When I read about the suffering of the McCarthy family in Falmouth, my heart broke for them.
Addiction, no matter the substance, is a cruel master, and heroin/opiate addiction is among the cruelest. And frankly, I am grateful I didn’t come of age at a time when heroin and prescription opiates are so prevalent in our communities.
I don’t know if I would have survived.
I’ve helped support more than a few heroin/opiate addicts in my personal and professional life, and I’ve thought that every time I hear their stories. When I was young and looking to self medicate recklessly in the 1980s, heroin was around in Maine, but no one I knew did it, thank goodness. And even though it was around, it certainly wasn’t as easy to get as it is now.
I remember one friend, who came back from time out west, who said she had tried it, but she warned me. She said that the second she felt the heroin hit her bloodstream, she got up and left the room. She said she knew that if she didn’t leave the room immediately, she might never walk away from that drug again.
She and I had shared some pretty wild times, so her warning was more than enough to keep me from even thinking about it.
Her warning has stayed in the back of my mind for the rest of my life as I have minimized the use of opiates during health crises. Yes — heroin, prescription opiates and synthetic opiates are all different, and addicts of each have their preference. However, during junk sickness (the withdrawal from opiates), they often don’t care which is which and may take anything, even non-opiate narcotic substances.
I’ve never experienced junk sickness, but I’ve witnessed it. It looks like it feels like the worst flu ever, combined with labor pains, combined with psychosis-level mental anguish. It’s not pretty to watch. It’s nasty.
No matter how nasty, though, it’s less nasty than witnessing or hearing about overdoses, the near misses and the tragedies. One addict told me that when he thought he might have done too much, he’d go outside on his porch to pass out. He said he worried that if he died, it would take days for someone to find his body, and his cat might suffer.
All the opiate addicts I’ve known know they are risking death every time they use. The very nature of their addiction makes it so the idea of risking death doesn’t bear the same relevance as it does for the non-addicted.
The very nature of opiate addiction also involves lying and sneaking and other negative behaviors, which is why it seems so easy for some to judge people with addiction. The problem with judging is, opiates actually change the way the brain works, making users more susceptible to pain and less prone to being able to control the behaviors associated with the disease. The other problem with judging is, I’ve never met an opiate addict I thought was a bad person.
On the contrary, I tend to have many things in common with them, which is why I don’t know that I wouldn’t have succumbed when I was younger. Like them, my reckless substance abuse was an attempt to self-medicate issues I didn’t know how to deal with. I later learned that I was avoiding dealing with things like post-traumatic stress and depression that affect brain chemistry.
Addicts I’ve met have similar backgrounds or other undiagnosed or under-treated conditions; some are struggling with alienation as a result of some condition. The hardest ones to work with are the ones with the most extreme trauma histories. When I hear their stories, I wonder how easy would it be to walk around with those kind of memories in your head.
I know I have days I’d prefer not to carry the baggage I have, and I’ve heard worse stories than mine.
The McCarthy’s have given us all a gift by sharing their story. It’s a talking point for parents and children. It’s a possible intervention tool for someone with an addict in their lives right now. It’s an impetus for our elective officials to start tackling this issue comprehensively.
And it’s a chance for all of us to take a moment to look at our own imperfect selves and perhaps offer a moment of silence for all the families who have felt so much pain.