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?
John and I live in Melbourne, Australia with our daughter and her family several months of the year. Since our son’s death by overdose from heroin 5 years ago, we have become interested in and involved with some of the Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) programs there. We also receive news reports on current trends etc.
What is interesting to me is the contrast between the Australian approach to AOD use and the American approach. Australians accept that there will be drug and alcohol abuse in their society and therefore speak openly and candidly about it. A recent newsletter (Dec. 13, 2019) from VAADA (Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association) is a perfect example of their approach. It was an alert about “ increasing numbers of reports about very strong heroin in Melbourne, which has resulted in an increase in accidental overdoses.”
The alert asks providers in the AOD sector to alert their clients (heroin users) to this problem and to be careful and look out for their fellow users. They also urge providers to share specific harm reduction information to help reduce the risk of overdose, such as: get naloxone and keep it handy; try not to mix drugs (there is a lot of methamphetamine use mixed with heroin/opioid use); be smart about your tolerance, knowing it can change if you haven’t used for even a few days; and try not to use alone or in an unfamiliar place where you wouldn’t get help if you do overdose (which was the case for our son).
Mac Miller – 26 year old rapper – died of an apparent overdose last week. One more beautiful young person lost in the prime of life. Friends and fans have unanimously said he was one of the sweetest guys they’d ever known with a great sense of humor. Miller spoke openly about his struggles with addiction over the years: “It just eats at your mind, doing drugs every single day, every second. It’s rough on your body.”
August 31st is International Overdose Awareness Day. I think we are all very aware of the enormous and continuing-to-rise number of drug––mostly opioid––overdose deaths. It is clear from conversations with many of the famous and not-famous users, like our son, that they have every intention of controlling their addiction and no intention of overdosing. But something goes wrong…
Dr. Jana Burson, an addiction treatment physician in North Carolina, has a great blog (https://janaburson.wordpress.com/) with insights gathered from her patients, many of whom are long-term opiate abusers. “I’m not gonna overdose. I know my limits.” Dr. Burson writes in August 2017: “I really hate hearing these words. Usually patients say this in response to my concerns about their pattern of drug use while I’m prescribing methadone or buprenorphine. But many patients feel they are the experts. They can’t imagine making a deadly mistake with their drug use. But I’ve heard this phrase from people who are now dead from overdoses.”
She recently cited a study in Australia 2013, where overdose deaths have risen steadily since 2007. In that country, unlike the U.S., heroin use is declining while prescription opioid misuse is rising. This study looked at non-fatal overdoses in very experienced people who inject drugs––an average of 21 years of IV drug use––half of whom were in a MAT (Medication Assisted Treatment) drug program.
Most of these overdoses happened in private homes––many the subjects said they were impaired by alcohol or benzodiazepines. Over a third of the subjects had used fentanyl, a very powerful illicit opioid, leading up to the overdose. The authors of the study concluded that these experienced drug users were aware of common risks for overdose, yet drug intoxication from sedatives such as alcohol or benzodiazepines may have clouded the user’s thinking when injecting opioids. They also found that unexpected availability of drugs contributed to overdoses.
This was our son’s story: It was his first night after 6 months in sober living––but it was not his first night using again. He had been on Percocet for oral surgery (a huge mistake) a month before he overdosed and then had returned to IV heroin use the week before his overdose. He had been drinking with friends the first night in his new apartment––his decision making abilities were impaired. We are not sure exactly how much heroin he injected, and since it was Black Tar heroin from Mexico, the strength is absolutely unpredictable. What we do know from the autopsy is that he had many times more heroin in his body than a fatal dose. His was an overdose that he would not survive. Was this his last conscious thought: “I’m not gonna overdose. I know my limits.”?