Lifespan of Heroin & Opioid Addicts

(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. If you feel this blog is important, please repost to your social media using the buttons below. Thank You!)

When our 25 yr old son died of a heroin overdose in 2014, the statistics for the average life-span of a heroin addict was 5 years. Five years. Not very long if you are 15 or 20 or even 30, the age when most young adults’ nowadays are just getting in gear with their career, a long-term relationship, and planning a family. To have your life swept away before you have a chance to experience some of the most wonderful years of living on this earth is painful to consider.

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Woefully Unprepared

(Today begins a series of topical blogs based on excerpts from Opiate Nation, chapter by chapter, that will run for 28 weeks. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

It’s a bit ironic that as I begin blogging through Opiate Nation we are in the midst of a pandemic. Ironic in several significant ways.

Opiate Nation was written because of the opioid epidemic – which, in reality, is a pandemic. Every industrialized nation, and many emerging and third-world nations too, are dealing with the results from the ease of availability of opioids, whether natural and home-grown, or synthetic and imported. Or both, as is the case in America.

And like the Coronavirus pandemic that crept up on us so gradually that it’s deadliness caught us by surprise and mostly unprepared as nations, the opioid epidemic crept up on us too. In both cases, certain international players were unscrupulous for various reasons, causing delays in awareness when there might have been a chance for all of us to not be caught off balance.

The “inoculation” that should have happened, especially in the United States, by way of accurate scientific information disseminated by responsible leaders, didn’t happen. Instead, false information fueled by political agendas and financial motivation created a scenario that so crippled a timely public health response that, for many nations, it became too little too late.

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Loneliness in a Lonely Time

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.

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If my son were alive today during the Covid-19 pandemic…..

I would fear for his life more than ever.

“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.”

Continue reading “If my son were alive today during the Covid-19 pandemic…..”

Benefits of Public Dialogue

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).

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America’s Love Affair with Opioids

Andrew Sullivan’s 2018 article for the NY Magazine entitled “The Poison We Pick”, wrote: “…For millennia, the Opium Poppy has salved pain, suspended grief, and seduced humans with its intimations of the divine. It was a medicine before there was such a thing as medicine. Every attempt to banish it, destroy it, or prohibit it has failed…This nation pioneered modern life. Now epic numbers of Americans are killing themselves with opioids to escape it…According to the best estimates, opioids will kill up to half a million Americans in the next decade.

“Most of the ways we come to terms with this wave of mass death…miss a deeper American story. It is a story of pain and the search for an end to it. It is a story of how the most ancient painkiller known to humanity has emerged to numb the agonies of the world’s most highly evolved liberal democracy. Continue reading “America’s Love Affair with Opioids”

BEING A FRIEND WHO CARES

The pervasiveness of opioid addiction was made clear to my husband and I, once again, on a recent trip. We were in California at one of our favorite Italian restaurants having a chat with one of the owners – catching up after not seeing each other for a few years. Somehow, yet very common for us, the conversation turned to the opioid epidemic and our son’s death from overdose. Our friend remembered us telling him about it, paused, and asked: “Do you mind if I tell you a personal story about heroin?”

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JUST SAY “NO” TO FAILED DRUG POLICIES

I recently returned from Australia and began to connect with the addiction community there via several agencies and their newsletters and articles. One very thoughtful article published by Family Drug Support Australia (FDS) is excerpted here. Written by an emergency room physician who is on the front line with overdose victims, he is also a parent who is concerned for his children’s future unless drug policies in Australia change sooner rather than later. There, as in the US, bureaucrats spend years discussing options for change while people die in the tens of thousands. However, from people I’ve spoken with there and from all I’ve read, they are ahead of us in some significant areas. May we all learn from each other. Continue reading “JUST SAY “NO” TO FAILED DRUG POLICIES”

A Different Death

Yesterday, my husband John, and I, along with family and friends, celebrated my father’s life of 92 years with a beautiful memorial service. He was buried with military honors for his service during WWII. In the week since his death, friends have asked me how I was feeling about his death – knowing that this death is the now the fifth death in my immediate family since 2001. First my younger brother at 40 from AIDS, then my sister at 56 from breast/brain cancer, then my son at 25 from a heroin overdose, then my other brother at 51 by suicide – and now my father.

This death, of a great-grandfather, is different than the previous four in so many ways. Not only do we expect grand-parents to pass away before their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, but we know by the 10th decade of life, the day to meet our maker is fast approaching. For my father, he was doing quite well mentally, but his health was declining rapidly this year. By August, we knew his days were numbered – and so did he. The dying know they are dying, and for my father, it made him sad. He loved life and he loved his family. And even though he had a strong Christian faith and confidence in waking up in a new and unimaginable existence with his loved ones who went before him, he still had a very natural trepidation of the process of dying.

His last two weeks were marked by no appetite and finally no ability to even drink – his body was done with this life. With John holding his hand, he took his last breath and his spirit left the room – and left this earth. How did I feel? Sad because we will no longer enjoy his presence, and his death marks the end of an era of the large Italian family dinners and parties. But I was also relieved that he was no longer suffering in a body that was giving out.

The unexpected death of our son from a heroin overdose was different in every way imaginable. I look back now and wonder how John and I made it – how we didn’t end up institutionalized under heavy medication. I remember in the first few months feeling that my mind was on the verge of splitting in two – my heart was already broken – but it is our minds that hold us together. The love and support from our close friends and family surely were part of that glue. But the real potion that caused us to not tip over the edge was the mercy and grace of God. Without Him, we wouldn’t have had the courage to go on or the strength to look ahead with hope of an eternity with our son and with our other family members.

For those of you with friends who have lost a child to a drug overdose, please remember that a sudden, unexpected, preventable death is different from all other losses. These deaths are not natural, the lives were not completed, the parents and family can not just move on. They need your love and support – and prayers.

The Best Laid Plans

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.”?