The Least of Us, Pt 3: Reasons for Hope

(Translation into most language at tab to the right)

Sam Quinones is a quintessential storyteller in an investigative journalists’ body. And he uses his skill to weave in stories from families and communities along with the “true tales” from recent history of greed, corruption, deceit, and the politics surrounding the drug epidemic we are living with today. It is his reason for hope that I want to focus on now. Heaven knows we need some hope for The Least of Us… In the Time of Fentanyl and Meth. (1)

Part of the hope he feels comes from positive changes beginning in how drugs and addiction are viewed now compared to previous decades. ‘…greatly expanded drug treatment is part of what America needs…recovering addicts face scary odds as long as the drugs that torment them are widely available, potent, and almost free. The now-cliché is “We can’t arrest our way out of this.” We can’t treat our way out of it, either, as long as supply is so potent and cheap.’ (2) He discusses the mistake of drug criminalization, the possibilities and problems associated with drug legalization and drug decriminalization – all very well thought through and discussed. He traveled across America and interviewed professionals in every field to gain insights into this nightmare that is swallowing lives from every socio-economic group. (For those unclear about what opiates or meth do to our brains, there are detailed explanations woven in throughout the book.)

But his biggest reason for hope came from when Quinones traveled and also extensively interviewed another segment of American society: the addicted, their families, and those working in the many fields who are trying to restore the lives of those taken captive by these powerful substances. I have to say, many of the stories were hard to read, but it is from these people in the trenches and their stories that Quinones began to have hope.

Drug courts are one reason to hope. Because synthetic dope today does not allow users to hit rock bottom before seeking treatment – because ‘Today, rock bottom is death. We can use arrests – but not as a reason to send someone to prison. Instead, criminal charges are leverage we can use to pry users from the dope that will consume them otherwise.’ (3) It helps to put some space between their brain and dope so they can embrace sobriety where life repair can begin. Drug courts are not a luxury – they are a necessity.

Yet Quinones found that ‘…our best defense, perhaps our only defense, lies in bolstering community. America is strongest when we understand that we cannot succeed alone, and weakest when it’s every man for himself…That’s why the lesson we must learn is that we’re only as strong as the most vulnerable, as people who are in pain. (4)

As he traveled and listened, Quinones saw that it was people who loved those who are ‘the least of us’ who were making the sacrifices on a daily basis to help in ways they could. But they need help and support – from others and from the policies that are in place in our country.

Recently, I was sharing with a woman the contrast we experienced while we lived in Australia with our daughter and family for two years from the beginning of the Covid pandemic. I said that we were struck by the self-centered mentality – in private life and politics – we encountered when we returned to America and how different it is from the sense of being part of a community and responsibility to others that pervades Australian society. She responded: ‘I’d rather be selfish and self-centered than have my rights and freedoms taken away.’ I was literally speechless. What have we become?

Bolstering community will take a change from our self-centered culture where we who have plenty think we don’t have enough. Where we at the top of the food chain, instead of helping to maintain our communities, have corroded them in isolating and insulating ourselves by abandoning the places where we used to come together like neighborhood parks and community gatherings. ‘We need to again make policy of the belief that we can’t go it alone. The spirit of community needs to be built out, collectively, not just a shift of heart, which is necessary, but in taxation, in health care, in improved infrastructure – in other words, a shift in where the resources go…much of what neuroscience has learned about our brain confirms religion’s truths: humans need love, purpose, compassion, patience, forgiveness, and engagement with others. We’re built for simple things – for empathy and community. That is our defense.’ (5)

He ends his book, his plea to all of us, with this:

‘Community reconstruction doesn’t have to always be complex. It comes down to the unnoticed “constant habit of kindness” that French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, in the mid-1800’s, saw strengthened us locally and kept Americans from destructive isolation and the worst of individualism…The lessons are that we are strongest in community, as weak as our most vulnerable, and the least of us lie within us all.’ (6)

Thank you, Sam.

  1. The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth by Sam Quinones
  2. Ibid, pg. 364
  3. Ibid, pg. 367
  4. Ibid, pg. 367
  5. Ibid, pg. 369
  6. Ibid, pg. 369

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.”

Continue reading “The Freedom of Habits”

A Lament and A Love Song – for Our Son

Lament for a Son is an intensely personal tribute by Nicholas Wolterstorff to his 25-yr-old son who died in a climbing accident. It is eloquent and unforgettable as he gives voice to a grief that is both unique and universal: the tortured pain of losing an individual, a child, your child.

We lost our 25-yr-old son to a heroin overdose six years ago on August 2, 2014. Lament for a Son has been one of our go-to books since that time. Wolterstorff expresses the incomprehension and sense of unfairness that, I believe, parents worldwide feel when they lose a child – someone who is supposed to bury you, not the other way around. It doesn’t fit with the cycle of life we expect – it is jarring, unsettling, bewildering, frustrating, disquieting.

In the Preface he relates:

A friend told me he gave a copy of Lament to all of his children. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s a love song,” he said. That took me aback. But, Yes, it is a love-song. Every lament is a love song. Will love-songs one day no longer be laments?

Yet, while the book expresses the common feelings brought on by sudden unexpected death, what he doesn’t share with those of us who have lost a child to drug/alcohol addiction are the previous long years, sometimes decades, of turmoil, anxiety, fear, and depression that we experience on top of all the normal grief.

And shame.

There is no glory in being the parent of someone who is an addict or alcoholic.

Continue reading “A Lament and A Love Song – for Our Son”

What people are saying about Opiate Nation

As the months have passed since Opiate Nation was released last October, we have received many very encouraging reviews and comments. I have gathered some of them together and created a new page entitled “Recommendations & Reviews.” (see Menu) If you have wondered whether our story is worth the read, especially if you have no personal experience with addiction or heartbreaking loss, then perhaps these reviews will have some insight that will inspire you to order a copy for yourself or a loved one. If you have already read it, we would love to hear from you and know how you have been supported and reassured through our book. It is the reason we have written and published it.

Handwriting on the Wall

The other day I was thinking about our son and his struggles with drugs and alcohol and all that we know and understand now compared to what we knew and understood in the early 2000’s right up until his death in 2014. I saw myself, as if I were standing out in an open field, turning, looking back over my shoulder. That’s what I do when something unexpected or disturbing happens. I look back and try to figure out what I missed, what I could have done differently.

My next thought was: Why couldn’t my husband and I see the handwriting on the wall? Why didn’t we realize how dire the situation was at every new juncture with our son as the years went by? But, I realized that it wasn’t that we couldn’t see the handwriting on the wall. It was that we didn’t understand what it meant.

Continue reading “Handwriting on the Wall”

Celebrating our Dead & Death to Stigma

2019 11 All Souls Procession 5Last weekend, my husband and I were part of the 30th annual All Souls Procession here in Tucson. It is part of the Mexican & Latin American celebration of El Diá de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead – see link below for an article about it). November 1st & 2nd are set aside to gather as a community to show our love and respect for our loved ones who have died. I have heard that Tucson’s celebration is one of the largest in America with about 100,000 people.

While John and & were walking, carrying a large photo poster of our son decorated with marigold-colored trim & lights, a woman in the procession came up to us and asked John, “Who is that?” John responded, “This is our son who died of a heroin overdose at 25.” The woman’s face froze for a few moments as we continued walking, then she looked down and turned to walk away as she said in a low voice with a pained look on her face, “My daughter is an addict.”

We don’t know why this woman was drawn to come up to us and ask that question, Continue reading “Celebrating our Dead & Death to Stigma”

POWER-less or POWER-ful?

Last week I wrote about regrets that John and I deal with – wishing that we had known about some type of long-lasting recovery option for our son, JL – and the SMART recovery approach and how it differs from traditional 12-Step programs such as AA. Continuing on with the concepts about individuals who struggle with life-threatening addictions of any variety, I have a few more thoughts.

With the genetic / disease model of addiction that scientific research has brought to the table, there are many in the recovery world who feel this mindset gives those living with addiction a green light to excuse their responsibility, their power of choice. But I disagree. It is clear that we had nothing to do with our family tree, our genetic inheritance (1). We were “powerless” as far as choosing to be born into our family. Yet, this doesn’t mean we are powerless to overcome the negative Continue reading “POWER-less or POWER-ful?”

Offering Recovery Options

One of the most recurring regrets John and I deal with is wishing that we had known about some type of long-lasting recovery option for our son, JL. He was becoming recovery resistant after so many cycles of detox and recovery programs and relapse. As the opioid epidemic sped up with mounting deaths by overdose, we now have statistics that make it clear that it usually takes many recovery/relapse cycles before a person can maintain long-term sobriety – especially for the main victims of this epidemic – those who started using opioids at a young age. Like our son. It’s not that he didn’t want to be clean and sober. He did, with all his heart. But opioids don’t let go easily or quickly. Continue reading “Offering Recovery Options”

Family Addiction

I had heard about Beautiful Boy by David Sheff for several years and finally made the time to read it. I wasn’t sure it would be of great interest to me since his son’s drug of choice was mainly methamphetamine – and his son is still alive, while mine is not.

It has been hard for me to put down, for many reasons. Sheff is a great writer and tells their family’s story in a way that brings the people and events to life. But what I find most significant – and, sadly, most similar to our story – are the dynamics of a family living with addiction. And it is also very similar to other families I know and ones I have read about in other books such as Gorgeous Girl by Mary K. Pershall.

The similarities? First, there is the genetic component – mainly alcoholism – in the Continue reading “Family Addiction”

Dreamland (Young Adult Adaptation): The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones (2019)

I am devoting this blog to a review by Shelf Awareness of an essential book in the battle against early exposure to opioids which has destroyed so many young lives – our son’s included – in the past 20 years. Please give a copy of this book to every teenager and young adult you know and love.

Journalist Sam Quinones’s lauded 2015 Dreamland was, according to our review, “a comprehensive and empathetic investigation into the Mexican pipeline feeding the United States heartland’s growing appetite for opiates.” This adaptation, pared down for a young adult audience, is a sharp, engrossing work of narrative nonfiction.
Dreamland snares the young reader immediately with the story of Matt Schoonover from Columbus, Ohio, who began using prescription opiate painkillers in high school, became addicted and moved to black tar heroin when the “street OxyContin” became too pricy. A day after returning from three weeks in rehab, at the age of 21, Matt fatally overdosed. Continue reading “Dreamland (Young Adult Adaptation): The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones (2019)”

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