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.

PAIN – Part 2

Not only did we, and many of our generation of parents, try to shield our children from as much physical pain as possible, we tried to spare them emotional pain too. But there is one source of pain that we will all experience and that parents and loved ones of an active addict experience on a daily basis: pain of loss. Lost hopes, lost dreams, lost potential, lost futures. When we  birth our children, we experience the joy of a new life and all the expectations of journeying through life together. We embark on a path with goals and plans and dreams fueled by hope and joy. But life rarely delivers what our dreams foresee.

“Awakening to joy awakens us to pain….Eventually, I am guaranteed to lose every earthly thing I have ever possessed. I will lose every single person I have ever loved. Either abruptly or eventually. All human relationships end in loss (death).” (Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts)

The losses that people who are addicted (to anything) experience on a daily basis brings pain for them too. Sadly, addicts will lose most of their relationships while they are still alive. We watched this happen to our son as his addiction progressed. Initially, friends who were not involved in drugs slowly distanced themselves. Eventually, JL was spending more time on his relationship with heroin and had no energy left for friends. When he was sober, this was a source of pain – and shame – for him.

The sense of shame that hangs like low black clouds gathering over our lives any time we as humans engage in something we know is not good for us – or others – is the ultimate loss of self-worth. It erodes the very core of our being and I believe it is the hardest obstacle (aside from the physical addiction) for opiate addicts to surmount in seeking recovery. Shame paralyzes us.

“Shame is an overwhelming negative sense that who we are isn’t okay. It is a no-win situation. Authentic, legitimate guilt is the feeling or thought that what we did is not okay…Compulsive and addictive behaviors are shame-based. If we participate in them, we will feel ashamed. It is inevitable…When guilt is legitimate, it acts as a warning light, signaling that we are off course, and need to make a change…Learn to change shame into guilt, correct the behavior, and move forward.” (Melody Beattie, The Language of Letting Go)

Yet, it seems that for the rare few who have escaped their addiction and are in recovery, that very shame and sense of worthlessness somehow became the impetus for seeking change. Herb Stepherson is a young man who is in active recovery and helping others. His website/blog is: https://junkboxdiaries.com/.  It seems he had a similar story to our son, with one exception: he was not propped up by well-meaning parents and was allowed to experience the full degradation of his heroin addiction. While in prison and planning on suicide, he had an epiphany and God entered the story.

As we look back at the path of our son’s addiction, we feel that by our being overly involved probably prevented him from hitting whatever ‘bottom’ would have been the stimulus he needed to desperately seek help. Although we know he felt a lot of shame, our continual encouragement to him as a person of value and worth to us and God was constant. The conflict was how to communicate that to him without enabling his addiction? Did we short-circuit the role of shame fueling legitimate guilt and the desire to change? We were never sure. We always tried our best. May others learn from our story and do better.