Fentanyl & Breathing Under Water


I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
I built it of rock.

A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbors.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier, always, the sand between.

And then one day,
-and I still don’t know how it happened –
the sea came.
Without warning.

Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.

And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

(Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ, from an unpublished work)

I first heard this poem as it was read at our son’s memorial by the director of a recovery program we had attended with JL in Tucson. It is full of spiritual metaphors and allusions to addictive behaviors. It came back to me this week as I received the latest information on fentanyl deaths in a report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), summarized by CNN.
Fentanyl deaths skyrocketed more than 1,000% over six years in the US.
By Nadia Kounang, CNN, 03/21/2019

While the report is startling, it only confirms what we have heard. In 2011, there were under 2,000 deaths per year from fentanyl. Beginning in 2014, fentanyl related deaths began to double, from 4,223 to 8,251 in 2015, to 18,335 in 2016. Men are dying at a rate three times the rate of women, and the largest increases were among younger adults between the ages of 15 and 34.

Although heroin has been on a consistent climb as the leading drug for overdose deaths, fentanyl pushed past heroin for the first time in 2016. It’s no wonder. It is cheap to produce Non-Pharmaceutical Fentanyl (NPF) in illicit labs in China and Mexico compared to growing poppies and processing them. The synthetic drug is so potent that a slight error in the process can result in a bad batch that can kill multiple users almost instantly. Reports from around the country confirm mass overdoses becoming increasingly common.

Lethal amounts of fentanyl in heroin and other drugs is causing active drug users the greatest risk of dying. And because the fine white crystals are so potent, drug dealers can add undetectable amounts of fentanyl to heroin, cand ocaine to create more desirable products with higher highs and steeper price tags. The vast majority of deaths are the result of fentanyl mixed with heroin or combined with an inert white powder and sold as heroin.

But it’s not just those who have been addicted to heroin and opioids who are dying from fentanyl. Reports from the US and Australia indicate that fentanyl is being made into look-alike Xanax, ecstasy, cocaine, OxyContin, resulting in young people taking a drug for the first time at a party or music festival and dying.

Do drug cartels and dealers want to kill their customers? The evidence says they do not, rather, their production is inconsistent. And other than the minority who use fentanyl, active drug users are fearful of fentanyl-laced products.

Drug distributors are experimenting with how to make synthetic drugs, and unsophisticated local dealers are often sloppy when mixing fentanyl with other substances. That’s expected to change as the business of fentanyl trafficking matures. But Customs and Border Protection says that even if drug traffickers become more sophisticated and stop killing so many of their customers, that won’t necessarily decrease the overall number of U.S. overdose fatalities, since the number of users of fentanyl is expected to grow, not shrink. For the first time since 1918 life expectancy has dropped due to drug overdoses and suicides.

After reading these reports, I wonder: Is there any hope?

At international mail terminals, parcels are X-rayed to identify those that might contain fentanyl and other illicit drugs. They also use dogs, trained to sniff packages and alert agents when they detect fentanyl. Even when agents find a white powder they think is fentanyl, it can take days to confirm because dealers continuously change the chemical formulas to elude law enforcement.

“When the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors…
And you give your house for a coral castle, and you learn to breathe underwater.”

The sea has come, like the flow of blood. We all––as a community, young and old alike––need to learn “to breathe under water,” to learn new skills, become educated about subjects we never had to learn previously, in order to survive and to leave a posterity, a future generation who are not destined for ruined lives but ones that are rewarding because they are purposeful.



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.