“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.
The Global Drug Survey (GDS) runs the largest drug – which includes alcohol – survey in the world. The GDS is now it is ninth year and is translated into 16 languages and partners with over 30 countries. Their international team is committed to helping make drug use safer regardless of the legal status of the drug and promoting honest conversations about drug use across the world.
How we wish we had been able to have more open conversations with our son while he was struggling during a relapse or actively using. Had he not feared some punitive measure we could impose on him in an attempt to force him to be squeaky clean, he would have felt less shame and the feeling of being a failure. He could have felt that we were partners with him in his battle against the overwhelming enemy that was within. Continue reading “GLOBAL DRUG SURVEY 2020”
Last week I wrote about regrets that John and I deal with – wishing that we had known about some type of long-lasting recovery option for our son, JL – and the SMART recovery approach and how it differs from traditional 12-Step programs such as AA. Continuing on with the concepts about individuals who struggle with life-threatening addictions of any variety, I have a few more thoughts.
With the genetic / disease model of addiction that scientific research has brought to the table, there are many in the recovery world who feel this mindset gives those living with addiction a green light to excuse their responsibility, their power of choice. But I disagree. It is clear that we had nothing to do with our family tree, our genetic inheritance (1). We were “powerless” as far as choosing to be born into our family. Yet, this doesn’t mean we are powerless to overcome the negative Continue reading “POWER-less or POWER-ful?”
One of the most recurring regrets John and I deal with is wishing that we had known about some type of long-lasting recovery option for our son, JL. He was becoming recovery resistant after so many cycles of detox and recovery programs and relapse. As the opioid epidemic sped up with mounting deaths by overdose, we now have statistics that make it clear that it usually takes many recovery/relapse cycles before a person can maintain long-term sobriety – especially for the main victims of this epidemic – those who started using opioids at a young age. Like our son. It’s not that he didn’t want to be clean and sober. He did, with all his heart. But opioids don’t let go easily or quickly. Continue reading “Offering Recovery Options”
I am devoting this blog to a review by Shelf Awareness of an essential book in the battle against early exposure to opioids which has destroyed so many young lives – our son’s included – in the past 20 years. Please give a copy of this book to every teenager and young adult you know and love.
Journalist Sam Quinones’s lauded 2015 Dreamland was, according to our review, “a comprehensive and empathetic investigation into the Mexican pipeline feeding the United States heartland’s growing appetite for opiates.” This adaptation, pared down for a young adult audience, is a sharp, engrossing work of narrative nonfiction.
Dreamland snares the young reader immediately with the story of Matt Schoonover from Columbus, Ohio, who began using prescription opiate painkillers in high school, became addicted and moved to black tar heroin when the “street OxyContin” became too pricy. A day after returning from three weeks in rehab, at the age of 21, Matt fatally overdosed. Continue reading “Dreamland (Young Adult Adaptation): The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones (2019)”