The Least of Us, Pt 3: Reasons for Hope

(Translation into most language at tab to the right)

Sam Quinones is a quintessential storyteller in an investigative journalists’ body. And he uses his skill to weave in stories from families and communities along with the “true tales” from recent history of greed, corruption, deceit, and the politics surrounding the drug epidemic we are living with today. It is his reason for hope that I want to focus on now. Heaven knows we need some hope for The Least of Us… In the Time of Fentanyl and Meth. (1)

Part of the hope he feels comes from positive changes beginning in how drugs and addiction are viewed now compared to previous decades. ‘…greatly expanded drug treatment is part of what America needs…recovering addicts face scary odds as long as the drugs that torment them are widely available, potent, and almost free. The now-cliché is “We can’t arrest our way out of this.” We can’t treat our way out of it, either, as long as supply is so potent and cheap.’ (2) He discusses the mistake of drug criminalization, the possibilities and problems associated with drug legalization and drug decriminalization – all very well thought through and discussed. He traveled across America and interviewed professionals in every field to gain insights into this nightmare that is swallowing lives from every socio-economic group. (For those unclear about what opiates or meth do to our brains, there are detailed explanations woven in throughout the book.)

But his biggest reason for hope came from when Quinones traveled and also extensively interviewed another segment of American society: the addicted, their families, and those working in the many fields who are trying to restore the lives of those taken captive by these powerful substances. I have to say, many of the stories were hard to read, but it is from these people in the trenches and their stories that Quinones began to have hope.

Drug courts are one reason to hope. Because synthetic dope today does not allow users to hit rock bottom before seeking treatment – because ‘Today, rock bottom is death. We can use arrests – but not as a reason to send someone to prison. Instead, criminal charges are leverage we can use to pry users from the dope that will consume them otherwise.’ (3) It helps to put some space between their brain and dope so they can embrace sobriety where life repair can begin. Drug courts are not a luxury – they are a necessity.

Yet Quinones found that ‘…our best defense, perhaps our only defense, lies in bolstering community. America is strongest when we understand that we cannot succeed alone, and weakest when it’s every man for himself…That’s why the lesson we must learn is that we’re only as strong as the most vulnerable, as people who are in pain. (4)

As he traveled and listened, Quinones saw that it was people who loved those who are ‘the least of us’ who were making the sacrifices on a daily basis to help in ways they could. But they need help and support – from others and from the policies that are in place in our country.

Recently, I was sharing with a woman the contrast we experienced while we lived in Australia with our daughter and family for two years from the beginning of the Covid pandemic. I said that we were struck by the self-centered mentality – in private life and politics – we encountered when we returned to America and how different it is from the sense of being part of a community and responsibility to others that pervades Australian society. She responded: ‘I’d rather be selfish and self-centered than have my rights and freedoms taken away.’ I was literally speechless. What have we become?

Bolstering community will take a change from our self-centered culture where we who have plenty think we don’t have enough. Where we at the top of the food chain, instead of helping to maintain our communities, have corroded them in isolating and insulating ourselves by abandoning the places where we used to come together like neighborhood parks and community gatherings. ‘We need to again make policy of the belief that we can’t go it alone. The spirit of community needs to be built out, collectively, not just a shift of heart, which is necessary, but in taxation, in health care, in improved infrastructure – in other words, a shift in where the resources go…much of what neuroscience has learned about our brain confirms religion’s truths: humans need love, purpose, compassion, patience, forgiveness, and engagement with others. We’re built for simple things – for empathy and community. That is our defense.’ (5)

He ends his book, his plea to all of us, with this:

‘Community reconstruction doesn’t have to always be complex. It comes down to the unnoticed “constant habit of kindness” that French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, in the mid-1800’s, saw strengthened us locally and kept Americans from destructive isolation and the worst of individualism…The lessons are that we are strongest in community, as weak as our most vulnerable, and the least of us lie within us all.’ (6)

Thank you, Sam.

  1. The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth by Sam Quinones
  2. Ibid, pg. 364
  3. Ibid, pg. 367
  4. Ibid, pg. 367
  5. Ibid, pg. 369
  6. Ibid, pg. 369

Addiction Constriction

John Leif Trang – March 10, 1989 – August 2, 2014

(Translation into most languages at tab on right)

On March 10th, our son would have been celebrating his 33rd birthday. That day is now a painful reminder of all the potentials and possibilities that a young person should be experiencing in the 4th decade of their life.

After JL died of a heroin overdose in 2014, I began the dreaded process of sorting through his belongings – which included his computer and phone. Many of the photos on his phone I had never seen and some have now become permanently seared into my visual memory. One is of JL with a Boa wrapped around his shoulders and neck.

Boas are constrictors. Constrictors don’t chase their prey. They are ambush hunters. A boa grabs its prey with its teeth, then quickly coils its body around the prey and squeezes. It doesn’t break the bones – it constricts so tightly that its prey can’t breathe. With each exhale, it tightens its coils until its prey dies slowly from an overwhelmed circulatory system due to blood not getting to the brain. Once dead, the snake swallows its prey whole.

Continue reading “Addiction Constriction”

Isolation Loneliness

It has been said thatthe 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…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.

Regardless of where you live, there have likely been restrictions imposed to limit the number of people who can gather together – from dozens in some countries to only the members of your immediate household in others – in order to slow down the high-speed train that is Covid-19. For many of us, we have been able to maintain our emotional equilibrium because we know this is for a limited time and we can look forward with hope to the future.

But what about those vulnerable members of society who already struggle on a daily basis with insecure housing and food supplies and to maintain their mental health, sobriety, or recovery? In the midst of one of the most isolating crises the modern world has known, it is no surprise then that cities across America, and around the world, are reporting dramatic increases in drug overdoses, alcohol relapses, and suicides.

In-person community meetings are at the foundation of recovery programs. And no wonder. It is in community where individuals become part of something greater than themselves. And I believe it is in the breakdown of communal life in individualistic American ideology that has, to a great degree, contributed to the anxiety, insecurity, and depression that so characterizes our national psyche and has led to the pursuit of finding relief in so many unhealthy ways.

A friend of our son who is an alcoholic who has been working his recovery for the past 8 years, put it this way: 

“Self-isolation breeds relapse for people in recovery. With quarantine, people are losing the accountability they have relied on from in-person meetings and it’s a lot easier for people to further isolate and close off their emotions. Attending virtual meetings keeps me grounded and gets the message across as much as regular in-person meetings but lacks the fellowship aspect. This will no doubt expose many in recovery to loneliness.”

Even though increasing numbers of people around the world are vaccinated, it will not stop some of the isolation and loneliness. Is there anything those of us who are not isolated emotionally can do to help? The one thing my husband and I have made as a priority in our weekly schedule is to check in with friends around the world via texts, emails, letters, phone or video calls – including our young friends who are in recovery and elderly friends who just need to know they are not forgotten. With our social networks and finances, we can support organizations that are working the front lines to serve the addiction/mental health population. We can make or purchase masks, buy food and basic supplies, to give to those in need and support recovery programs in our area.

The Tattoo – Stigma

(Translation into most languages at tab to right.)

In the Greek and Roman worlds, a stigma was a tattoo or brand, especially for a slave, identifying the person as “inferior.” As stigma moved into English, it referred to a mark you couldn’t actually see but which was nonetheless powerful. 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.

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…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.” Yes, only one in 10 people struggling with addiction receive treatment. 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.

When talking recently with some of our son’s friends, they have been unwilling to let their past drug use become public knowledge because of the potential negative repercussions they justifiably fear in their careers and relationships. How much worse would it be if they were still living with addiction? What does this say about us as individuals, communities, employers, and society in general? When an individual is seen as having a moral failure instead of a chronic health condition, stigma is the logical result. But no one makes the decision about how their brain will react to a substance and whether they will become addicted after minimal use or hate how it makes them feel and never use it again.

Negative labels stick like glue to our hearts and soul and, for those struggling with addiction and alcoholism, the personal shame becomes how they define themselves. The public stigma that follows is the tattoo they never asked to have. If we can reject stigmatizing and instead provide a safe and listening ear to those struggling with addiction, inviting them to share their stories and encourage them to consider recovery options, they may be willing to join the many people who do learn to manage their disease and successfully recover. Let’s remember that they are just as valuable and able and worthy of love – and as human – as you and me.

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

2021 International Overdose Awareness Day August 31

Translation into most languages at tab to the right.

The need has never been more urgent to alert us all to the risk of overdose facing millions of people worldwide. During the 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic, overdose deaths have risen approximately 30% in many parts of the world due to isolation, unstable drug sources, and lack of reliable medical and recovery help. Even the normal inadequate support services have been seriously disrupted and diverted. And the hope of C19 disappearing sometime soon is now seen as wishful thinking – it is a new deadly virus we will have to learn how to live with.

So, what can we do to help prevent further loss of lives for those already struggling with addiction?

Continue reading “2021 International Overdose Awareness Day August 31”

Connection is Crucial

(Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

During a recent podcast on Straight from the Source (1), David Higham (founder of The Well, a peer-run alcohol and other drug service in the northwest of England) spoke about his life.

For more than 20 years, David was a habitual heroin user more accustomed to life in prison than the outside world. He joined a 12-step program during his final stint. Upon release, he found that sustained well-being and recovery was rare and he knew he had to help change that. What interested me most from his story was this insight:

“Drug treatment is trying to find a solution for my solution…But what’s the solution for my problem?”

Continue reading “Connection is Crucial”

What Would They Say?

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

August 2nd is the seventh anniversary of our son’s death. JL died of a heroin overdose in the early morning hours of that Saturday in 2014. He was 25 years old.

In 2020 alone, 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the USA – hundreds of thousands more worldwide. Millions in the past few decades. These were beloved daughters, sons, partners, parents, friends, relatives. I think I can confidently say they did not want to be addicted and if they could have turned back the clock to the time before they began using drugs, they would have.

Continue reading “What Would They Say?”

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?

Continue reading “Mirror Mirror”

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.

Stories: Common Threads

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

During the years since our son died, we have been encouraged and supported by his friends –many of whom have awe-inspiring recovery stories. We asked several of them to share their stories in Opiate Nation with the hope that they will give insights for parents and encourage other young adults to know they can be sober and have a meaningful life full of joy, love, and hope.

What we learned from these stories – and from the many stories we have heard in recovery meetings, in the news, and in books – is that there are some common threads that run through the lives of people struggling with addictions. And although there are no formulas for raising kids who will not use drugs or abuse alcohol, becoming aware of the common threads and risk factors in families with addiction and alcoholism is a good place for parents to start. If these commonalities are understood and taken into consideration, they might help avert tragedies such as the one we experienced.

I have written about each of these threads in separate chapters of Opiate Nation, but I will summarize them here:

Continue reading “Stories: Common Threads”
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