(Fifth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
After many years of not having a dog, we decided to adopt one from our local shelter. We found a beautiful German-shepherd/wolf mix who was 18 months old. Bella was docile, sweet and quiet. The next day, as I headed out to the grocery store, I gave her a hug and saw her watch me through the window as I got into the car.
When I returned an hour later, I was met with a shock. I found her, panting rapidly and pacing nervously in our bedroom where our wooden shutters were open and had bite marks. She had tried to escape while I was gone. I had no idea why. I immediately called the shelter. “She is having separation anxiety: she needed to escape being left alone.” We found out that she had been with two families previously when she was dumped at the shelter because she continued to try to escape when she was left alone for hours on end. They gave us the name of a dog behaviorist and we started down the long road of helping Bella manage her fear when we had to leave her at home.
Children and adults can experience separation anxiety when someone they are attached to leaves them. They can have recurrent and excessive distress just anticipating being separated from loved ones and the anxiety can be so intense that it is hard to function in everyday life. Panic attacks and physical symptoms such as nausea and headaches can occur. For me and my husband, on the morning of our son’s death from overdose, standing over our son in that body bag we experienced the ultimate separation anxiety. The overriding emotion we felt was fear: fear of the unknown future we were facing. We couldn’t visualize how we would survive without our son as part of our lives and the future we thought we all had together. He had not only been an integral part of our lives for 25 years but he was literally a part of us–the combination of our DNA that formed him as a particular and unique human being. To say that it was like having part of you taken away doesn’t describe it. This was having our hearts torn out.
We would never embrace or kiss or stroke the cheek of our son again. We were facing an existential crisis, shaken to the core, questioning our reason for living. Regardless of our strong faith that had seen us through many other deaths in our families, this separation seemed incomprehensible and cruel. It was only by falling down on our faces and waiting for Mercy to gradually pick us up that we were able to survive this traumatic separation from our son and move forward again in life.
With so much distress in the world with the Covid-19 Pandemic, especially the effects it is having on the weakest and vulnerable members of our societies, I have hesitated to announce a personal accomplishment. Yet, my hope is that as Opiate Nation gains more visibility, it will get into the hands of people who could be most encouraged and benefit from our story.
I am a member of a group of 35,000 women called “The Addict’s Mom” on Facebook. I confess, I rarely read the posts because it is so depressing: Story after story of mom’s who have been holding out for years to see their daughter or son released from the hell-hold of addiction to drugs, only to then post that “…today I lost my daughter/son…can someone tell me how I will survive this?” It is for these mom’s and dad’s and siblings and friends that we wrote Opiate Nation, but one of the stipulations of being a member of the group is no self-promotion. So I hope that, with more visibility and more reviews and re-posts on social media, our book will get to these most desperate of people.
During the first few years of writing Opiate Nation, the working title was Saying Goodbye Through a Body Bag. As I got closer to publication, friends suggested I look for another title, saying it was off-putting and gave a depressing visual image. It took me a while to adjust to the idea of another title because it was the experience of doing just that – saying goodbye to my son through a thick black body bag in the hot August sun – that pushed me through my grief and on to writing about what my husband and I had experienced and what we hoped could be a warning for others.
When life on this earth results in tragedy and loss – personal, communal, international – we are immediately faced with choices we did not anticipate nor plan for. An untimely death, an assault or abuse, financial ruin, a health crisis, relational trauma, anxiety: the list is endless. What do we do? Most of us want to just turn and run while we also know there is no place to run to or to hide from the turmoil within. So how do we take the next step forward when everything in us doesn’t want to and we are facing a challenge we have never faced before?
We remember that we all have choices even when it seems there are none. It is what makes humans unique. Referring back to my blog “Darkness & Light” and the thoughts from Jerry Sittser in his book A Grace Disguised, when we choose to move towards the darkness knowing we will eventually see the sun rise, we find gifts along the way that we could have never imagined. But we also find more choices. Sittser cites Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, reflecting on his time in a Nazi death camp and how “the prisoners who exercised the power to choose how they would respond to the terrible loss and darkness of their circumstances displayed dignity, courage and inner vitality. They found a way to transcend their suffering…and so grew spiritually beyond themselves…they learned that tragedy can increase the soul’s capacity for darkness and light, for pleasure as well as for pain.”
Last week, our son would have turned 31. My husband and I still wonder what that would have been like? Would we have enjoyed celebrating as he got married like most of his friends have? Would he be living nearby or in a distant state for a new job? Would he and his wife be planning to start a family and give us grandchildren? These are questions we can only visit in our imaginations, and yes, they bring pain.
On our son’s FB memorial page and our Instagram this week, I posted a photo of the desert after a storm when a rainbow appeared, with this quote: “As in nature, so in life: it takes both clouds and sunshine to make a rainbow.” I have been pondering these apparent paradoxes in nature and in life, especially the concept of darkness & light. While reading A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser, I was reminded again of how we felt from the moment we heard the words from the sheriff’s mouth: “I’m sorry to have to tell you, but your son is dead.” Sittser lost his mother, his wife, and his daughter together in a head-on collision by a drunk driver and says, “Sudden and tragic loss leads to terrible darkness.” Yes. Existential darkness.
He describes a dream of seeing the sun setting and running frantically west toward it in order to remain in some vestige of light – but the sun was outpacing him to sink below the horizon. As he looked back over his shoulder, utter darkness and despair was closing in behind him. He later realized that “the quickest way to reach the light of day is to head east, plunging into the darkness, until one comes to the sunrise.”
CNN reported this week that Mallinckrodt, a large opioid manufacturer, has reached a settlement agreement in principle worth $1.6 billion with attorneys general for 47 states and US territories. Mallinckrodt announced that the proposed deal will resolve all opioid-related claims against the company and its subsidiaries if it moves forward. Plaintiffs (states) would receive payments over an eight-year period to cover the costs of opioid-addiction treatments and other needs.
Compensation: recompense given for loss injury, or harm suffered. Are the settlements that are being levied against Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, TEVA, Mallinckrodt, McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., AmerisourceBergen Corp. really compensation for the millions of lives ruined by opioid addiction? Or for all the lives lost in the past 20 years?
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.
I am sitting in our Arizona room looking out past our front garden, up to the soaring Rocky Mountains and the crystal clear cerulean blue sky. It is a view I love more than any other in the world. But my heart is heavy and I can’t seem to cheer it up.
And I realized, after a few days feeling like this, that grief is just like that. We can’t force the feelings to go away when they show up. We just have to ride them out. Like being on a river in a raft, floating along enjoying the peace and quiet and beautiful scenery when you come to a section of rapids. Hopefully you have your equipment in place: helmet, life vest, paddle. You know you need to hold on, gather up your energy and fortitude, and ride it out until you are through the rough water.
Where do we find the fortitude to be able to ride out the turmoil that this life can bring our way? This world offers many kinds of coping mechanisms, most of which offer only temporary relief – diversions – like watching a movie, going on a trip, shopping, eating, using alcohol, or a substance, etc. These may work for a small dip in the waves. But what if you are thrown out of the raft during a violent upheaval from the current? How will temporary diversions and coping mechanisms fare? As we all know from experience, not too well.
The equipment we need for a healthy and stable life on this planet should be in place so that when difficult times come, we can at least fall back on it: daily habits that promote well-being; a solid community support system like AA or 12-step groups or a small accountability group; a foundation of spiritual beliefs and practices.
My husband and I rely on that equipment – the only real stability we have known in the wake of our son’s death from a heroin overdose. We keep up our daily exercise and healthy diet and sleep; we call on our close community of friends who know us well and support us through thick and thin; and lean on our faith in a God who loves us, trusting His promises. We aren’t instantly removed from the tumultuous currents, but we know we will get through. I need to remember this today.