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I Grew Up in the Opiate Overdose Capital of America

by anonymous
Op-ed about the current treatment system for addiction in the U.S. and ideas about means that might be more effective- from the standpoint of a sober addict.
It is becoming increasingly evident in the United States, the “home of the free,” that we are failing miserably in our current attempts to effectively treat those struggling with substance abuse and addiction.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the most recent data available revealed that in 2017, the U.S. alone recorded 70,237 drug-overdose deaths; of these, ⅔ involved opioids. Sadly, these numbers are rising. I was born and raised in Montgomery County, Ohio, a district dubbed the “Opiate Overdose Capital of America” in 2017. With a population of roughly 100,000, by mid-year the county was on track to record over 800 opiate-overdose-deaths. “Cold-trucks” (usually transporting cold-storage food items) became a necessity, vital to accommodate the bodies that were arriving at the morgue in unprecedented rates. Today, as a 32-year-old college student, I understand a sobering reality: I could have easily been one of those bodies.

I grew up in a two-parent, middle-class, loving family. I was a soccer star, an artist, an animal lover. I had “so much potential,” as I was frequently reminded. As is often true for those facing addiction, I experienced some traumatic events growing up that no kid should have to confront. I was emotionally shattered. The world stopped being an inherently good place; until then I truly believed it was. The same hand that created this new world of problems, also introduced me to a solution: heroin. It was love at first slam. I was 11 years old and believed I’d just met God, coursing through my veins. In substances I found a reprieve from otherwise intolerable situations. It was a slow seduction, ultimately demanding unspeakable costs from me.

Eventually “real life” faded away. Soccer, family, morals- paled in comparison to my love affair with opiates. Originally a means to liberation, it became the shackles that bound me. Heroin clipped my wings and silenced my song. At times I wanted out- wanted to break the cycle that inevitably meant doing anything and everything to ensure using again. I never meant to throw it all away. My passions and dreams. My hopes and self-worth. My life. What a vicious contradiction addiction becomes- when the only thing that provides any sense of relief, the only thing that momentarily quiets the flames that constantly burn inside, is the exact thing that continues to feed the fire.

Today I understand that my life is a miracle. There’s no reason I’m alive when others are not. People close to me used much less, for less time, and will never tell their stories. At 20 my best friend died in my arms. His heart stopped beating. It took less than a minute and he was gone.

It was his 1st time using.

Honestly, I don’t know why I’m alive. I was lucky enough to have family, insurance, support and love, even when I didn’t earn it. They allowed me countless opportunities in treatment and hospitals. For me, “treatment” itself was not a lasting fix- but I believe I’m still here only because I was removed from my life for periods of time- something many addicts don’t have the means or opportunity to do. Outside the U.S. there are many countries implementing innovative approaches to treatment and to substance-use overall. Some of them have been met with overwhelming success. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs for personal possession and use. Substance use and addiction are treated as issues of public health not morality. This has reduced the stigma that we, in the U.S., quickly associate with drug-use; it has also allowed “harm-reduction” to become a normalized approach. The results speak for themselves. Once facing Europe’s highest rate of new HIV-infections via iv-drug-use, Portugal now boasts the lowest rates in Europe. Drug overdose deaths are unrealistically low when compared to the United States. In 2000, just before implementing the new regulations, Portugal was experiencing 131 overdose deaths per every 100,000 people (in a country with a population of 10.3 million); 2 decades after implementing new regulations, Portugal averages 30 drug-overdose deaths a year- for the entire country! The U.S. averages 1.5 times that- currently 46 overdose deaths EVERY DAY.

It’s mind-blowing and infuriating that we know this is true, yet in the U.S. we’re still not willing to budge on stances of “Just Say No,” or “drugs are evil; so are people who use them,” (unless a doctor is prescribing- then, pop away.) The treatments we offer aren’t affordable for most, hitting especially hard for those who can’t afford insurance. (In Portugal, like all of Europe, healthcare is universal, treatment included.) Anybody who wants to can choose to enter a treatment program regardless of income status.

I never imagined I would become a heroin addict. I’m lucky that I had access to resources to pay for treatment, ultimately keeping me alive until I found the help I needed- the help that actually helped- which wasn’t the kind usually offered in the U.S. By chance, I found a kind soul who treated me with dignity when I had none of my own left. He believed in a harm-reduction approach and didn’t judge me despite my dismal circumstances and outlook. He offered me hope and celebrated the small wins for me, until he could celebrate them with me. He allowed me to recover at my own pace, patiently waiting until I made a decision that I no longer wanted or needed the escape of drugs.

We are socialized to imagine a specific image of who constitutes an addict. It’s planted in our minds through many different facets of our socialization- a process increasingly dominated by technology, sensationalized in media, and talked about in “fake news,” touted by figures as prominent as the president… but who are the “addicted millions” really? Regardless of who “they” are, is it possible “they” are really just struggling souls, humans in pain, like the rest of us? Are we willing to save lives instead of funding the wealthy institutions that supply the fuel to keep taking them?

If we’re serious about combating the drug “epidemic” that’s taken our country by storm, maybe it's time to rethink what we’ve been trained to believe, to reconsider what options we’re willing to try. If we can understand that addicts are just suffering human beings who, in reality, probably need love a little more than the rest of us, maybe they can learn to love themselves again- and ultimately, isn’t that the goal? If we can learn to offer compassion and realistic treatment options and expectations, if we can have patience and understanding, if we can hold out hope for the “hopeless,” maybe we can start to make a difference.

August will mark 5 years sober. By the end of the year I’ll graduate with the Bachelor’s degree I began 15 years ago. I’m engaged to a kind man and my bank account is above zero. More than any material gain or achievement in standing, however, the most meaningful and miraculous gift I’ve received from sobriety is this: today when I look in the mirror, I can look back into the eyes of the person in front of me and I am at peace.
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