When coronavirus pandemic passes, we’ll still face the opioid epidemicMay 24, 2020
The novel coronavirus has eclipsed another American crisis, deadlier and much longer in the making: the scourge of opioid addiction. And for a recovering addict like me, the pandemic and the lockdowns are especially dangerous.
I read about the death of Melissa Etheridge’s 21-year-old son, Beckett Cypher, as a result of opioids. The story filled me with sorrow and a terrible feeling of the familiar. I understood his addiction. I could feel his anguish. And more than that, I could see how the months of isolation probably worsened his suffering.
The siren song of opioids sounds loudest to an addict in times of great grief. When I first tried snorting OxyContin, it was just a few weeks after my family had lost my sister Allison to her own overdose. I remember the drug making me feel both high and at peace at the same time — an overpowering sensation I can still barely describe with words.
Thanks to the drug, I didn’t have to feel the grief I was supposed to feel — for myself, for my sister. I rode that feeling for days, then weeks, and each time, I needed more Oxy to get the original euphoric feeling. Though I’ve been clean for years, I can imagine the temptation to use amid isolation.
Drugs work by altering the neurological activity in areas of our brain. Usually addicts are people who have experienced intensely negative events, and the drugs numb the mental and emotional anguish we keep stored in our brains about those events. Drugs produce such a powerful relief from anguish, it was a miracle that I got clean. And that was without a mass quarantine.
I’ve kept sober all these years by helping others. I’ve volunteered with the homeless, shared my story in prisons and visited people with terminal illnesses. Now, with the pandemic, I can’t do any of that. At first it left me feeling isolated and going a little stir-crazy, playing way too many video games and feeling sorry for myself — a perilous combo.
Then I remembered who I was, and how I keep myself sane. True, I couldn’t help others by physically visiting them. In lockdown, helping others starts by picking up the phone.
I started reaching out to other sober people, other friends, other members of my community. Just to say, “Hey, man, how are you doing?” Sometimes “how are you doing” means: “How are you doing?” And sometimes, like right now, it can mean: “Man, are you alive?” Or: “Do you want to keep living?” I know I do.
My daughter had her third birthday a couple of weeks ago. At first, my wife and I were pretty bummed about her having to spend her special day without seeing her friends. So we reached out — in this case, on Facebook, asking people if they had any ideas on how we could make a quarantine birthday feel better for her.
Our friends introduced us to the idea of a “birthday drive-by.” On her birthday, people drove by our house, honked their horns and waved and gave her birthday greetings. Some of them brought cakes. And they just kept doing that all day, while she stayed outside in her little pool, waving at them. We weren’t alone.
And all of us need that reassurance. Because addiction can happen to anyone, no matter the material privileges we enjoy, no matter how much we’ve “got to live for.”
I should know. I was born into affluence. The wealthy are sometimes able to avoid some of the consequences of addiction (jail, homelessness); sometimes they can hide their addictions altogether. But you can’t hide the tragedy of a death.
Addiction is a deadly killer. But it isn’t staying in the shadows anymore. Etheridge announced her son’s death on Twitter and acknowledged the role that opioids played in it. Singer TobyMac announced just a few months ago that his son had died of an overdose, too.
Here’s hoping policymakers and others take notice. We need research into addiction. We need funding. We need reform. We can’t let the coronavirus take our eyes off the addiction crisis, which killed nearly 70,000 Americans in 2018.
This pandemic is awful. But the opioid epidemic has killed more. And there is never going to be a vaccine for the cycle of grief, pain and addiction.
Nicholas Bush is the author of “One by One: A Memoir of Love and Loss in the Shadows of Opioid America.”
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