Missing Community

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

(This blog was posted on December 27, 2020, but due to technical glitches, it was not shared on some platforms – here it is again for those who missed it.)

For much of the world, Christmas and the holiday season this year has been nothing like our normal times of celebrating with family and friends. Togetherness is dangerous in most countries due to Covid-19. Yet, despite all the health and safety warnings, many have travelled and gathered with their loved ones. Why would people risk the well-being of themselves and their beloveds just to spend a few hours or days together?

Community. We all need it and ultimately cannot live without it. Communities may seem optional when all is well, but they become indispensable during hard times, whether personally or corporately. They can be small or large and most of us have several different sizes and types that we are part of: our family, school, sports, church, work, etc. What communities have in common are shared interests, beliefs, and needs, even while the individuals may have diverse characteristics. They are united and working towards a common goal and understand that they can achieve it because of, and with, the support and encouragement of others.

Continue reading “Missing Community”

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.

Continue reading “What’s Inside the Shell?”

Loneliness Pt. 2: Unemployment Anxiety & Isolation

We are a global community – like it or not. We are connected down to the minutia of life, from what we breathe, to what we eat, to what we think, to what infects us. And right now, the world, our world is in a life-or-death struggle with a microscopic enemy that seems to keep gaining the upper hand. The result in just one area is massive unemployment and the subsequent loss of access and funding for public and private support services.

I don’t want to get in to the politics of whether economies should be opened up regardless of Covid-19 and suffer the consequences in lives lost, verses lives ruined by no work and massive personal and societal debt. What I am concerned about are the consequences of what so many millions of people are facing from having lost their means of livelihood, and in particular, those whose lives were already balanced on a knife edge on a daily basis.

Continue reading “Loneliness Pt. 2: Unemployment Anxiety & Isolation”

If my son were alive today during the Covid-19 pandemic…..

I would fear for his life more than ever.

“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.”

Continue reading “If my son were alive today during the Covid-19 pandemic…..”

Death in the time of Covid-19: The Body Bags

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.

Continue reading “Death in the time of Covid-19: The Body Bags”

Holidays While In Recovery

I want to pass along a blog from Shatterproof.org that says pretty much everything I try to remember – especially during the holidays – even though I’m not in recovery. The only thing I would add is while starting a new tradition, consider a way to volunteer. If you want to experience joy that no substance can come close to matching, give sacrificially for just a little bit of time. I guarantee you, you will be anxiously awaiting the next opportunity. I am an ambassador with Shatterproof, an amazing non-profit that works tirelessly in the battle to help reduce the addiction rate by means of education, information, and legislation. Check out their website – link below.

9 Tips for Enjoying the Holidays While Maintaining Recovery

By Holly Jespersen, Shatterproof’s Senior Communications Manager

https://www.shatterproof.org/blog/9-tips-enjoying-holidays-while-maintaining-recovery

This is my eighth holiday season in recovery. At this point in my sobriety, I am very comfortable with my new life. I have learned to live without substances, and have a life that is full of loving, supportive relationships. In the beginning, I had assumed that recovery would be boring. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My life these days includes a job that I love and a very packed social calendar full of fun things with people who bring joy to my soul. But it’s not always easy. The holiday season, especially, can be a stressful time for people in recovery like me. Luckily, there are ways to get through it. Here are a few of my top tips for enjoying the holiday season without jeopardizing your health. Continue reading “Holidays While In Recovery”

American Pain

From my earliest memories, I have had leg aches. They come on fairly suddenly for no apparent reason. It wasn’t until my 20’s when I figured out they related to the weather and changes in barometric pressure. I know, it sounds like folk-magic. But it’s true . As I was growing up, my parents would wrap my knees in stretch bandages and rub my legs with witch hazel. One thing they never did was offer me a pill for my pain. Never. In the pre-1980’s world, pain was part of life and mostly bearable.

My how things have changed. America­­­–with 5% of the world’s population–went from consuming less than 5% of the world’s prescription opioids in the 1960’s to now consuming some of the highest percentages of prescription opioids such as oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl, etc.

In 2015, John Temple,  an investigative journalist and journalism professor, wrote American Pain. It was one of three key books released that year in response to our opioid epidemic, the other two being Dreamland and The Big Fix. The title is taken from the “king” of the Florida pill mills, American Pain, a mega-clinic expressly created to serve addicts posing as patients. From a fortress-like former bank building with security guards, American Pain’s five doctors distributed massive quantities of oxycodone to hundreds of customers a day, mostly traffickers and those addicted, who came by the van load. Former strippers operated the pharmacy, counting out pills and stashing cash in garbage bags. Under their lab coats, the doctors carried guns. Continue reading “American Pain”

WITH or WITHOUT HOPE?

There is something unique about the Christmas season, even if you do not buy into the Biblical story that lies at its core, even if you hold some other faith, even with no faith at all. For some reason, and not coincidentally, this time of year usually brings a sense of hope to most of us: hope in a better future for us and our loved ones, for society, for the world.

I think it is also tied in with the advent of a New Year, a new beginning, a chance to make changes that need a special impetus. “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier’.” (Tennyson). It seems “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” (Pope) and as we stand at the starting line on the path of a new year, we are forward-focused with possibilities, even unlikely ones.

Hope is optimistic. Hope creates courage. Hope fosters healing. Hope dispels fear. Hope supplies fortitude and persistence. Blind Helen Keller said, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”

But what about those among us – our family, our friends, even our selves – who see no hope for the future, feel no sense of expectation but instead see only more of the drudgery they have lived with in life, the continual uphill climb with no rest along the way, no way out of an unbearable situation? A relationship, prison, an addiction, an illness, poverty, a loss. I think we all know that for these discouraged and depressed ones this week, among all weeks of the year, is the final straw. Everyone seems happy and contented, planning new goals, possible changes, new adventures – everyone except them, except “me”.

Eight months before our son’s death, he saw a friend overdose and die during the holidays. It was the impetus for him to seek help and go through withdrawals from heroin one more time with the hope that he would be free forever from his addiction. It was a realistic hope – if we had understood what he knew: he needed medication to help him achieve that long-term goal. We had hopes but they were based on mis-information and faulty assumptions. Eight months later we realized our mistake.

If you are among those who feel no hope, who are facing unbearable situations, seemingly unbeatable odds, please remember that we all – ALL – need help at times with feeling hope-full. Take the one step that can help you find the hope you need to envision a different, better future for yourself: call someone or go somewhere. A friend, a help-line, a hospital, a 12-Step meeting, a church service. Reject feelings of shame at admitting you need help by remember that we ALL need help to make it through this life. We were never meant to live life alone. We ALL need the support of a community of some sort. Advocate for yourself – you are worth it – until you find someone who will help. And don’t forget God. His children throughout the millennia have felt despair and depression. But we can remind ourselves of what King David said: “Why are you in despair, my soul? Hope in God, my help, my God.” (Psalm 43:5)

And for those of us who are feeling the anticipation of a new year with new hopes and realistic expectations, let’s be intentionally on the look out for those whose hope is lost and who need a listening ear and a helping hand. Let’s use our blessed life to help someone else.

STIGMA, Part 1: What and Why

In the Greek and Latin worlds, a stigma was a mark or brand, especially for a slave, identifying the person as “inferior”. When stigma began to be used in English, it meant the kind of mark or stain you can’t actually see. (Merriam-Webster). Social stigmas are based on perceivable characteristics, associated with certain behaviors that distinguish a person from other members of society. They convey disapproval and disgrace. Dis-approval. Non-approval. Dis-grace. Non-grace. Being dissed.

In an article on The Stigma of Addiction from Hazelden Recovery we learn: “The stigma of addiction stems from behavioral symptoms of substance use disorder… impaired judgment or erratic behavior, which can result in negative consequences including legal, occupational and relationship problems. Understandably, these consequences cause embarrassment and shame among those affected. They also create stigmatized attitudes and perceptions among the wider public, a response that perpetuates and exacerbates the private shame associated with drug addiction.For generations, this combination of personal shame and public stigma has produced tremendous obstacles to addressing the problem of alcoholism and addiction. Today, the stigma of addiction is seen as a primary barrier to effective addiction prevention, treatment and recovery efforts at the individual, family, societal levels. Addiction stigma prevents too many people from getting the help they need.” The article goes on to discuss the irony that many of these stigmatizing behaviors diminish and/or disappear when a person is appropriately treated in recovery.

In my family, and in most others, alcohol and drug addiction is considered private, and “is something only whispered about. Even when the symptoms of the disease are obvious to all around, individuals and families avoid seeking help for fear of even acknowledging the problem. This is one reason only one in 10 Americans with a substance use disorder receives professional care.” (ibid.) When talking recently with some of our son’s friends and former addicts, they are unwilling to let their past drug use become public knowledge because of the potential negative repercussions they justifiably fear in their careers and relationships. What does this say about us as individuals, communities, employers, and society in general?

Hazeldon, with almost 60 years experience treating alcohol and addiction, says “the same undercurrent of addiction stigma keeps addiction under-diagnosed, under-treated, under-funded and misunderstood by many, especially as compared to other chronic health conditions such as heart disease, asthma and diabetes.” Why? The individual is seen as having a moral failure instead of a health problem. I have an anecdote I share with people when we discuss addiction. When I have been given oral opiates when leaving the hospital after surgery, I take one or two and then opt for the pain because I hate the way they make me feel: disoriented, unable to sleep deeply, and not myself. My husband recently had surgery that he was warned would be painful for 4-6 weeks following the procedure. That was an understatement. He was given a prescription for 10 days of opiates. We thought that would be unnecessary. We were wrong. When he was taking the pain meds as prescribed, he was his normal, cheerful self – it was like magic. As soon as they wore off, he was cranky. Of course he was in pain, but it was more than that. Why?

For us, it’s not difficult to understand. He has the “addiction” gene, as we call it. There were alcoholics in both of our mothers’ families. He got the gene that I seemed to have dodged. Did he ask to have that gene passed down to him? Did he decide he would feel good taking opiates for pain? Of course not. And neither did our son. Nobody makes the decision on how their brain will react to different substances. It happens. The issue is what a person does once they know that a mind-altering substance spells “pleasure” to them? Do they keep a safe distance from it as John has done or do they play with fire? For parents with addiction in our family trees, prevention is our best and most powerful weapon. Two books to aid parents in prevention are:
The Teen Formula : A Parent’s Guide to Helping Your Child Avoid Substance Abuse By  Dr Dave Campbell and Drug-Proof Your Kids by Arteburn and Burns.

Had we known then – when our son was an adolescent – what we know now, we would have made significantly different decisions regarding our attitude towards pain medications, drugs, and alcohol – and especially begun discussing addiction in general and in our family in specific. I believe our son would still be alive if we had.

https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/recovery-advocacy/stigma-of-addiction

Opioid Euphoria

What do you feel when you take a narcotic/opioid pain pill?

There are usually three reactions people have after having being given them for the first time for pain relief: we are disoriented and uncomfortable, even while our sensation of pain is temporarily deadened; we feel ambivalence combined with gratitude for the pain relief and the willingness to have that relief for the next pain-inducing event; or we feel that we have finally found nirvana.The truth about opioids, pain relief, and addiction has long been unclear and confusing. Sadly, this has been purposefully done by the makers of these drugs with one goal: profits. But these statistics are now becoming well known and will hopefully help reverse the trend of opioid addiction and deaths:

Approximately 25% of people who use an opioid will become addicted after a short period of use, which could be once, 3 days or a week.

The longer you use an opioid, the chances will increase that you will be addicted. This is because almost everyone will build up tolerance to them, which leads to addiction.

Genetics play a very important, but as yet not fully understood, role in what type of reaction each of us have to opioids. What is clear is that those families who have tendencies toward addictions – alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, sex, etc – will be those most likely to be drawn to opioids due to sensing them as pleasurable. There is something in their brain that is wired differently than others.

Our addiction doctor and recovery counselors have explained it to us and this is the essence: There are four areas of the brain that handle the substances and experiences we send it. Very simply put, they are:

Pain center: The PAG, known as the central gray, has cells that produce enkephalin that suppress pain

Emotional center: The amygdala regulates how we process emotions, memories, and rewards

Addiction center: The nuclean accumens, due to neuroplasticity, changes over time and builds up tolerance

Control center: The brain stem, the control center between the brain and the rest of the body, controls basic body functions like breathing, swallowing, heart rate, consciousness, etc.

The first three areas have the ability to build up tolerance, which is what keeps addicts coming back for more – and each time needing more. That is the nature of tolerance. The fourth area, the brain stem, has the least ability to build up tolerance. This is why an overdose – using an amount that is significantly more than what your body has built up a tolerance for – shuts down the respiratory center and you stop breathing.

In our family, and in the families of our son’s friends who are addicts or alcoholics, there are definite genetic predispositions to alcoholism that is traceable back many generations. Other addictions are no so easily identified, but they are there. It is not something anyone initiated or wanted or can change. But what can change is knowing the genetic trait is present and taking preventative steps as early in life as possible.

Talking openly and honestly about our predecessors – and our own – addictions is the first step. Seeking wise informed counsel for what things to avoid, especially while young, may help prevent some of the pitfalls. But for most teens, and especially for those from high risk families, experimentation will be unavoidable. Knowing as soon as possible if your child is moving away from their normal behavior and intervening with proven methods may save them – and you – from the pain that hundreds of thousands parents like my husband and I have now had to live with.