(Translation into most languages at tab to the right)
“We were trying, all of us, so hard, and he just wanted to live.” (1)
Ursula Rauh said this about her brother, Tommy, after his death from a fentanyl overdose and a dozen stints in rehab in ten years. He became addicted to Oxy’s at 23 after being prescribed an unlimited amount for tendinitis and a year later, another prescription for wisdom teeth extraction. Sam Quinones retells the family story in The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Times of Fentanyl and Meth. “The tragedy wasn’t just the death of her brother; it was all the time, effort, love, and pain that the family traversed, the hoping and living for the smallest encouragement.” (1)
When my husband, John, and I returned from Australia in May, we decided that we needed to address the decades of files we had saved and ‘stuff’ we had accumulated and ‘stuffed’ away in closets. We have shredded and recycled dozens of boxes of documents, cleared out half the books in our library, and now I have moved on to scanning and sorting thousands of photos. While I was pulling bins of photos and albums out of closets, I came upon a few more file bins. I sighed out loud to John, “Oh boy…more of JL’s file’s I’d forgotten about.”
(Translation into most languages at tab to the right.)
A few months ago, John was on a phone call with a physician who was asking his input about a new drug to help with opioid addiction. John shared about our son’s addiction and death and how we hoped that by speaking openly about his life and writing our book and blog we could help in some small way. His response was something I did not expect and will never forget. He said, “Don’t underestimate advocacy because it is the surest way to change things. Science and medicine take a long time and have limited effectiveness.”
An advocate is someone who works by speaking, acting, or writing truthfully on behalf of a person or group in order to promote, protect, and defend their welfare and to seek justice for their rights. To speak out for those who have no voice. But advocacy is not cheerleading. A cheerleader is someone who only supports their team or player – since they are in competition against another team. They are indiscriminate about what their team does or doesn’t do. They don’t necessarily look at the big picture or causes and effects. Their role is to simply cheer on their team or player and boost support from their fans with slogans that may or may not be true.
Serious problems that affect the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and entire societies, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, addictions, and racial prejudice and inequality, are not helped by cheerleading. People in danger and suffering need advocates who have compassion, who are truth-tellers, and who will vigorously and untiringly work for a solution.
When I see a young person on the streets, homeless and struggling, enslaved to a substance that is stealing their life – or anyone living with addiction of any sort – I long to be helpful in a meaningful way and become discouraged at my inability to do so. And if I feel discouraged, how must they feel? What will help bring real, substantive change and hope to these lives and in these circumstances?
As parents of a son with a deadly addiction, we were sometimes cheerleaders when we needed to be advocates. Cheering him on and telling him he could do it without any medical help was not being realistic or being the advocates he needed. I think it is difficult to be an effective advocate for those we love because we are too close to have a clear perspective. Which is why a supportive recovery community – for both the family and the one struggling – is vital. We must try and use whatever resources we have: our voice for those who are not being heard, our writing to bring clarity to public thinking, our physical presence to stand or march with others, and our time, energy, and finances to step in where we can or offer help to find those resources.
There are as many ways to be an advocate as there are needs in this world. I have friends involved in racial justice, in refugee struggles, in stopping sexual exploitation and abuse, homelessness and poverty – the list is endless. The question is: How can each one of us be an advocate for the people and needs we are aware of and that we have a passion for?
It has been said thatthe opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection – to others, to a community.The Coronavirus pandemic has brought disconnection and magnified loneliness and stress for people the world over due to social isolation, economic instability, reduced access to spiritual communities, and overall national anxiety and fear of the future. “We certainly have data from years of multiple studies showing that social isolation and social stress plays a significant role in relapse…relapsing to drug use can play a role in overdose.” Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director NIDA.
The acronym HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, is used in Alcoholics Anonymous and most recovery programs. It is a simple reminder that when our basic human needs are not met, one is susceptible to toxic thoughts and self-destructive behaviors including relapse and suicide.
Regardless of where you live, there have likely been restrictions imposed to limit the number of people who can gather together – from dozens in some countries to only the members of your immediate household in others – in order to slow down the high-speed train that is Covid-19. For many of us, we have been able to maintain our emotional equilibrium because we know this is for a limited time and we can look forward with hope to the future.
But what about those vulnerable members of society who already struggle on a daily basis with insecure housing and food supplies and to maintain their mental health, sobriety, or recovery? In the midst of one of the most isolating crises the modern world has known, it is no surprise then that cities across America, and around the world, are reporting dramatic increases in drug overdoses, alcohol relapses, and suicides.
In-person community meetings are at the foundation of recovery programs. And no wonder. It is in community where individuals become part of something greater than themselves. And I believe it is in the breakdown of communal life in individualistic American ideology that has, to a great degree, contributed to the anxiety, insecurity, and depression that so characterizes our national psyche and has led to the pursuit of finding relief in so many unhealthy ways.
A friend of our son who is an alcoholic who has been working his recovery for the past 8 years, put it this way:
“Self-isolation breeds relapse for people in recovery. With quarantine, people are losing the accountability they have relied on from in-person meetings and it’s a lot easier for people to further isolate and close off their emotions. Attending virtual meetings keeps me grounded and gets the message across as much as regular in-person meetings but lacks the fellowship aspect. This will no doubt expose many in recovery to loneliness.”
Even though increasing numbers of people around the world are vaccinated, it will not stop some of the isolation and loneliness. Is there anything those of us who are not isolated emotionally can do to help? The one thing my husband and I have made as a priority in our weekly schedule is to check in with friends around the world via texts, emails, letters, phone or video calls – including our young friends who are in recovery and elderly friends who just need to know they are not forgotten. With our social networks and finances, we can support organizations that are working the front lines to serve the addiction/mental health population. We can make or purchase masks, buy food and basic supplies, to give to those in need and support recovery programs in our area.
(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)
(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.
(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.
(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:
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).
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.
(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:
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.
(Eighteenth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
In 1735, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his own newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, where he used this now-famous phrase: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. He wasn’t referring to a pandemic or keeping your roof in good condition so it won’t leak or changing the oil in your car so you won’t ruin your engine or, my personal example, brushing your teeth to avoid tooth decay and gum disease.
When I was growing up in the 1960’s, brushing our teeth every day was a new habit for most Americans. Even though the toothbrush was invented in 1857, it wasn’t until after WWII that we got in the habit of regularly brushing our teeth. When I was young, I didn’t give much thought to personal care and it seems I didn’t brush my teeth often – I was too busy living life – which is why my two older sisters gave me the endearing nick-name “moss-mouth”. (FYI, I must have good teeth genetics because I didn’t have my first cavity until I was 30.)
(Eleventh in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
Honesty is one of the main themes that ripple under the surface of “The Blues.” Expressions of honest feelings, whatever they may be at the moment – themes of lost love, painful relationships, dashed hopes, and heartache. The majority of us have or will experience heartache in our lives. Although it seems counterintuitive, most of us feel consoled by songs that express what we are feeling deep inside but may have a hard time putting into words. In order for me to be honest, I have to acknowledge that I am singing The Blues.