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?
In these weeks of living life in a new way with the Coronavirus pandemic, I have found myself doing something I am not normally inclined to do: choosing to look away from the ongoing Opioid Epidemic. Sadly, it has been easy to do. John and I arrived in Melbourne in March on the last flight from LAX allowing non-residents into Australia. When we planned our trip in January to be here for the completion and delivery of our new Tiny Home, Covid-19 was barely in the news.
After our 14-day quarantine, and during our first few weeks here, we were supposed to speak at two events which were cancelled. When the meetings switched over to Zoom, we were then able to share the story of Opiate Nation. It was well received and appreciated, as it brought to light pitfalls and vulnerabilities that parents and their children face in the 21st century. Since then, we have been busy setting up our new home, arranging installations, and finding furniture and appliances. We are thankful and feel blessed to be able to be here with our daughter and family – and to be in a country where the leaders have been honest and proactive, where the government has a wide social safety net and comprehensive health care for everyone, and where the public is almost uniformly willing to trust and follow their stipulations.
Meanwhile, in the back of my mind, I have continued to think about people struggling with addiction and wondering what their lives are like during these times that are challenging – even for the rest of us. With the restrictions to help slow the spread of the virus, many rehab and recovery programs are now not an option. For those who have had jobs, many of which are hourly-wage or temporary positions, they may now be unemployed. If they are taking medication as part of their harm reduction/medication assisted treatment, how will they pay for 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.”
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.
When I was in Melbourne, Australia recently with our family, I was starkly reminded of the ubiquitous presence of opium in the past as well as the present. Not that I can ever really forget it’s demon-like presence. But when I am asked what I do and I respond that I am a new author, the next question is what my book is about. After I give a short description, I am always surprised at how many people have stories of their own involving this ancient plant – a plant that truly offers humankind a double-edged sword. It can so wondrously relieve pain when our bodies have been injured or undergone surgery. Yet it has a mysterious way of latching on to a large percentage of we mortals who, having once legitimately used this soothing balm, then find the memory of that bliss like an oasis in the desert that we chase after at all cost.
Within a week, I heard three stories. One seems like something out of another era. A 60-yr old man, after hearing about our son and Opiate Nation, began to tell me about his years growing up in Singapore. He explained that both his mother and his father were addicted to opium and would regularly go to the opium dens to smoke. He remembers the intoxicating smell when he would go to find them to use the opportunity of their being in a blissful state to get money from them. He never wanted to use that drug or any other.
The Global Drug Survey (GDS) runs the largest drug – which includes alcohol – survey in the world. The GDS is now it is ninth year and is translated into 16 languages and partners with over 30 countries. Their international team is committed to helping make drug use safer regardless of the legal status of the drug and promoting honest conversations about drug use across the world.
How we wish we had been able to have more open conversations with our son while he was struggling during a relapse or actively using. Had he not feared some punitive measure we could impose on him in an attempt to force him to be squeaky clean, he would have felt less shame and the feeling of being a failure. He could have felt that we were partners with him in his battle against the overwhelming enemy that was within. Continue reading “GLOBAL DRUG SURVEY 2020”
Last weekend, my husband and I were part of the 30th annual All Souls Procession here in Tucson. It is part of the Mexican & Latin American celebration of El Diá de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead – see link below for an article about it). November 1st & 2nd are set aside to gather as a community to show our love and respect for our loved ones who have died. I have heard that Tucson’s celebration is one of the largest in America with about 100,000 people.
While John and & were walking, carrying a large photo poster of our son decorated with marigold-colored trim & lights, a woman in the procession came up to us and asked John, “Who is that?” John responded, “This is our son who died of a heroin overdose at 25.” The woman’s face froze for a few moments as we continued walking, then she looked down and turned to walk away as she said in a low voice with a pained look on her face, “My daughter is an addict.”
John and I just returned from San Diego where we spoke at the 13th Annual CAHM Forum (Community Alliance for Healthy Mindshttps://www.cahmsd.org/ ). Our dear friends, Rex & Connie Kennemer, began CAHM after their 25-yr-old son, Todd, died by suicide. The theme this year was “The Power of Your Story” and we were among the presenters who shared our story of living with our son and his decade-long battle with opioid addiction. We then led a break-out group where we answered questions and discussed the nature of addiction and treatment.
Some may wonder what an addiction story has to do with a forum on mental health. The answer is simple: everything. Now that we have available data covering decades, the connection between individuals who struggle with the entire spectrum of mental health issues and those who are struggling with any addiction co-exist in almost half of those populations.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), “45% of people with addiction have a co-occurring mental health disorder. Individuals who frequently abuse drugs or alcohol are likely to develop a co-occurring behavioral or mental health disorder. While it is widely accepted that a mental health disorder can induce a substance addiction – and vice versa – researchers are uncovering what causes both conditions to occur simultaneously.” Continue reading “Mental Health & Addiction”
Last week I wrote about regrets that John and I deal with – wishing that we had known about some type of long-lasting recovery option for our son, JL – and the SMART recovery approach and how it differs from traditional 12-Step programs such as AA. Continuing on with the concepts about individuals who struggle with life-threatening addictions of any variety, I have a few more thoughts.
With the genetic / disease model of addiction that scientific research has brought to the table, there are many in the recovery world who feel this mindset gives those living with addiction a green light to excuse their responsibility, their power of choice. But I disagree. It is clear that we had nothing to do with our family tree, our genetic inheritance (1). We were “powerless” as far as choosing to be born into our family. Yet, this doesn’t mean we are powerless to overcome the negative Continue reading “POWER-less or POWER-ful?”
One of the most recurring regrets John and I deal with is wishing that we had known about some type of long-lasting recovery option for our son, JL. He was becoming recovery resistant after so many cycles of detox and recovery programs and relapse. As the opioid epidemic sped up with mounting deaths by overdose, we now have statistics that make it clear that it usually takes many recovery/relapse cycles before a person can maintain long-term sobriety – especially for the main victims of this epidemic – those who started using opioids at a young age. Like our son. It’s not that he didn’t want to be clean and sober. He did, with all his heart. But opioids don’t let go easily or quickly. Continue reading “Offering Recovery Options”