits to emergency rooms, fentanyl and tainted-drug-related overdoses. There also have been challenges to accessing sterile needle and syringe and exchange services.”
During the first few years of writing Opiate Nation, the working title was Saying Goodbye Through a Body Bag. As I got closer to publication, friends suggested I look for another title, saying it was off-putting and gave a depressing visual image. It took me a while to adjust to the idea of another title because it was the experience of doing just that – saying goodbye to my son through a thick black body bag in the hot August sun – that pushed me through my grief and on to writing about what my husband and I had experienced and what we hoped could be a warning for others.
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?
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.
John and I live in Melbourne, Australia with our daughter and her family several months of the year. Since our son’s death by overdose from heroin 5 years ago, we have become interested in and involved with some of the Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) programs there. We also receive news reports on current trends etc.
What is interesting to me is the contrast between the Australian approach to AOD use and the American approach. Australians accept that there will be drug and alcohol abuse in their society and therefore speak openly and candidly about it. A recent newsletter (Dec. 13, 2019) from VAADA (Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association) is a perfect example of their approach. It was an alert about “ increasing numbers of reports about very strong heroin in Melbourne, which has resulted in an increase in accidental overdoses.”
The alert asks providers in the AOD sector to alert their clients (heroin users) to this problem and to be careful and look out for their fellow users. They also urge providers to share specific harm reduction information to help reduce the risk of overdose, such as: get naloxone and keep it handy; try not to mix drugs (there is a lot of methamphetamine use mixed with heroin/opioid use); be smart about your tolerance, knowing it can change if you haven’t used for even a few days; and try not to use alone or in an unfamiliar place where you wouldn’t get help if you do overdose (which was the case for our son).
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.