The Least of Us, Part One: Julian

(Translation into most languages at tab to right)

As I was driving home in 105-degree heat last week, I noticed a young man carrying a plastic bag stumble to a bus stop bench and sit down. It was clear he was homeless and it was equally clear that he was on drugs. I felt compelled to pull over. I rolled down the window and asked, “Are you ok?” He said, “No.” I asked if he needed help, and he wept and said “Yes.” When he came over to the truck, I asked if he was on drugs, and he said “No.” I said “I think you are on drugs and you don’t need to be ashamed.” He said he was, so I asked if I could sit with him and talk.

As we sat on the bench in the heat I asked what drug Julian (not his real name) was using. Fentanyl in the form of street Oxy’s that sell for $2 and come from Mexico. He is homeless, has never known his father, his mother is out of state and done with him. He is 23 years old and has been struggling with alcohol and addiction for 5 years – fentanyl for the past 1½ years. I told him about my son and said Julian was on the same path to the morgue unless he could get clean. He had gone to rehab in March with a predictably miserable 5-day detox and then was supposed to go to a sober home, but said they never got him there – probably not true. I offered to take Julian for something to eat and to try to connect him with a program to help him. While I drove and he nodded off, I called a few of the directors I knew from programs our son went to, but had to leave messages. I decided to take him home for a shower and a rest as we tried to find him a place.

My husband John prayed with this sweet and troubled young man and encouraged him to know there was hope and that he wasn’t a bad person, or less-than, but had a powerful war waging in his brain that needed medical help and emotional support. We drove him to the public behavioral health service, where he had gone in March, and got him signed in. It was an hour wait for him to go through intake again, so we left him with our names and phone numbers to give as his contacts for help so that we could follow up on how he was doing.

When we tried to follow up the next day, we found he had done a runner and never went through the intake. I would guess the fear of excruciating withdrawal was stronger than the fear of a potential or eventual death. This is so common, especially for those who have tried many times to get clean. Addiction specialist, Dr. Richard Whitney said, “Once people get addicted, they really lose the power of choice.” (1)  Even with medication, the drugs need to be out of your system first. On average, it takes 4-5 recovery attempts and 8 years to achieve one year of sobriety. After another 5 years in recovery, the relapse rate drops to 15%.(2)That is 13 years to try to undo what most commonly started as trying something fun as a young person. The chemistry in our brains needs more time to recover than a few weeks or months from the damage done by opiates.  

In 2015, Sam Quinones released his award-winning book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic documenting how Purdue Pharma – with a monopoly on the market on pain in the 1990’s with its new highly addictive drug, Oxycontin – deceptively promoted it as a non-addictive solution for every ache and pain. Then, with the lure of easy money, young men in Mexico, independent of the drug cartels, trafficked black-tar heroin to neighborhoods in America as a cheap alternative to Oxy’s. Its powerful long-lasting high then became the go-to drug for millions of young people who could heat and smoke it – our son included. Quinones states that the perfect storm was created when the pursuit of prosperity, pain avoidance, and the breakdown of close-knit family and community life, beginning in the 1960’s, created the void that those easily available opiates filled.

Quinones has recently released The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth. It is the second most important book written on addiction and American society. In my next blog, I will delve into this new book and discuss where we are in the drug epidemic and where we can go from here. I personally need some hope as I see the thousands of homeless young people on the streets of my city and struggle with the tension of wanting to help prevent one more life from a literal “dead end” and feeling frustrated with the lack of effective programs to help these addicted individuals get the long-term recovery care they need. This – in a country where the majority of people seem to think that health care is a privilege for those who can afford it instead of a basic service for all Americans, including the least of us.

  1. Dreamland, pg 328
  2. John Kelly, PhD – https://www.recoveryanswers.org/

Australian Real Drug Talk

Translation into most languages at tab to the right.

One of the things I have come to appreciate about the Australian way is their straightforward approach to life. They are easy-going yet they say what they mean and you know where you stand. A lack of pretense – with a large dose of slightly off-color humor added in.

I think that is why they are more advanced in their drug policies and treatments than America – they are more honest and have less taboos. They benefit from having had comprehensive public health for decades which has facilitated progressive drug policies such as clean needle exchanges, safe-injecting sites, and medication assisted treatment.

John and I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago here in Australia with Jack Nagel. Jack does the “Real Drug Talk” podcast from Melbourne and also runs the Connection Based Living Recovery Programs. We were preparing to record a podcast with Jack – see links below – and were asking about his experiences and what the current trends are here with drugs of abuse.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/saying-goodbye-to-my-son-in-a-body-bag/id1507177011?i=1000533422150

In discussing opioids, I wondered why methamphetamines seems to be the main drug of choice and why heroin is not as common here as it is in the States. Jack said that in the 1990’s there was a big problem with heroin coming in from the Golden Triangle of SE Asia and lots of overdose deaths. And the heroin use was IV, not smoking. So, there is a collective memory of street people using heroin and dying which created a lot of stigma and fear associated with IV use.

After that trend slowed, people began using meth – young people like Jack –because smoking or snorting meth seems more innocuous and a less intrusive way to take a powerful drug than IV. Jack said that there is a huge cohort of people who don’t live on the streets and who smoke meth for years. Sadly, they don’t seek help because the public messaging that portrays meth addicts as homeless people with sores and missing teeth doesn’t apply to them. But meth addiction will eventually burst that bubble and ruin their lives too.

There is also a growing problem with cocaine. While once considered the drug of the wealthy city dweller with some high-flying users in Australia spending $10-$20K per week, statistics reveal cocaine usage has now spread much further. Consumption has grown in other areas and demographics where prosperity has increased such as middle-class teachers, tradesmen, etc. Australia is now the highest per capita user of the drug in the world. And the rise in use is being driven by men aged in their 20’s, with Sydney leading the country in use. The most recent stats reveal that there are nearly 1 million weekly cocaine users in Australia out of a population of 26 million. (1,2,3)

We also talked with Jack about what the entry drugs are for kids here in Australia. After alcohol and pot, they usually begin with hard “party” drugs used at house parties and concerts like ecstasy/MDMA, benzodiazepines, GHB/GBL. All mood-altering drugs that create different types of euphoria, but which are dangerous because many times they are mixed with alcohol and other drugs, sometimes without the user’s knowledge.

Even though heroin is in the background in Australia, it is still available and becoming more dangerous due to fentanyl being mixed in to the supply of much of the heroin, and all opioids, along with other drugs of abuse. (4)

When our son, JL, began using Oxy’s he never thought he would even try heroin. Then, as Oxy’s became more expensive and heroin was cheaper, he started smoking heroin. He then swore he would never stick a needle in his vein – the danger and stigma to him was clear. Eventually, just like 95% of heroin users, he did just that. He was living under the delusion that smoking opioids – or any drug – would never lead him to become a “junkie”, an IV drug user.

My concern for the young people and families of Australia is that, as The Age reported in 2020, pain management with opioids has increased here too, although not to the degree it had in the States. Opioid-related deaths have increased in the past decade and today at least three people die from opioid harm each day and 150 are hospitalized. (5) Fentanyl is showing up in wastewater testing and drug overdoses of cocaine and meth, drugs where the users are not expecting a potent narcotic. Because it is synthetic and cheaper to produce in China and India, it brings its criminal networks a greater profit margin.

As I’ve said before and will continue to say: We will not treat our way out of the opioid/drug epidemic. Prevention is key. Let’s continue to stay aware and educated about what we all can do to keep our children and their future safe and healthy.

http://www.RealDrugTalk.com.au

1. Why cocaine is most used drug in Australia behind cannabis

https://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/national/why-cocaine-is-most-used-drug-in-australia-behind-cannabis/news-story/0fa9bbcec60dfe0ecfb52a5cb58a38f5

2. Australia the highest per capita cocaine user in the world

https://www.news.com.au/national/australia-the-highest-per-capita-cocaine-user-in-the-world/news-story/c91869d4e2b2adeef266917d82f705e0

3. Sydney and cocaine: an illicit love affair for the ages

https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/sydney-and-cocaine-an-illicit-love-affair-for-the-ages-20210225-p575uz.html

4. Fentanyl in the Australian illicit drug market

https://adf.org.au/insights/fentanyl-australian-illicit-drug/

5. Australia’s opioid crisis: How pain management got out of control

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.

Continue reading “Lifespan of Heroin & Opioid Addicts”

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”

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