Ghost Stories

(Short topical blogs based on Opiate Nation – translation into most languages in tab on right.)

When we hear the phrase “ghost stories” most of us think of scary and spooky stories shared around a campfire with the intended, and predicable, consequence of keeping us awake at night.

But when H Lee (aka Harris Insler) decided to call his new podcast series “These Ghosts Must Be Heard”, it wasn’t because he would be interviewing people with paranormal experiences. And although the stories his guests share aren’t scary in the ghoulish sense, they have kept their narrators awake at night for days, weeks, and months on end. John and I included. (To hear our interview with Harris, see links below for Podbean, Amazon, Spotify.)

https://theseghostsmustbeheard.podbean.com/

https://music.amazon.com/podcasts/3392919b-b8bc-46b4-a486-5e34b7d8dd1d/episodes/580578a3-691f-418a-a179-8bc5f72dd138/these-ghosts-must-be-heard-episode-2-jl

These are real-life experiences and these “ghosts” are the spirits of our deceased loved ones: children, friends, partners who have succumbed to premature and preventable deaths from opioid overdoses.

I’ve heard it said that stories emotionalize information. Most of us already have acquired information about addiction and the escalation of deaths from drug overdoses – almost 100,000 in 2020 in the USA alone – we’ve seen reports on the news about the opioid epidemic, drug seizures at ports and borders, celebrities going to rehab. But to transfer that information from our heads to our hearts requires another step. This is where stories come in.

Stories are proven to connect us to others and, when told honestly and well, they should place us on common emotional ground with our listeners. Good advice can feel like a lecture whereas a vivid personal story relating that same information will more likely alter our views. Scientists have found that when we are listening to or reading an engaging story, our bodies become involved with symptoms such as sweaty palms, rapid or skipped heart beats, and facial movements. On functional MRI scans, many different areas of the brain light up when someone is listening to a narrative. Our brain waves actually start to synchronize with the storyteller. *

After getting trustworthy information, then allowing it to settle into our hearts and souls through the power of stories, the next step is taking action. What can you and I do to help bring about necessary change? Harris, and all those willing to share their painful stories on his podcast – and all the other excellent addiction and recovery podcasts now being produced – do so with the intent that sharing their narrative might energize others to be informed, share their stories, and help change the outcome for future generations.

It takes courage to be vulnerable and face the dark and scary places in our lives – and even more to share those stories. Billy Graham said, “Courage is contagious. When one man takes a stand, the spines of others are stiffened.”  

* https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/04/11/815573198/how-stories-connect-and-persuade-us-unleashing-the-brain-power-of-narrative

Mirror Mirror

(I am re-posting this from July 4th for those who were on holiday and missed it.)

Topical blogs taken from OPIATE NATION. Translation into most languages at tab on right.

I was listening to a young man who had been heavily addicted to crystal meth. As he told his story, one of his “ah-ha” moments was walking into a bathroom in his parents’ home and seeing himself in the mirror. As he looked at the vestige of his former self – an emaciated, festered, hollow-eyed man – he remembered who he once was: a happy and carefree young person with good friends, a star athlete, a kind and honest person, a loving son. That moment of realization caused him to reach out and ask for help which eventually led to the beginning of his recovery journey.

As I heard his story, a photo flashed before my eyes of my son, JL – one we found on his phone after he died from a heroin overdose. It was a selfie he had taken after he had relapsed, just days before he died, standing in front of a full-length mirror in a public bathroom. He was dressed for work in slacks and a dress shirt. No smile. I have always wondered why he took that photo. Was it to remind himself of who he really was? To be able to be honest with himself when he might look at it later when he was high? Was he attempting to make himself stop using? To ask someone for help?

I’ll never know.

But after listening to this other young man, I’m guessing my son had similar thoughts going through his mind. Yet, what seems to have happened is that his addicted mind told himself that he could handle it on his own – that he could just cut down his use and not have to go through withdrawal one more time, not have to be embarrassed by telling us he had relapsed after 6 months of sobriety, not have to start all over again.

Perception refers to how we interpret things and it is the motivation behind our actions and reactions. His perception of his ability to use his willpower was skewed, because our self-perception is influenced by many factors including our perceived needs, our experiences, and our expectations.

Beneath self-perception is our self-concept, our view of our self, which influences our decisions, our feelings, and our judgement. It may include genuine self-knowledge or varying degrees of distortion.

Many times, we choose – albeit unconsciously – to be self-deceived because it is too painful to be honest with ourselves, to interpret what we see in the mirror with unbiased and accurate judgement. There is a saying written in the first century AD that sums this up:

“Those who hear (a clear direction) and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are or what they look like.”

Because of this very human tendency, we all need a few close friends and a safe community who love us enough to honestly reflect back what we saw in the mirror – which we can so conveniently forget.

Mirror Mirror

Topical blogs taken from OPIATE NATION. Translation into most languages at tab on right.

I was listening to a young man who had been heavily addicted to crystal meth. As he told his story, one of his “ah-ha” moments was walking into a bathroom in his parents’ home and seeing himself in the mirror. As he looked at the vestige of his former self – an emaciated, festered, hollow-eyed man – he remembered who he once was: a happy and carefree young person with good friends, a star athlete, a kind and honest person, a loving son. That moment of realization caused him to reach out and ask for help which eventually led to the beginning of his recovery journey.

As I heard his story, a photo flashed before my eyes of my son, JL – one we found on his phone after he died from a heroin overdose. It was a selfie he had taken after he had relapsed, just days before he died, standing in front of a full-length mirror in a public bathroom. He was dressed for work in slacks and a dress shirt. No smile. I have always wondered why he took that photo. Was it to remind himself of who he really was? To be able to be honest with himself when he might look at it later when he was high? Was he attempting to make himself stop using? To ask someone for help?

I’ll never know.

But after listening to this other young man, I’m guessing my son had similar thoughts going through his mind. Yet, what seems to have happened is that his addicted mind told himself that he could handle it on his own – that he could just cut down his use and not have to go through withdrawal one more time, not have to be embarrassed by telling us he had relapsed after 6 months of sobriety, not have to start all over again.

Perception refers to how we interpret things and it is the motivation behind our actions and reactions. His perception of his ability to use his willpower was skewed, because our self-perception is influenced by many factors including our perceived needs, our experiences, and our expectations.

Beneath self-perception is our self-concept, our view of our self, which influences our decisions, our feelings, and our judgement. It may include genuine self-knowledge or varying degrees of distortion.

Many times, we choose – albeit unconsciously – to be self-deceived because it is too painful to be honest with ourselves, to interpret what we see in the mirror with unbiased and accurate judgement. There is a saying written in the first century AD that sums this up:

“Those who hear (a clear direction) and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are or what they look like.”

Because of this very human tendency, we all need a few close friends and a safe community who love us enough to honestly reflect back what we saw in the mirror – which we can so conveniently forget.

Peter’s Story: Alcohol The Gateway Drug

(Thirty-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.)

This week’s Story of Hope is from a friend of JL’s, Peter (not his real name). Here are some excerpts from his story in Opiate Nation (5 min read):

My name is Peter and I’m an alcoholic and addict. This is how I introduce myself at the AA meetings I attend several times every week, as I have done for over 10 years. I am from a fairly affluent family, raised with high moral standards, and attended the best schools. So how is it that I became an alcoholic by the time I was a senior in high school and an opioid addict and dealer by the time I was 20?

The first time I used alcohol was in my junior year in high school. I was new to the school and I felt like I didn’t get the playbook for how to be a part of the group. I had been raised with strong values against using drugs and alcohol – but I wanted to fit in with the popular kids.

I tried a capful of vodka—that was it. I hated the way it tasted. The next day I was sick—not so much from the alcohol, but with guilt. This would be a consistent theme in my drinking and using: I always felt guilt and the consequences of doing something soul-crushing and bending the moral line I had deep within me. Once that barrier had been crossed, then anything was permissible. Initially I only drank on weekends at parties so that I wouldn’t be the outsider.

I barely graduated high school. If I wasn’t drinking, I was restless and discontented and my skin was crawling. As soon as I got little alcohol in me, I felt like I just need a little bit more to feel like I did the first time I drank. But I would get to that tipping point and then would go until it was a blackout again.

Looking back on it, it was so selfish. My family was paying for my education and I was just wasting it. It was continual, repetitive drunkenness and waking up in horrible shape and feeling worse each time. I would continue to screw up and manipulate my parents so they would let me get back into a situation that was really detrimental to me. I was just continually enabled with the free apartment, the no-consequences lifestyle. It was like being a celebrity: you don’t have any responsibilities or pay your own bills—just party.

When I was 20, I first smoked weed. Within a week I was selling enough so that I could smoke for free. It was the first thing that calmed my ADHD. I felt like I could breathe again, and it slowed my rapid thinking way down. It did for me what I was hoping alcohol would do for me. Pretty soon, I was drinking and smoking weed at the same time: “cross-fading.”

Then I tried Percocet and 30 minutes later I felt like I had melted in my seat—I’d never had painkillers before. But then I was on. I’d have one or two of those when I was at work. I felt like I was Superman. I had no anxiety, no problems, living in the moment every moment. I took them with alcohol and pot for over a year. We took them at first as a party drug—deceptively advertised as “non-addictive”. But one time turned into needing it every day.

I got into selling hard drugs and started meeting a lot of very shady people, going to places my friend and I would never have gone to in the past. The majority of buying Oxy’s was from people who were way over prescribed. Every time I had more money, I used more—I was a junkie and there was no profit. Also, when you get blackout drunk every night, it’s easy to give away more product than they pay for, you’re hanging out with pretty seedy people who are stealing things from you—it just goes like that.

Finally, I got pulled over by a cop. They searched the vehicle and found weed in the trunk. I was put on probation. I started back to work, taking cabs, and I started going to AA meetings every day. My dad took me to a meeting. Every member of my family is an alcoholic—both parents’ sides. My dad had been an alcoholic and sold drugs before I was born, and he had gotten clean and sober through AA.

I didn’t think I was an alcoholic. What I failed to realize was alcohol is a “drug,” because you are using it in the same way: for the effect. I thought I could just smoke some weed and drink a beer now and then. But for me, that’s not an option—I can never just have one or two. Within two months I started drinking again, then heavily and blacking out all the time. With court dates looming, I was a mess emotionally and physically—I was broken and decided I would kill myself.

Before I did this, I had a moment of clarity and wanted to call my mom. She had brought me into this world, and I should tell her before I took myself out of it. And I didn’t want her to feel guilty for what I had done. She didn’t try to tell me not to do it. She told me I was right, that I was going to die because I was really sick. She asked, “Are you willing for the first time in your life to put 100% effort into this and abandon every idea that you could ever drink or use again on the hopes that you could have a life that would be normal?” I said yes. Not hearing her say “I love you and it’s going to be ok,” but her telling me the truth is what made the difference.

The next day, I went to a meeting, broken and finally ready for a change. An old guy there said he’d be my sponsor. As we talked, he said I should get quiet and calm, hit my knees every morning and night and thank God for my sobriety, one day at a time. Get to one or more meetings a day. If something feels wrong, don’t do it and call me. It wasn’t easy.

I went through all the 12-steps. Even today, with over 10 years sober, I am tempted because I still can only see the dishonest part of drinking—the fun times, not where that one drink will take me. I need to stay connected and going to meetings because my sobriety is my priority.

*Please listen to SURVIVING OPIOIDS new podcast for relevant discussion re early alcohol use, childhood trauma, and recovery – link at right

Anne’s Story: Cultural Influences

(Thirty-fourth 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 week’s Story of Hope is from a young friend of ours, Anne (not her real name). Here are some excerpts from her story in Opiate Nation (5 min read):

I was eleven years old when I first experienced shooting heroin. Looking back, I can hardly believe it and I am so thankful to be alive, and to be sharing my story.

My boyfriend and I watched the movies Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream and they really piqued our interest in drugs. The way it was portrayed in those movies made me think using heroin would be an amazing dream sequence, when in actuality, it made me violently ill. My boyfriend insisted we keep trying. He became obsessed with all drugs: ecstasy, LSD, cocaine, and various pills and so I tried them all.

Continue reading “Anne’s Story: Cultural Influences”

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.

Continue reading “Regrets: Endless Stairways”

Shredding A Life – Losing the Future

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

Nine months after our son, JL’s, sudden death, we were gradually unearthing our grief, as we gradually unearthed pieces of his life. We were miners searching for something precious, digging through the layers of years as if through layers of rock. Or perhaps we were more like survivors of an earthquake. Our entire earth, with everything we had built on it, was suddenly shaken to the point of collapse, and we were sifting through the remaining buildings and rubble to see what was left. Deciding what to keep and what to dispose of. “Dispose of” has new and unwelcome meanings now. Clothing, personal belongings, furniture, files, photos, childhood toys, keys, memorabilia.

John’s journal entry on May 12, 2015 expresses some of our feelings:

Dear JL,

It’s dad again. We are going through more of your things and I spent a half-day shredding your old papers and notes. It is so odd that much of our lives comes down to boxes of paper to shred. This is very, very hard for me. Shredding your life.

I love you – Dad

Grief is about what is going on inside us after a loss—how we feel. We have no more control over it than we have control over other feelings. Our choice involves how we deal with it.

Mourning is the action of dealing with our loss—what we do, the common rituals, the external part of the tragedy. Again, we choose how we mourn.

Some people put acts of mourning off indefinitely – leaving a deceased loved one’s belongings just as they were when they died until they die themselves. Others, urged on by society or their own distraught emotions, will almost immediately begin sorting and throwing. For us, there were some natural milestones when deep inside we seemed to know it was time to face the loss of another part of our son’s life. The grief-work we were engaged in – being aware of the various stages of grief and facing them as they surfaced – was our internal guide. We never let societal custom or any external pressure guide us, while we did read and listen to other’s experiences.

One thing became clear: this loss of our child was very, very different than the loss of our parents or siblings. Although each of those were difficult in their own distinct ways, the level of personal pain with our son’s death was unique. He was an intimate part of who we are – of course – he came from us. As he grew and became his own person, he yet remained a part of our life and more significantly, our future. All is engulfed in a thick fog. Which is why the quote in the photo is so poignant:

When you lose a parent, you lose the past. When you lose a child, you lose the future.

The Rescuers: Enabling, Caretaking, and Drama

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

Historically, “enabling” referred to facilitating or empowering someone in order to help them accomplish something. By teaching children to read, we enable them to develop their intellect and further their learning. Or, as in 1933 Germany, “The Enabling Act” gave Adolf Hitler the power to enact laws without the involvement of the legislative bodies: he was enabled to become a legal dictator. In modern psychology, enabling can be positive, but it is also used in a negative sense when it encourages dysfunctional, unhealthy behavior and habits, as it is used in addiction and recovery vocabulary. Rescuing and caretaking are terms that mean what they say. They are closely connected to enabling: we rescue people from their responsibilities and we take care of people’s responsibilities for them.

Melody Beattie (Codependent No More) refers to the “Drama Triangle” roles of victim, persecutor, rescuer, and says “Rescuing/caretaking looks like a much friendlier act than it is. It requires a victim who is actually capable of taking care of themselves even though we and they don’t admit it…After we rescue, we will inevitably move to the next corner of the triangle, persecutor. We become resentful and angry at the person we have so generously helped…Then we move to the victim corner of the triangle, at the bottom, the predictable and unavoidable result of a rescue.”

Continue reading “The Rescuers: Enabling, Caretaking, and Drama”

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.

Continue reading “The Vortex of Shame”

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.

Continue reading “The Secret Keepers”