Learning Compassion

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right.)

The other day, I was thinking back over the tragic deaths of many of my family members. And I thought about how I felt towards people a few decades ago when they suffered various illnesses or struggled with disease or addiction. I didn’t have much compassion because I hadn’t ever experienced those types of painful and heart-wrenching needs myself or in anyone I loved.

But in 2000, when my younger brother was in intensive care for two months on a ventilator and in a coma, I began to learn about the sorrow and desperation that hover around situations like this – for the one who is ill and for those who love them and who cannot do a thing to help or change the outcome. His diagnosis of HIV/AIDS and slow but impending death broke my heart – maybe for the first time in my life.

Then in 2009, when my sister was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancers and I went to care for her in the last weeks of her life, I came to understand more of what someone feels as they vacillate between hope and despair on a daily basis. Someone in the prime of life now bed-ridden, unable to speak or eat or drink for her final weeks of life. A further lesson in empathy and compassion.

When my son died in 2014 of a heroin overdose, not only did my heart shatter to pieces, but all the regrets and what-ifs and missed opportunities to help change the trajectory of his life piled on top of each other, crushing all desire to go on living in a world without him. What has been the result of all those regrets? What would I change if I could go back in time to even just the year before his death? I would try to put myself in his place – walk a mile in his shoes. Try to understand the challenges he faced in overcoming his addictions, the shame that constantly undermined all his hopes and desires to be clean, sober, and free from the enemy within – the one no one could see but that was taking his life and stealing his future one relapse at a time.

For those of us who live with addiction in our families, we have a fine line to walk between compassion and enabling. It was one my husband and I constantly struggled with but one where we ended up short-changing compassion. We didn’t understand how desperately our son wanted to be free, which kept us from empathizing with his struggles and helping him get the medication assisted treatment that could have changed his life. It is a lasting regret we live with.

As we approach Easter this year, as a follower of Jesus, I am reflecting on why Christianity is the one religion where the god suffered and died. Why the God-Man had to experience suffering. Why he had to become human – to incarnate himself, to take on the living embodiment of women and men. One reason was so that he could experience the frailty of humanity, including suffering. By this, he learned compassion in order to better empathize with our suffering and weaknesses and offer us compassion.

The difficulty comes when we know he could relieve our suffering in some way but doesn’t. Why? Many times, it is so that we can learn compassion in the only way that will help us become compassionate to others. Because, like it or not, we live in a fallen world, where sorrow, sickness and death are part of life and co-exist alongside joy, health, and life.

No one person can experience all the ways people suffer in this world. But we can learn and grow in compassion through the unique experiences in our own life and then offer empathy to others in loving and wise ways. I want the compassionate area of my heart to enlarge in order to help comfort others.

Gilded Grief

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

While reading Rising Strong by Brené Brown, I was struck by a thought she shared about our American culture and the absence of honest conversation and the hard work it takes for us to rise strong after a fall on our face – a failure. She worries that “this lack of honesty about overcoming adversity has created a Gilded Age of Failure.”

Gilding is a perfect word-picture for this characteristically human behavior: applying a very thin coating of gold to a plain, inexpensive object that gives it the appearance of gold. This is what we do when we are dishonest about our feelings. We are choosing to make our real, plain, and common story appear better than it is.

“We’ve all fallen…but scars are easier to talk about than they are to show with all the remembered feelings laid bare…We much prefer stories about falling and rising to be inspirational and sanitized…We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get to the sweeping redemptive ending.”  (Rising Strong, Introduction)

Continue reading “Gilded Grief”

Hank’s Story: Drinking Loneliness

(Thirty-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.)

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

I grew up in a loving home – the youngest of seven kids in a Catholic family. Although there are no alcoholics in my immediate family, my mother’s side of the family consists of proud Irish New Yorkers where alcoholism runs rampant. I experienced my first drunk at the age of 13.

Continue reading “Hank’s Story: Drinking Loneliness”

Regrets: Endless Stairways

(Twenty-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.)

Our family loves the art of Dutch mathematician and artist M. C. Escher: the buildings that open into themselves, the school of fish that become a flock of birds, the circuitous stairways that go up and down throughout multiple buildings without an end point. Yes, stairways that never get you where you want to go, but keep you endlessly retracing your steps. They are no longer interesting art to wonder at. They now mirror how John and I have felt many times since August 2nd—regrets—retracing the steps of our entire lives.

Continue reading “Regrets: Endless Stairways”

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?

Continue reading “Hopes & Dreams”

What’s Inside the Shell?

(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.

Continue reading “What’s Inside the Shell?”

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”

STIGMA, Part 1: What and Why

In the Greek and Latin worlds, a stigma was a mark or brand, especially for a slave, identifying the person as “inferior”. When stigma began to be used in English, it meant the kind of mark or stain you can’t actually see. (Merriam-Webster). Social stigmas are based on perceivable characteristics, associated with certain behaviors that distinguish a person from other members of society. They convey disapproval and disgrace. Dis-approval. Non-approval. Dis-grace. Non-grace. Being dissed.

In an article on The Stigma of Addiction from Hazelden Recovery we learn: “The stigma of addiction stems from behavioral symptoms of substance use disorder… impaired judgment or erratic behavior, which can result in negative consequences including legal, occupational and relationship problems. Understandably, these consequences cause embarrassment and shame among those affected. They also create stigmatized attitudes and perceptions among the wider public, a response that perpetuates and exacerbates the private shame associated with drug addiction.For generations, this combination of personal shame and public stigma has produced tremendous obstacles to addressing the problem of alcoholism and addiction. Today, the stigma of addiction is seen as a primary barrier to effective addiction prevention, treatment and recovery efforts at the individual, family, societal levels. Addiction stigma prevents too many people from getting the help they need.” The article goes on to discuss the irony that many of these stigmatizing behaviors diminish and/or disappear when a person is appropriately treated in recovery.

In my family, and in most others, alcohol and drug addiction is considered private, and “is something only whispered about. Even when the symptoms of the disease are obvious to all around, individuals and families avoid seeking help for fear of even acknowledging the problem. This is one reason only one in 10 Americans with a substance use disorder receives professional care.” (ibid.) When talking recently with some of our son’s friends and former addicts, they are unwilling to let their past drug use become public knowledge because of the potential negative repercussions they justifiably fear in their careers and relationships. What does this say about us as individuals, communities, employers, and society in general?

Hazeldon, with almost 60 years experience treating alcohol and addiction, says “the same undercurrent of addiction stigma keeps addiction under-diagnosed, under-treated, under-funded and misunderstood by many, especially as compared to other chronic health conditions such as heart disease, asthma and diabetes.” Why? The individual is seen as having a moral failure instead of a health problem. I have an anecdote I share with people when we discuss addiction. When I have been given oral opiates when leaving the hospital after surgery, I take one or two and then opt for the pain because I hate the way they make me feel: disoriented, unable to sleep deeply, and not myself. My husband recently had surgery that he was warned would be painful for 4-6 weeks following the procedure. That was an understatement. He was given a prescription for 10 days of opiates. We thought that would be unnecessary. We were wrong. When he was taking the pain meds as prescribed, he was his normal, cheerful self – it was like magic. As soon as they wore off, he was cranky. Of course he was in pain, but it was more than that. Why?

For us, it’s not difficult to understand. He has the “addiction” gene, as we call it. There were alcoholics in both of our mothers’ families. He got the gene that I seemed to have dodged. Did he ask to have that gene passed down to him? Did he decide he would feel good taking opiates for pain? Of course not. And neither did our son. Nobody makes the decision on how their brain will react to different substances. It happens. The issue is what a person does once they know that a mind-altering substance spells “pleasure” to them? Do they keep a safe distance from it as John has done or do they play with fire? For parents with addiction in our family trees, prevention is our best and most powerful weapon. Two books to aid parents in prevention are:
The Teen Formula : A Parent’s Guide to Helping Your Child Avoid Substance Abuse By  Dr Dave Campbell and Drug-Proof Your Kids by Arteburn and Burns.

Had we known then – when our son was an adolescent – what we know now, we would have made significantly different decisions regarding our attitude towards pain medications, drugs, and alcohol – and especially begun discussing addiction in general and in our family in specific. I believe our son would still be alive if we had.

https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/recovery-advocacy/stigma-of-addiction

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