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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Handwriting on the Wall

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.

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Who Is Dying Today?

In 2017, 16,000 people were killed by gun violence in America: some of them innocent children and young people while they were in school; some while they were just growing up in poor neighborhoods. Our first-world allies are stupefied that we can continue to allow such preventable deaths.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) there were 63,632 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2016 – preventable deaths: 172 deaths per day; 42,249 (66.4%) of those deaths were due to opioids. More deaths in one year than those as a result of firearms, homicide, suicide, or motor vehicle crashes. And more deaths in one year than all the deaths from the Korean or Vietnam Wars.
Why are opioids so addictive – and deadly? One area in the brain that opioids directly affect is the amygdala – the pleasure center. For a large percentage of people, once those receptors that regulate emotions have sampled opioid joy, no other experience compares: not sex, food, sights, sounds. And, as Thomas Aquinas said in the 13th century:

“No man can live without joy.”
I watched the truth of Aquinas’ insight in increasing measure with our son over the years as he fought his addiction to heroin. Heroin, the goddess of fleeting joy, always requiring more of her while she offers less pleasure. It was not just the misery of the horrendous withdrawal symptoms every time John Leif would try to get clean again. After they subsided, it was the flatness in his emotions and the dullness of living life without joy. What could replace the euphoria of a heroin high? How long would it take for that pleasure center to normalize – would it ever return to its pre-opioid state?

Eventually we would see the light return to his eyes … this was especially true during the last 8 months of his life. Clean, sober, awake, in touch with life and with those around him. Enjoying the opportunity to see life “through a child’s eyes” as he played Legos with his 3 and 5 year old nieces: the real John Leif, alive and participating in the joy that life without addiction can offer. But, even this period of recovery ended – as did his life.

There is another part of the brain that opioids directly affect: the nucleus accumbens, which is the addiction center. Opioids change the neuroplasticity in this region so the brain physically craves them. Scientists are not sure how long it takes to rewire the addiction center because even after periods of sobriety, it does not return to normal, and thus the cravings continue. For most people, the cravings are irresistible and the easy solution is to return to using. For some, a strong impetus for freedom along with a spiritual renewal that gives them the strength to do the hard work of recovery with adherence to a 12-step program, is a life-saver.

For a recovery program to actually bring long-term changes to the brain, anything less than 6 months will not work. And the current thought by many professionals now is that recovery programs for opioid addiction should be 6 mo-1year and include a strict sober living program for a year following. Don’t let costs deter you. The Salvation Army has very solid alcohol and drug rehab/recovery programs in many cities and they are free:
https://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/combat-addiction/

If you are struggling with addiction and feel trapped – or if you know someone who is – please do not let another day pass without seeking help. It is urgent – it is more than important – it is essential – it is life and death – your’s or someone you love.