There is no shortage of news coverage on the opioid epidemic. I pay close attention, and not because I am a scientist, or a health care provider, or a legislator. Nor do I have a loved one seeking help for a substance abuse disorder. Not any more.
My son died of a drug overdose last year, putting him among the 72,306 overdose deaths recently predicted for 2017 by the Centers for Disease Control—a number that is shockingly high in comparison to previous years and, sadly, to every other country in the world. Worse still, many of these deaths are preventable.
It is hard for me to fully comprehend that my son’s life ended and, with it, his fight to survive. Even though in many ways his fight was my fight, I can’t rest easy. I could find reason to dwell on my regrets — the ways in which I gave too much or too little support or, more likely, uninformed support. But that won’t bring him back. Furthermore, looking inward does nothing to make a difference in the lives of those who are still suffering, fighting to live.
The impediments to getting the help he sought are not unique to him and each remains a significant, and shameful, contributor to the national crisis and the still skyrocketing death toll. These include dehumanizing incarceration as punishment for a relapse; insufficient availability of treatment; insurmountable insurance restrictions; and poor to no access to proven, life-saving, medication-assisted recovery. These barriers to effective health care, along with the underlying culprit of widespread stigmatization of addiction, must be addressed if we want to begin to reduce the alarming number of deaths.
Before the wild ride that was addiction, there was a boy—a sweet and gentle one—whose circumstances set the stage.
In addition to my experience with failed health care systems, I gained clarity on the harbinger of substance abuse that I believe worthy of sharing.
Before the wild ride that was addiction, there was a boy—a sweet and gentle one—whose circumstances set the stage. The fact is, the root cause of addiction started years before drug use, as is the case with so many. And understanding this can be a matter of life and death.
It’s been decades since scientific research concluded that addiction doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that environmental factors play a significant role; and that not all people, or even all users of highly addictive drugs, are equally at risk of developing a substance abuse disorder. You don’t have to delve deeply into the literature to note the overwhelming evidence, and the unanimity among researchers, that addiction doesn’t come from the drug you use, but from the reason you use it.
The vast majority of people who suffer from addiction experienced some sort of childhood trauma—divorce, abuse, the loss of a parent—and most struggled with learning differences, ADHD, mental illness, or depression. Regardless of which of these ailments, or combination of them, a child endures, the common thread among the most vulnerable is the effects: feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and social isolation.
My son had learning disabilities along with other neurological differences and, while loved at home, he was out of step with the world in many ways. Misunderstood and socially awkward, he hungered for companionship and social acceptance. While I fought for his right to an appropriate education and advocated for him relentlessly in many a setting, I failed to fully comprehend his future vulnerability beyond that which an academic preparation can address.
The discovery of the drug initially provides relief and even hope for a connectedness otherwise unknown.
The importance of this insight can’t be underestimated as it can make a powerful difference in both prevention and treatment.
Being forewarned, parents and teachers of children in vulnerable populations can promote identification of the characteristics and behaviors that predict substance misuse and shape prevention programs, tailored accordingly. Not unlike the teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic to children with learning challenges, early intervention can make or break a successful outcome.
For those who do not escape the clutches of addiction, I pray they do not suffer the shame and humiliation of punishment that only exacerbates feelings of alienation and failure, and plays into the vicious cycle that begets further hopelessness, wearing down the patient and his family. Instead of increasing the negativity that propels this downward spiral, harm reduction approaches to treatment aim to keep people safe, eliminate needless suffering, and avoid preventable deaths.
Had my son been successful in his attempts to get medication-assisted treatment, he would have been able to take advantage of the therapeutic support that addresses the root cause of addiction. Because no one can refute the simple fact that you have to be alive to recover, I do not understand why FDA-approved, science-backed medication, proven to cut the number overdose deaths by half, or more, isn’t widely accepted and readily available.
From my perspective, the war on drugs morphed into a war on individuals— vulnerable individuals who desperately need help. Isn’t it time to rethink policies that have failed and open our hearts and minds to utilize effective resources as we tackle this deadly epidemic? Why wouldn’t the concept of compassion over punishment prevail? It’s not just the alarming death toll and its faceless numbers at stake, but it’s our fellow citizens, our children and, in so many cases, the most vulnerable among us that need and deserve the proven standard of care.
Jessie Dunleavy is a recently retired school administrator, a position she held for thirty years. In coping with the loss of her son, whose death she believes was preventable, Dunleavy has turned to advocacy for those who suffer from addiction, and is now completing a memoir detailing her son’s story. She lives in Annapolis, Maryland.
Opioid Watch invites guest commentaries from readers who submit thoughtful and informed essays about how to combat the crisis; about “what works” and “what doesn’t” in terms of treatment and recovery; and other pertinent topics. If you have an original manuscript that you’d like to be considered, please submit to [email protected]. We cannot guarantee publication or even responses to every submission. Commentaries do not necessarily represent the views of Opioid Watch.