Tag Archives: addiction

Who Gets Addicted to Heroin?

Sibs--not used yet

Look at that face. It is the picture I see in my head when I think of my baby brother. It’s odd that I have a harder time picturing his face now—the man I hardly recognize as that child. For me, that sweet little boy, holding a puppy, and that serious little blonde boy on the right are the embodiment of the issues we face as Americans. They are my brothers—and the souls who remind me that behind all the political posturing are the very human faces of people in need.

I know this is not an unfamiliar story. But many of us don’t talk about the hurting and the broken ones in our families. I didn’t. For a long time I was embarrassed to admit to all the normal and successful people around me that I grew up in a family that society would have labeled “dysfunctional” had they known the truth of my childhood. My colleagues knew that I had worked my way through college, but for a long time none of them knew that my youngest siblings didn’t fare as well.

And then a strange thing happened. Somewhere along the way, when some of my colleagues became close friends, I began to share stories of my profound grief for my brothers. And I began to learn that while few of my colleagues grew up as poor as I did, many of them had family members that, in one way or another, hadn’t fared well either. Our stories are common, but most of them remain untold. Only when a celebrity like Philip Seymour Hoffman dies of a heroin overdose is our society reminded for a few weeks that it isn’t just the dregs of society who die after shooting up.

My middle brother, the chubby child who rarely frowned as he did in this picture, died in 2007 of a prescription drug overdose. As a child of poverty, he accumulated a mountain of debt for the two years he attended college. He took a job as a bartender—a place where his interest in people, his ready laugh, and his charming amiability would earn him a single night’s tips that amounted to more than my sister and I made in a week from our work-study jobs. But after he died, a friend of his who was also a bartender told me that in those days doing cocaine was an everyday part of the bar scene in their lives. My brother knew he needed to get his life in order and felt he couldn’t do it in a college town, so he quit school and joined the United States Army. For a while after he served, he had a good life, but when he lost his job at the beginning of the recession, his life spiraled out of control. His story, tragically, is an all-too-familiar one.

My youngest brother, the sweet-faced boy with the puppy, just got out of jail for the third time on charges related to his heroin addiction. He served 17 months for what is probably the lowest point of his life so far. As our mother lay in a nursing home, dying a slow death after a debilitating stroke, my baby brother took one of her checks, forged her name on it, and used the money, allegedly, to feed his addiction. (He maintains he used it on living expenses.) He finished his sentence in November and will be on a probation that requires him to be drug-tested for the foreseeable future. He tells my remaining two siblings and me that he’s clean and that he’s trying to find a job but that no one seems willing to hire an electrician’s helper who has a prison record like his. His story, sadly, is also a familiar one.

I have become more open about telling these stories, and sometimes it makes people uncomfortable. Poverty, abuse, homelessness, addiction—and most of the problems we face as a nation—are easier to ignore at an arm’s length, and I don’t blame people for wanting to distance themselves from my family’s reality. But if our leaders knew how many “normal,” “successful” people are affected by these issues, our nation might be in a very different place.

We need research into the genetics of addiction. We need support and therapy for children broken by abuse. Ultimately, the only way we will ever diminish the numbers of the abused and addicted is to stop treating them like criminals and to find ways to heal their broken bodies and wounded psyches. And as long as we as a nation tell ourselves that these people are to blame for their own problems, we will never make progress as a society in dealing with the issues that face us.

Please. Tell your stories.


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Duck Sunset

Excited to spend New Year’s Eve on the Outer Banks, I leapt from bed the minute the alarm went off this morning.  I took the dog outside, brought him in, filled his bowl with food, and turned on the television as I do almost every morning.  My cheer promptly evaporated when I heard the lead news story about how pharmaceutical companies minimized the risks associated with opiate pain medications.  Now, according to the news report, overdoses of prescription drugs have replaced illegal substances as the leading cause of overdose deaths.

Since I often feel that the 24-hour news cycle has done our collective psyche more harm than good, I’ve learned that I have to walk away sometimes from tragedies that are replayed repeatedly even when there’s no new information.  So I left the room, sad beyond measure and more than a little angry at the drug companies that have profited by creating a generation of addicts.

But this wasn’t a story in a far-away place that I could dismiss by turning off the television or putting down the morning paper, which also carried the report.  Like many others, I could have told this story long before it appeared in the media.  I grew up in Oceana, West Virginia, a town that has come to be nicknamed Oxyana because of the devastating effects of addiction painkillers on its residents.  And like many families, my own family has suffered pain that, rather than being eased, has been exacerbated exponentially by the addiction these legal drugs have caused. In 2007, my younger brother traveled from one medical facility to another, gathering over 300 painkillers.  He died in my mother’s guest bedroom, after months of draining her savings account, with six different prescription painkillers in his system.

I adored my brother—the one I knew before he hurt his back and got his first prescription for pain medication from a Veterans’ Administration doctor—a brother almost unrecognizable in the addict he became.  Though he had partied so much he never made it through college, he had many years of being a productive adult—a man with a good job, a wife, and two children he loved fiercely.  None of that was strong enough to save him, and he would have been homeless had my mother not taken him in, though she was powerless to help him.

My youngest sibling is headed down the same path, unable to stay clean for any length of time.  He shared our brother’s drugs and feels guilty that he lives while his closest sibling died.  The health problems resulting from his abuse of his body have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in treatments and hospital stays that have given my remaining siblings and me a very personal glimpse into why health care costs keep sky-rocketing.

So after hearing the news report, I got into the car with a heavy heart.  My husband and I had planned a stop to visit my mother on the way to the beach, and I had found a plastic snow globe picture frame to give her.  In it, I’d placed two pictures—one a family picture of my siblings and me with our parents at a happy Christmas years ago, the other a picture of my mother’s six grandchildren.  Both were taken the last Christmas we were all together.

When we arrived at the nursing home, my mother’s eyes lit up, and she reached out to touch my face and kiss me on the cheek.  Her gaze falling on the snow globe, she took it from my hands and turned it over, doing her best to shake it.  She held the globe out for the nursing assistant to see, saying, “This is my baby girl.  She’s a teacher.”  I marveled, as I do each time I see her, that she can get out that one clear sentence, though when the assistant asked her my name, my mom was at a loss, repeating only “my girl” in a garbled string of chatter.

Sitting with Mom for a few hours, I was reminded, when she pointed to one foot that had slipped off the footrest, of how much pain she has endured from the lymphedema in her legs.  And now that she is nearing the end of her long journey of illnesses, I’m grateful for the Hospice staff that ensures she gets the palliative care she needs to help her be as free of pain as possible.

So the medication that took away my brother’s life has also made my mother’s leaving of this life more bearable.  And I’m reminded again of how few things in this world come in black and white, good and evil—of how the problems we face as a nation are complicated.

And so this once, I think I’ll be grateful if a 24-hour news-hungry media machine keeps this issue churning until we begin to seek help for those who can still be saved.

There is hope.  My pain was assuaged a little when we arrived at the beach just in time for another spectacular sunset.  And when we came back inside from watching the sun set, where my husband had set his iPhone on shuffle, Van Morrison sang out a reminder:  “Whenever God shines His light on me / Opens up my eyes so I can see / When I look up in the darkest night / I know everything’s going to be alright.”

Coincidence?  Maybe.  But I choose to think not.

Tell me your stories of unexplainable hope that is a Presence in moments of pain.