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.

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Celebrating Freedom and New Life

April 4, 2021

 (I am taking a break from the chapter by chapter topics from Opiate Nation to focus on the significance of this holy week. Translations into most languages available at tab to the right.)

Spring is the season of regeneration, freedom, new life. The time of year when the whole earth seems excited to be alive after being dormant all winter. For the northern hemisphere, March and April are Spring – for our friends and family in Australia, right now it is Autumn. Regardless of what season it is where you live on this planet, it is Easter Sunday and the end of Passover week. Both the Christian and Jewish traditions celebrate the freedom from bondage and the beginning of a new life, although from differing perspectives and beliefs. Both begin the time with reflection and prayer. (I don’t understand Islamic tradition well enough to comment on it except to say that Ramadan is observed around this same time of year with introspection and fasting in remembrance of Muhammad receiving the Quran.)

For Christians, the freedom is from the bondage to sin in one’s life; for Jews, it is the freedom from bondage that the Israelites suffered under in Egypt. Both faiths look to an historical event in the past. They also remind us that while bondage was dealt with symbolically once – whether personally or communally – it is an ongoing problem in this imperfect world.

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The Vortex of Shame

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

For generations, the combination of personal shame and public stigma has produced tremendous obstacles to addressing the problem of alcoholism and drug addiction in America. Addiction stigma prevents too many people from getting the help they need. –Hazelden-Betty Ford Institute for Recovery

Historically, the word shame was used interchangeably with guilt – the appropriate pang of conscience that followed doing something wrong. In reality, there is an important distinction between shame and guilt. Shame is about who you think you are; guilt is about what you have done.

Stigmas are linked to shame. In the Greek and Latin worlds, a stigma was a mark or brand, especially for a slave, identifying them as “inferior.” Later, it became known as a mark or stain we can’t see with our eyes: social stigmas that are based on perceivable characteristics, associated with certain behaviors that distinguish a person from other members of society. They convey disapproval and disgrace.

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Hopes & Dreams

(Twenty-first 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 know how men in exile feed on dreams of hope.

–Aeschylus, Agamemnon

After our son’s death from overdose, John and I truly felt like “men in exile,” forced into separation from our son, banished from each other’s’ lives. We are not just on different continents, but in different worlds, different dimensions. And hope? Any hope would have been just that—a dream, a mirage.

His untimely death took all hope of a sober and content son in this life away. Lost hope is what crushes parents when their child dies a needless death, an ignoble death to many. Had he fought in a war and been killed in action, to society it would have been a noble death. Most people who are separated from the life-and-death battle with addiction can’t see the struggle that this generation of young people are fighting on a moment-by-moment basis against an enemy that is in their brain, in their body—not outside it—one they can’t shoot and kill or put in prison. But we, as parents and friends, see it and wonder how much longer can they fight before they lose?

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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.

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The Cost of Secrets

 (Fourteenth 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 Breaking Bad was released in 2008, our son, and most of his generation of young people, watched it. He told us about it and encouraged us to watch it while also warning us that there would be some parts we wouldn’t like – but to keep watching. We did and he was right. But JL knew that we wanted to be connected to his life through the media he viewed and so we became fully engaged and finished the series.

When I think back about it now I realize that we didn’t fully ‘get’ why JL wanted us to watch this series. I believe now that he wanted us to understand the complications and conflicts that drug use brings into a life, perhaps knowing it would reveal secrets that he just couldn’t talk about with us directly. His life was complicated and so he lived with many inner conflicts. It is the inescapable nature of any addiction.

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What’s Inside the Shell?

(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.)

Shells are beautiful and fascinating to me. Each and every one is unique, differing from others just like our fingerprints. John and I just spent time at the central eastern coast of Australia and on our daily walks on the beach I just couldn’t stop picking up shells – especially the Nautilus shells with their logarithmic spirals of every size, shape, and color. These are empty shells that were once the home of a sea creature.

The exoskeleton of mollusks is the hard, outer layer that protects the tender creature inside. As the creature grows, layers are added to accommodate it. One day, as I was picking up shells in the surf, the inhabitant was still inside. It immediately retreated as far back into its shell as possible.

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Woefully Unprepared

(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 Nation was 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.

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Loneliness in a Lonely Time

It has been said that the 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…and 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.

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A Lament and A Love Song – for Our Son

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.

And shame.

There is no glory in being the parent of someone who is an addict or alcoholic.

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