(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.)
Chapter 1: The Letter
Most of us have felt like we were “in over our head” at some point in our lives. Maybe it was in a job, or a class, or a relationship. Perhaps in the ocean, or on a steep mountain trail or having made a commitment to an event or project that turns out to be more involved and time consuming than we thought. When we finally realize there are more problems than we can handle or a difficulty that we just can’t surmount, what do we do?
I remember one time when John and I were in Morocco and the friends we were traveling with were gone for the day. We decided to explore a lighthouse we saw ahead. As we walked through an opening in a wall that surrounded it, we started to feel we might not be in a safe place. We felt fearful as we saw trashed looking apartments and expensive cars with black tinted windows. What made us turn and literally run was the sound of mean dogs barking. As we ran back through the opening, several came in view with their spiked collars and bared teeth. Thankfully, as we hit the main street, their owners called them off.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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 I was growing up, this metaphor was commonly espoused: “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public.” That is, you shouldn’t reveal things from your private life that people usually don’t want others to know and they don’t want to hear anyway. Things like inappropriate confessions and unpleasant family secrets. Everyone will be embarrassed and people will feel ashamed.
Now we are more likely to hear someone respond with “TMI – Too much information” when someone goes beyond the bounds of information that no one wants to hear – either too creepy or medical or personal. Totally understandable.
But is it airing dirty laundry for us to speak openly about conditions or situations that are of a communal nature? Topics such as physical or sexual abuse, or complicity and criminal behavior by politicians or leaders, or suicide, or addiction? Of course, there are some details about issues that plague us as a community that do not need to be part of the public discussion in certain situations. But that is different than bringing an issue into the light of day so that it can be discussed in order to work towards a solution.
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.