(Ninth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
Shells are beautiful and fascinating to me. Each and every one is unique, differing from others just like our fingerprints. John and I just spent time at the central eastern coast of Australia and on our daily walks on the beach I just couldn’t stop picking up shells – especially the Nautilus shells with their logarithmic spirals of every size, shape, and color. These are empty shells that were once the home of a sea creature.
The exoskeleton of mollusks is the hard, outer layer that protects the tender creature inside. As the creature grows, layers are added to accommodate it. One day, as I was picking up shells in the surf, the inhabitant was still inside. It immediately retreated as far back into its shell as possible.
I watched an interview on the PBS Newshour the other night with a physician whose young son recently died of a heroin overdose. He has started a foundation to help raise awareness and to bring an end to this deadly epidemic. My husband and I connected with him on so many levels: having a wonderful and brilliant son – who desperately wanted to be free of his addiction – die a needless death; the remorse over not knowing what we could have done differently to help our son; the desire to do something to help others before they are forced to share our pain and grief. In the interview he reiterated the truth that few people understand about opioid addiction: once a person is addicted to opioids, they are truly not normal or themselves any more. The drug has hijacked their brain and they are not capable of thinking normally. They must have the drug at any cost.
This is the reason that there are so few opioid addicts who live long enough to enjoy recovery, as opposed to addicts who use uppers like cocaine or meth. As Tracey Helton Mitchell said in her memoir, The Big Fix: “Heroin kept me chasing my tail, but crack (cocaine) finally sent me into recovery.” Our son’s addiction doctor put it this way: “Most people will build up tolerance to opioids and that tolerance is what leads to addiction. Once addicted, it is only over a long period of time with medication and group therapy (like the 12-Steps) that a person has hope of being free. This is why I call it ‘the cancer of brain diseases’.”
In her article in The Washington Post, December 1st, Dr. Sandra Block (a neurologist) gives further evidence as seen on EEG’s on the changes to the brain that opioids cause:
“Neurologically speaking, opioids are crafty. They turn the brain’s own electricity against it, rewiring connections in an endless feedback loop for more drugs. They trick the brain into a death trap, as users chase the chemical bliss from the drugs with more drugs. Acute opioid usage (that is, the high itself) translates into slowing on the EEG. Usually, such an effect is transient, carefully monitored by an anesthesiologist during surgery, for instance. But when the patient becomes the anesthesiologist, the cycle can become lethal…the opioids overwhelm the brain’s respiratory center, causing cardiac arrest… I’m seeing brain death in people who haven’t lived their lives yet, whose brains haven’t even fully developed, brains that are literally killing themselves for drugs.”
My goal in sharing this information is that it will bring awareness to families and friends – and addicts – about why opioids are so pernicious and that we will begin to see those trapped in the addictive spell as individuals who really do want help. Learning what actual help is, as opposed to enabling the addiction, is a topic for another time.