Thursday, December 15, 2016

Reflections and Thought Wanderings After Yet Another Overdose Death

You almost become numb. Almost.
But not really. We lost another person to an overdose this week--a woman that had struggled with addiction for a few years, but one that had seemed to get herself together in recent months. She had been actively involved in a church-based recovery group, was doing some volunteering with some local drug awareness programs, and in general seemed to have put the bad periods of the past behind her.
And she was gone. And it seems like everyone that knew her has been on social media in the last 48 hours expressing their shock, disbelief, and anger at the disease that has taken yet another life far, far too early.
I knew the woman slightly; she has been in and out of jail the last few years because of her addiction, and so she was friendly with a whole lot of people in early recovery or who are paying consequences for their own addiction-related offenses. And I seriously never heard anyone say anything negative about her; she truly was a good-hearted, nice woman. I have no idea of where the relapse came from, and neither did anyone else, judging from the posts and comments I've heard.
The disease is always present, we that are afflicted with it believe; if we don't actively combat it. But as the "dead bodies pile up in mounds," as the Velvet Underground memorably sang about heroin fifty years ago, I am starting to question some of the underlying assumptions of the program of recovery that has served me so well and allowed me to lead a life today that I had never dreamed possible. Or at least one: that a drug is a drug is a drug, and that whatever drug you used doesn't really matter. As far as the obsession to use and the havoc that it wreaks, yes, I still believe that.
But I am starting to reassess some things about the differences between drugs, too. One of the few things that I remember about rehab was some doctor giving a lecture one day, saying that while there were old alcoholics, old dope shooters, old potheads, old pill freaks, old hallucinogen users--there were almost no old crackheads. With crack, you either died, got locked up for a long time, or you hit such a horrid bottom that you decided that whatever the difficulty in staying clean, you figured it had to be better than where you were. That rang a bell with fifteen days clean, and that has proven to be my experience. And I look around the rooms of NA, and I have noticed that almost all of the people with substantial clean time--a dozen years or more--were crackheads.
There used to be one prominent exception: the Messagemaster. Except, recently, it has come to light that he didn't have the clean time he claimed he had at the time, for one, and for two, like almost everyone else whose drug of choice was dope, he has relapsed. It didn't take me long to realize, maybe three or four years into my own recovery, that with people whose drug of choice was heroin, no amount of clean time seemed to be "safe," that heroin users seemed to be at risk of relapse no matter how long they had away from their last use. And although there have been a few cases where someone with a good number of years has relapsed on crack--for the vast majority, if a crackhead has not relapsed within three years, they're not going to.
When I first noticed this, I actually tended to blame it on the Messagemaster; he tended to attract other dope users in his circle, and since his recovery program was suspect and built on a foundation of sand, I felt that it was only natural that those that looked to him for guidance in recovery would be more prone to relapse. But he's been gone for years now, and the same tendency is clearly apparent. I've never used heroin, and I really can't speak of what the appeal might be to those that use it. I've only had a heavy-duty opiate once in my life, some prescription pain med when I had both feet operated on four years ago; two days after the surgery, the pain got really bad, I took one of the opiate pills, and woke up four hours later, which confirmed all my prejudices about opiates. I said a dozen times, if I said once, relating this experience to others since that day that if I'm going to get high, I might as well be awake for it; I really don't get what the appeal is of basically going to sleep.
And yet I've learned quite a bit, in scientific and medical circles, in the last year about what heroin and other opiates do to the brain and body. And I think it's beyond dispute, and the evidence is clear, that opiates change the body and brain chemistry much more than cocaine does, certainly, and probably almost every other drug as well. I had four major effects, physically, of using cocaine, both powder and crack, for years--serious damage to my nasal passages, a chronic sore throat/cough (smoking seventy-five tons of tobacco a year concurrently certainly didn't help my throat, either), some weakening and cavity issues with my teeth, and sleeping habits being very irregular and being prone to insomnia. My nose got better incrementally. but I haven't had a nosebleed in at least a decade now. The sore throat/cough was gone five months after getting clean. I got away fairly easy, considering how long I used, in that I have had to have only one tooth pulled, and my teeth are probably in the best shape they've been in now since I was 19 and started smoking cigarettes. And it took about two years for my sleeping habits to become very regular and normal.
But heroin users almost uniformly report a tremendous amount of trouble in ever feeling even "normal", much less good, on any sort of regular basis. When I first heard this, I dismissed it, again preferring to believe that the issue was one peculiar to the one that first reported it to me. But I've heard this now from a whole lot of others, and I am starting to actually believe that this is the root cause of the relapse rates with heroin users, and why they will go back to it knowing that there is deadly shit out there, knowing that their tolerance is much lower and therefore overdose is much more likely, and knowing that the whole sordid saga of active addiction is likely to begin again. Because if you're feeling off all the time, and the only time you feel "normal" is when you have heroin in your system--well, it's understandable why it happens. I remember when I was younger and in my drinking prime having hangovers that I would have gladly given a couple of years of my life to be rid of--and that was not as bad as some of the effects of heroin, and that was something that lasted one day, not years in many cases.
Obviously, we will never know what happened with the woman that died the other night, why she picked up again after everything seemed to be going well for her. But I suspect that she didn't feel as great as she presented to the world, and when temptation came calling, she didn't put up any resistance. And she, like so many others in this area and in this country in recent years, paid for that mistake with her life.
I don't know what the answers are. I'm not sure that there is a "fix" to any of it. At the end of the day, it only serves to renew and replenish my own gratitude for having lost the desire to get high on my drug of choice a long, long time ago, and so far not even remotely contemplating going back. I'm not going to say I'm never going to use again--but as I've often said, I cannot conceive of a circumstance that would make me want to smoke crack again. It's a blessing, much more than I used to think it was.
And I can only hope and pray that many of today's heroin users get to the same point I am at someday. Because although we all know that addiction is a fatal disease, the sudden, brutal finality of an immediate overdose death within hours of relapsing somehow seems even less fair and more awful than the guy who dies at the end of a months-long run.
We are going to bury another one of our own sometime this week. I really hope that the peak has occurred. But I doubt that it has.

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