Ghost Stories

(Short topical blogs based on Opiate Nation – translation into most languages in tab on right.)

When we hear the phrase “ghost stories” most of us think of scary and spooky stories shared around a campfire with the intended, and predicable, consequence of keeping us awake at night.

But when H Lee (aka Harris Insler) decided to call his new podcast series “These Ghosts Must Be Heard”, it wasn’t because he would be interviewing people with paranormal experiences. And although the stories his guests share aren’t scary in the ghoulish sense, they have kept their narrators awake at night for days, weeks, and months on end. John and I included. (To hear our interview with Harris, see links below for Podbean, Amazon, Spotify.)

https://theseghostsmustbeheard.podbean.com/

https://music.amazon.com/podcasts/3392919b-b8bc-46b4-a486-5e34b7d8dd1d/episodes/580578a3-691f-418a-a179-8bc5f72dd138/these-ghosts-must-be-heard-episode-2-jl

These are real-life experiences and these “ghosts” are the spirits of our deceased loved ones: children, friends, partners who have succumbed to premature and preventable deaths from opioid overdoses.

I’ve heard it said that stories emotionalize information. Most of us already have acquired information about addiction and the escalation of deaths from drug overdoses – almost 100,000 in 2020 in the USA alone – we’ve seen reports on the news about the opioid epidemic, drug seizures at ports and borders, celebrities going to rehab. But to transfer that information from our heads to our hearts requires another step. This is where stories come in.

Stories are proven to connect us to others and, when told honestly and well, they should place us on common emotional ground with our listeners. Good advice can feel like a lecture whereas a vivid personal story relating that same information will more likely alter our views. Scientists have found that when we are listening to or reading an engaging story, our bodies become involved with symptoms such as sweaty palms, rapid or skipped heart beats, and facial movements. On functional MRI scans, many different areas of the brain light up when someone is listening to a narrative. Our brain waves actually start to synchronize with the storyteller. *

After getting trustworthy information, then allowing it to settle into our hearts and souls through the power of stories, the next step is taking action. What can you and I do to help bring about necessary change? Harris, and all those willing to share their painful stories on his podcast – and all the other excellent addiction and recovery podcasts now being produced – do so with the intent that sharing their narrative might energize others to be informed, share their stories, and help change the outcome for future generations.

It takes courage to be vulnerable and face the dark and scary places in our lives – and even more to share those stories. Billy Graham said, “Courage is contagious. When one man takes a stand, the spines of others are stiffened.”  

* https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/04/11/815573198/how-stories-connect-and-persuade-us-unleashing-the-brain-power-of-narrative

The Paradox of Memories

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

Memories are strange things. How much control do we have over them? What triggers bring up which memories? How do triggers differ with each individual personality? Does grief affect memory? I know it does mine because I continue to experience new associations and memories being formed from what were once familiar items with no particular memory attached before—which now, after my son’s battle with addiction and death, have a specific memory related to him.

Like aluminum foil.

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Shredding A Life – Losing the Future

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

Nine months after our son, JL’s, sudden death, we were gradually unearthing our grief, as we gradually unearthed pieces of his life. We were miners searching for something precious, digging through the layers of years as if through layers of rock. Or perhaps we were more like survivors of an earthquake. Our entire earth, with everything we had built on it, was suddenly shaken to the point of collapse, and we were sifting through the remaining buildings and rubble to see what was left. Deciding what to keep and what to dispose of. “Dispose of” has new and unwelcome meanings now. Clothing, personal belongings, furniture, files, photos, childhood toys, keys, memorabilia.

John’s journal entry on May 12, 2015 expresses some of our feelings:

Dear JL,

It’s dad again. We are going through more of your things and I spent a half-day shredding your old papers and notes. It is so odd that much of our lives comes down to boxes of paper to shred. This is very, very hard for me. Shredding your life.

I love you – Dad

Grief is about what is going on inside us after a loss—how we feel. We have no more control over it than we have control over other feelings. Our choice involves how we deal with it.

Mourning is the action of dealing with our loss—what we do, the common rituals, the external part of the tragedy. Again, we choose how we mourn.

Some people put acts of mourning off indefinitely – leaving a deceased loved one’s belongings just as they were when they died until they die themselves. Others, urged on by society or their own distraught emotions, will almost immediately begin sorting and throwing. For us, there were some natural milestones when deep inside we seemed to know it was time to face the loss of another part of our son’s life. The grief-work we were engaged in – being aware of the various stages of grief and facing them as they surfaced – was our internal guide. We never let societal custom or any external pressure guide us, while we did read and listen to other’s experiences.

One thing became clear: this loss of our child was very, very different than the loss of our parents or siblings. Although each of those were difficult in their own distinct ways, the level of personal pain with our son’s death was unique. He was an intimate part of who we are – of course – he came from us. As he grew and became his own person, he yet remained a part of our life and more significantly, our future. All is engulfed in a thick fog. Which is why the quote in the photo is so poignant:

When you lose a parent, you lose the past. When you lose a child, you lose the future.

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 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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The Secret Keepers

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

National secrecy. Communal secrecy. Familial secrecy. Cloaked as “Discretion” it perpetuates problems. What it did for us when we found out that our son was addicted to heroin was to create a puzzle that we were forced to try to put together in the dark with many missing pieces. No one was talking – not friends, parents, school leaders. When the drug bust happened at his high school in the spring of 2005, and the administration didn’t call a meeting of all parents to alert us to what was going on, one wonders what motivation was behind that decision? Clearly, it wasn’t what was best for the rest of the students, families, or our community.

Years ago, while working through our angst with the systemic problems in organized Christianity, and continuing to run into absolute resistance, secrets, and denial, we came upon a quote that finally explained why we were not, and never would be, making headway: “If you speak about the problem, you become the problem.” This wisdom came from an important and insightful book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. But the subtle power of abuse is not limited to churches: governments, schools, communities, families—no one wants to be seen as part of the problem, especially with drug addiction and alcoholism. So, if we just keep troublesome or messy things secret, if we don’t speak about them, we can all just get along.

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The Important 0.1 Percent

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

DNA sequences for any human is approximately 99.9 percent identical to every other human. That means that only 0.1 percent of our genetic makeup is unique to us. Genes are functional units of DNA that make up the human genome. But don’t be fooled into thinking that 0.1 percent variation is insignificant. It is nearly 3 billion base pairs of DNA which boils down to 3 million differences that determine our physical features like hair and eye color and health risks or protection from diseases such as heart disease, diabetes – and addiction. Genes influence the numbers and types of receptors in peoples’ brains, how quickly their bodies metabolize drugs, and how well they respond to different medications.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that family studies that include identical twins, fraternal twins, adoptees, and siblings suggest that as much as half of a person’s risk of becoming addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs depends on his or her genetic makeup. Scientists estimate that genes – including the effects environmental factors have on a person’s gene expression, called epigenetics – account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s risk of addiction.

Epigenetics – epi meaning “above” – is the study of functional, and sometimes inherited, changes in the regulation of gene activity and expression that are not dependent on gene sequence. This means exposures or choices people make can actually “mark” (remodel) the structure of DNA at the cell level. So epigenetic regulatory systems enable the development of different cell types (e.g., skin, liver, or nerve cells) in response to the environment. These epigenetic marks can affect health and even the expression of the traits passed to children. For example, when a person uses cocaine, it can “mark” the DNA, increasing the production of proteins common in addiction which is believed to correspond with drug-seeking behaviors.

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An Ounce of Prevention

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

In 1735, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his own newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, where he used this now-famous phrase: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. He wasn’t referring to a pandemic or keeping your roof in good condition so it won’t leak or changing the oil in your car so you won’t ruin your engine or, my personal example, brushing your teeth to avoid tooth decay and gum disease.

When I was growing up in the 1960’s, brushing our teeth every day was a new habit for most Americans. Even though the toothbrush was invented in 1857, it wasn’t until after WWII that we got in the habit of regularly brushing our teeth. When I was young, I didn’t give much thought to personal care and it seems I didn’t brush my teeth often – I was too busy living life – which is why my two older sisters gave me the endearing nick-name “moss-mouth”.  (FYI, I must have good teeth genetics because I didn’t have my first cavity until I was 30.)

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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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Guest Post

Fellow WordPress blogger, mechanical engineer, artist David Such has written a review of Opiate Nation and posted it on his blog site, Memoirs and Musings. Along with the review, David included some of his pen and ink drawings of our son, JL, and John and me. We feel honored and grateful for David’s desire to help reduce stigma and shame by bringing attention to the opioid epidemic that continues to steal the lives of our sons, daughters and loved ones.

I recently finished reading Opiate Nation: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Acceptance, by Jude DiMeglio Trang (with John M. Trang). I admit, this book was a difficult journey to travel.

Jude and John’s son, John Leif Trang (“JL”) battled various addictions from his early teen years. This story chronicles JL’s long and difficult struggle in and out of recovery up to his accidental heroin overdose and death at the age of twenty-five, and the long road through grief to emotional recovery for Jude and John that followed. Throughout the book, she includes excerpts from their private journals which provide an extremely personal perspective. She offers comfort and sage advice for others who may find themselves in a similar situation. The book takes you on a strenuous path, but is very well written and places the reader within all the confusion, family dynamics, regrets, and mixed emotions they experienced throughout this journey. The narrative is eloquently written, yet raw and purposefully honest in a bold attempt to shine a bright light on this “secret epidemic” that has destroyed many lives across North America and around the globe.

Jude is no stranger to grief. She had previously lost two brothers and a sister to premature death. The loss of JL would have been the final blow to anyone else who did not have a strong spiritual foundation. Don’t worry, though, she offers none of the trite Christian platitudes. John and Jude’s confusion and frustration are palpable. She is transparently honest about their generational family dysfunction as well as their own perceived failings as parents. Her authenticity is refreshing.

Readers will note that Jude is well-read, quoting relevant wisdom from sages throughout the centuries, from Leonardo da Vinci to C. S. Lewis, and from Beethoven to Bob Dylan. Numerous apt analogies help those not living with addiction to understand the nature of the struggle. I personally appreciated her intellectual rabbit trails into topics like the nature of time, and the physiology of memories. I also like the way she weaves together connected events throughout the years rather than marching through a dry chronological sequence. However, be forewarned, Jude does not hold back in her discussion of reality. Some of it is horrifying, but be reassured that the final chapter, “Stories of Hope,” is the reader’s opportunity to slowly exhale.

This book is a must-read for anyone who knows someone who struggles with drug addiction and/or alcoholism. However, the basic takeaway for all of us, even for those who consider themselves or their loved ones immune from addiction is this: The culture of “pain management at any cost” produces large profits for pharmaceutical companies (“Big Pharma”) at the expense of ruined lives. The default prescription for situations like a wisdom tooth extraction or a broken collar bone is almost always a heavy-duty opiate. Medical doctors “rubber stamp” these prescriptions every day. See the content of the book for details. PLEASE, don’t just fill a prescription because the doctor recommends it, especially if there is any family history of substance abuse or alcoholism. Search for safe alternatives, learn that pain is not an enemy to vanquish, and only reach for the opiate “solution” as the very last option

Opiate Nation was the well-deserved winner of the 2020 “National Indie Excellence Award” for best Addiction/Recovery Book. You will not regret traveling with them through their journey.

David B. Such

https://dbsuch.wordpress.com/