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.
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. At the end of the call, as I walked into the room, John told him about our son’s addiction and death and how we hoped that by speaking openly about him and through our book and blog we could help in some small way. His response was something I 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.”
His comment came to mind in the recent weeks as I watched millions of people around the world protesting against racial prejudice that lay at the heart of police brutality to People of Color (POC). They are advocates of racial equality as a basic human right. I thought: how I wish I could be helpful in a practical way to a problem I have watched change very little over the decades of my life. I felt anger and also frustration, wondering if all the sacrifice and effort would actually bring about real, lasting change.
It is the same feeling I have 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. And if I feel discouraged and hopeless, how must they feel? What will help bring real, substantive change and hope in all these circumstances?
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 life on this earth results in tragedy and loss – personal, communal, international – we are immediately faced with choices we did not anticipate nor plan for. An untimely death, an assault or abuse, financial ruin, a health crisis, relational trauma, anxiety: the list is endless. What do we do? Most of us want to just turn and run while we also know there is no place to run to or to hide from the turmoil within. So how do we take the next step forward when everything in us doesn’t want to and we are facing a challenge we have never faced before?
We remember that we all have choices even when it seems there are none. It is what makes humans unique. Referring back to my blog “Darkness & Light” and the thoughts from Jerry Sittser in his book A Grace Disguised, when we choose to move towards the darkness knowing we will eventually see the sun rise, we find gifts along the way that we could have never imagined. But we also find more choices. Sittser cites Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, reflecting on his time in a Nazi death camp and how “the prisoners who exercised the power to choose how they would respond to the terrible loss and darkness of their circumstances displayed dignity, courage and inner vitality. They found a way to transcend their suffering…and so grew spiritually beyond themselves…they learned that tragedy can increase the soul’s capacity for darkness and light, for pleasure as well as for pain.”
Last week, our son would have turned 31. My husband and I still wonder what that would have been like? Would we have enjoyed celebrating as he got married like most of his friends have? Would he be living nearby or in a distant state for a new job? Would he and his wife be planning to start a family and give us grandchildren? These are questions we can only visit in our imaginations, and yes, they bring pain.
On our son’s FB memorial page and our Instagram this week, I posted a photo of the desert after a storm when a rainbow appeared, with this quote: “As in nature, so in life: it takes both clouds and sunshine to make a rainbow.” I have been pondering these apparent paradoxes in nature and in life, especially the concept of darkness & light. While reading A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser, I was reminded again of how we felt from the moment we heard the words from the sheriff’s mouth: “I’m sorry to have to tell you, but your son is dead.” Sittser lost his mother, his wife, and his daughter together in a head-on collision by a drunk driver and says, “Sudden and tragic loss leads to terrible darkness.” Yes. Existential darkness.
He describes a dream of seeing the sun setting and running frantically west toward it in order to remain in some vestige of light – but the sun was outpacing him to sink below the horizon. As he looked back over his shoulder, utter darkness and despair was closing in behind him. He later realized that “the quickest way to reach the light of day is to head east, plunging into the darkness, until one comes to the sunrise.”
CNN reported this week that Mallinckrodt, a large opioid manufacturer, has reached a settlement agreement in principle worth $1.6 billion with attorneys general for 47 states and US territories. Mallinckrodt announced that the proposed deal will resolve all opioid-related claims against the company and its subsidiaries if it moves forward. Plaintiffs (states) would receive payments over an eight-year period to cover the costs of opioid-addiction treatments and other needs.
Compensation: recompense given for loss injury, or harm suffered. Are the settlements that are being levied against Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, TEVA, Mallinckrodt, McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., AmerisourceBergen Corp. really compensation for the millions of lives ruined by opioid addiction? Or for all the lives lost in the past 20 years?
The other day I was thinking about our son and his struggles with drugs and alcohol and all that we know and understand now compared to what we knew and understood in the early 2000’s right up until his death in 2014. I saw myself, as if I were standing out in an open field, turning, looking back over my shoulder. That’s what I do when something unexpected or disturbing happens. I look back and try to figure out what I missed, what I could have done differently.
My next thought was: Why couldn’t my husband and I see the handwriting on the wall? Why didn’t we realize how dire the situation was at every new juncture with our son as the years went by? But, I realized that it wasn’t that we couldn’t see the handwriting on the wall. It was that we didn’t understand what it meant.
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.