Peter’s Story: Alcohol The Gateway Drug

(Thirty-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.)

This week’s Story of Hope is from a friend of JL’s, Peter (not his real name). Here are some excerpts from his story in Opiate Nation (5 min read):

My name is Peter and I’m an alcoholic and addict. This is how I introduce myself at the AA meetings I attend several times every week, as I have done for over 10 years. I am from a fairly affluent family, raised with high moral standards, and attended the best schools. So how is it that I became an alcoholic by the time I was a senior in high school and an opioid addict and dealer by the time I was 20?

The first time I used alcohol was in my junior year in high school. I was new to the school and I felt like I didn’t get the playbook for how to be a part of the group. I had been raised with strong values against using drugs and alcohol – but I wanted to fit in with the popular kids.

I tried a capful of vodka—that was it. I hated the way it tasted. The next day I was sick—not so much from the alcohol, but with guilt. This would be a consistent theme in my drinking and using: I always felt guilt and the consequences of doing something soul-crushing and bending the moral line I had deep within me. Once that barrier had been crossed, then anything was permissible. Initially I only drank on weekends at parties so that I wouldn’t be the outsider.

I barely graduated high school. If I wasn’t drinking, I was restless and discontented and my skin was crawling. As soon as I got little alcohol in me, I felt like I just need a little bit more to feel like I did the first time I drank. But I would get to that tipping point and then would go until it was a blackout again.

Looking back on it, it was so selfish. My family was paying for my education and I was just wasting it. It was continual, repetitive drunkenness and waking up in horrible shape and feeling worse each time. I would continue to screw up and manipulate my parents so they would let me get back into a situation that was really detrimental to me. I was just continually enabled with the free apartment, the no-consequences lifestyle. It was like being a celebrity: you don’t have any responsibilities or pay your own bills—just party.

When I was 20, I first smoked weed. Within a week I was selling enough so that I could smoke for free. It was the first thing that calmed my ADHD. I felt like I could breathe again, and it slowed my rapid thinking way down. It did for me what I was hoping alcohol would do for me. Pretty soon, I was drinking and smoking weed at the same time: “cross-fading.”

Then I tried Percocet and 30 minutes later I felt like I had melted in my seat—I’d never had painkillers before. But then I was on. I’d have one or two of those when I was at work. I felt like I was Superman. I had no anxiety, no problems, living in the moment every moment. I took them with alcohol and pot for over a year. We took them at first as a party drug—deceptively advertised as “non-addictive”. But one time turned into needing it every day.

I got into selling hard drugs and started meeting a lot of very shady people, going to places my friend and I would never have gone to in the past. The majority of buying Oxy’s was from people who were way over prescribed. Every time I had more money, I used more—I was a junkie and there was no profit. Also, when you get blackout drunk every night, it’s easy to give away more product than they pay for, you’re hanging out with pretty seedy people who are stealing things from you—it just goes like that.

Finally, I got pulled over by a cop. They searched the vehicle and found weed in the trunk. I was put on probation. I started back to work, taking cabs, and I started going to AA meetings every day. My dad took me to a meeting. Every member of my family is an alcoholic—both parents’ sides. My dad had been an alcoholic and sold drugs before I was born, and he had gotten clean and sober through AA.

I didn’t think I was an alcoholic. What I failed to realize was alcohol is a “drug,” because you are using it in the same way: for the effect. I thought I could just smoke some weed and drink a beer now and then. But for me, that’s not an option—I can never just have one or two. Within two months I started drinking again, then heavily and blacking out all the time. With court dates looming, I was a mess emotionally and physically—I was broken and decided I would kill myself.

Before I did this, I had a moment of clarity and wanted to call my mom. She had brought me into this world, and I should tell her before I took myself out of it. And I didn’t want her to feel guilty for what I had done. She didn’t try to tell me not to do it. She told me I was right, that I was going to die because I was really sick. She asked, “Are you willing for the first time in your life to put 100% effort into this and abandon every idea that you could ever drink or use again on the hopes that you could have a life that would be normal?” I said yes. Not hearing her say “I love you and it’s going to be ok,” but her telling me the truth is what made the difference.

The next day, I went to a meeting, broken and finally ready for a change. An old guy there said he’d be my sponsor. As we talked, he said I should get quiet and calm, hit my knees every morning and night and thank God for my sobriety, one day at a time. Get to one or more meetings a day. If something feels wrong, don’t do it and call me. It wasn’t easy.

I went through all the 12-steps. Even today, with over 10 years sober, I am tempted because I still can only see the dishonest part of drinking—the fun times, not where that one drink will take me. I need to stay connected and going to meetings because my sobriety is my priority.

*Please listen to SURVIVING OPIOIDS new podcast for relevant discussion re early alcohol use, childhood trauma, and recovery – link at right

Celebrating Freedom and New Life

April 4, 2021

 (I am taking a break from the chapter by chapter topics from Opiate Nation to focus on the significance of this holy week. Translations into most languages available at tab to the right.)

Spring is the season of regeneration, freedom, new life. The time of year when the whole earth seems excited to be alive after being dormant all winter. For the northern hemisphere, March and April are Spring – for our friends and family in Australia, right now it is Autumn. Regardless of what season it is where you live on this planet, it is Easter Sunday and the end of Passover week. Both the Christian and Jewish traditions celebrate the freedom from bondage and the beginning of a new life, although from differing perspectives and beliefs. Both begin the time with reflection and prayer. (I don’t understand Islamic tradition well enough to comment on it except to say that Ramadan is observed around this same time of year with introspection and fasting in remembrance of Muhammad receiving the Quran.)

For Christians, the freedom is from the bondage to sin in one’s life; for Jews, it is the freedom from bondage that the Israelites suffered under in Egypt. Both faiths look to an historical event in the past. They also remind us that while bondage was dealt with symbolically once – whether personally or communally – it is an ongoing problem in this imperfect world.

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The Freedom of Habits

(Twenty-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.)

I’ve heard a saying: “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” And just like chains, some habits are stronger and deadlier than others. Conversely, healthy habits can be just as strong and powerful – but instead of bondage, they bring freedom to live our lives to the fullest.  

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg says, “Habits are a three-step loop: The cue, the routine, the reward. They become automatic beginning with a cue that triggers a routine and a craving for a clear reward. Craving is an essential part of the formula for creating new habits…You can never truly extinguish bad habits. So in order to change a habit, you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward (that you are craving), BUT insert a new routine.”

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The Vortex of Shame

(Twenty-third in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

For generations, the combination of personal shame and public stigma has produced tremendous obstacles to addressing the problem of alcoholism and drug addiction in America. Addiction stigma prevents too many people from getting the help they need. –Hazelden-Betty Ford Institute for Recovery

Historically, the word shame was used interchangeably with guilt – the appropriate pang of conscience that followed doing something wrong. In reality, there is an important distinction between shame and guilt. Shame is about who you think you are; guilt is about what you have done.

Stigmas are linked to shame. In the Greek and Latin worlds, a stigma was a mark or brand, especially for a slave, identifying them as “inferior.” Later, it became known as a mark or stain we can’t see with our eyes: social stigmas that are based on perceivable characteristics, associated with certain behaviors that distinguish a person from other members of society. They convey disapproval and disgrace.

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Hopes & Dreams

(Twenty-first in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

I know how men in exile feed on dreams of hope.

–Aeschylus, Agamemnon

After our son’s death from overdose, John and I truly felt like “men in exile,” forced into separation from our son, banished from each other’s’ lives. We are not just on different continents, but in different worlds, different dimensions. And hope? Any hope would have been just that—a dream, a mirage.

His untimely death took all hope of a sober and content son in this life away. Lost hope is what crushes parents when their child dies a needless death, an ignoble death to many. Had he fought in a war and been killed in action, to society it would have been a noble death. Most people who are separated from the life-and-death battle with addiction can’t see the struggle that this generation of young people are fighting on a moment-by-moment basis against an enemy that is in their brain, in their body—not outside it—one they can’t shoot and kill or put in prison. But we, as parents and friends, see it and wonder how much longer can they fight before they lose?

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Missing Community

(Fifteenth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

(This blog was posted on December 27, 2020, but due to technical glitches, it was not shared on some platforms – here it is again for those who missed it.)

For much of the world, Christmas and the holiday season this year has been nothing like our normal times of celebrating with family and friends. Togetherness is dangerous in most countries due to Covid-19. Yet, despite all the health and safety warnings, many have travelled and gathered with their loved ones. Why would people risk the well-being of themselves and their beloveds just to spend a few hours or days together?

Community. We all need it and ultimately cannot live without it. Communities may seem optional when all is well, but they become indispensable during hard times, whether personally or corporately. They can be small or large and most of us have several different sizes and types that we are part of: our family, school, sports, church, work, etc. What communities have in common are shared interests, beliefs, and needs, even while the individuals may have diverse characteristics. They are united and working towards a common goal and understand that they can achieve it because of, and with, the support and encouragement of others.

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The Cost of Secrets

 (Fourteenth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

When Breaking Bad was released in 2008, our son, and most of his generation of young people, watched it. He told us about it and encouraged us to watch it while also warning us that there would be some parts we wouldn’t like – but to keep watching. We did and he was right. But JL knew that we wanted to be connected to his life through the media he viewed and so we became fully engaged and finished the series.

When I think back about it now I realize that we didn’t fully ‘get’ why JL wanted us to watch this series. I believe now that he wanted us to understand the complications and conflicts that drug use brings into a life, perhaps knowing it would reveal secrets that he just couldn’t talk about with us directly. His life was complicated and so he lived with many inner conflicts. It is the inescapable nature of any addiction.

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Avoiding Pain

(Thirteenth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

We are living in particularly precarious times – for people born since WWII, unprecedented problems the world over – seemingly beyond our ability to control or to deal with effectively. With the Coronavirus pandemic, complex problems have arisen for our global society to attempt to solve, from the manufacturing and transport of medical supplies and personal protective equipment to the best medical treatments and the development of a vaccine – which is viewed by many as the magic potion but only if the majority of people could be convinced to ‘get the jab.’

During this extraordinary year pain has come into most of our lives in ways we have not experienced previously: physical pain from contracting Covid19, emotional pain from being isolated or from watching those we know or care for becoming sick and dying, and mental pain from the anxiety caused by all the unknowns surrounding the pandemic. For people living in poverty, these problems are compounded.

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The Politics of Drugs: Purdue & the DOJ

(Seventh in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

When public health is at risk, one can only wonder about the motives behind politicians’ decisions – our “public servants” as they used to be referred to – regardless of what they may say. But we don’t have to guess their motives because actions speak louder than words and the actions of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) this week regarding Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family are unconscionable. This deal is not justice for the victims and their families for this pervasive and criminal corporate greed.

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Separation Anxiety

(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.