(Nineteenth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
DNA sequences for any human is approximately 99.9 percent identical to every other human. That means that only 0.1 percent of our genetic makeup is unique to us. Genes are functional units of DNA that make up the human genome. But don’t be fooled into thinking that 0.1 percent variation is insignificant. It is nearly 3 billion base pairs of DNA which boils down to 3 million differences that determine our physical features like hair and eye color and health risks or protection from diseases such as heart disease, diabetes – and addiction. Genes influence the numbers and types of receptors in peoples’ brains, how quickly their bodies metabolize drugs, and how well they respond to different medications.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that family studies that include identical twins, fraternal twins, adoptees, and siblings suggest that as much as half of a person’s risk of becoming addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs depends on his or her genetic makeup. Scientists estimate that genes – including the effects environmental factors have on a person’s gene expression, called epigenetics – account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s risk of addiction.
Epigenetics – epi meaning “above” – is the study of functional, and sometimes inherited, changes in the regulation of gene activity and expression that are not dependent on gene sequence. This means exposures or choices people make can actually “mark” (remodel) the structure of DNA at the cell level. So epigenetic regulatory systems enable the development of different cell types (e.g., skin, liver, or nerve cells) in response to the environment. These epigenetic marks can affect health and even the expression of the traits passed to children. For example, when a person uses cocaine, it can “mark” the DNA, increasing the production of proteins common in addiction which is believed to correspond with drug-seeking behaviors.
(Fifth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
After many years of not having a dog, we decided to adopt one from our local shelter. We found a beautiful German-shepherd/wolf mix who was 18 months old. Bella was docile, sweet and quiet. The next day, as I headed out to the grocery store, I gave her a hug and saw her watch me through the window as I got into the car.
When I returned an hour later, I was met with a shock. I found her, panting rapidly and pacing nervously in our bedroom where our wooden shutters were open and had bite marks. She had tried to escape while I was gone. I had no idea why. I immediately called the shelter. “She is having separation anxiety: she needed to escape being left alone.” We found out that she had been with two families previously when she was dumped at the shelter because she continued to try to escape when she was left alone for hours on end. They gave us the name of a dog behaviorist and we started down the long road of helping Bella manage her fear when we had to leave her at home.
Children and adults can experience separation anxiety when someone they are attached to leaves them. They can have recurrent and excessive distress just anticipating being separated from loved ones and the anxiety can be so intense that it is hard to function in everyday life. Panic attacks and physical symptoms such as nausea and headaches can occur. For me and my husband, on the morning of our son’s death from overdose, standing over our son in that body bag we experienced the ultimate separation anxiety. The overriding emotion we felt was fear: fear of the unknown future we were facing. We couldn’t visualize how we would survive without our son as part of our lives and the future we thought we all had together. He had not only been an integral part of our lives for 25 years but he was literally a part of us–the combination of our DNA that formed him as a particular and unique human being. To say that it was like having part of you taken away doesn’t describe it. This was having our hearts torn out.
We would never embrace or kiss or stroke the cheek of our son again. We were facing an existential crisis, shaken to the core, questioning our reason for living. Regardless of our strong faith that had seen us through many other deaths in our families, this separation seemed incomprehensible and cruel. It was only by falling down on our faces and waiting for Mercy to gradually pick us up that we were able to survive this traumatic separation from our son and move forward again in life.
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.
As the months have passed since Opiate Nation was released last October, we have received many very encouraging reviews and comments. I have gathered some of them together and created a new page entitled “Recommendations & Reviews.” (see Menu) If you have wondered whether our story is worth the read, especially if you have no personal experience with addiction or heartbreaking loss, then perhaps these reviews will have some insight that will inspire you to order a copy for yourself or a loved one. If you have already read it, we would love to hear from you and know how you have been supported and reassured through our book. It is the reason we have written and published 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.”