Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Opioid AbuseSaturday morning, my Facebook Messenger pinged me with a note from a friend who was asking for prayer. I received a text message from her immediately afterward with more details: her 26-year-old grandson had been rushed to the hospital after overdosing on heroin. Two days later, another friend e-mailed me: his 24-year-old son, who had lived through an opiate overdose last year and entered a treatment program, had relapsed 24 hours after returning home from the treatment facility. These events hit me hard, reminding me of the daily battles some people and their families face—living their lives with intense, looming fear and anxiety about the possibility of death. Why can’t these kids achieve recovery?

Opioid addiction is real and taking the country by storm. If you think this disease doesn’t affect you, you are either in denial or not paying enough attention to your family and friends. Everyone knows someone living with or recovering from this type of addiction. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, “Deaths from opioids in 2010 were 57 per day, and by 2014, they were 78 per day.”1 Heroin use and deaths involving heroin are rising significantly throughout the United States among men and women, in most age groups, and regardless of income level.2 Since 2007, heroin-involved overdose deaths increased by 340 percent, from 2,402 in 2007 to 10,574 in 2014.3

These statistics are staggering, but is anyone listening anymore? I have been working in the addictions field for 30 years, and the current death toll takes my breath away. I have witnessed people recover and experienced the heartache of relapse and death from this disease. In more recent years, I have been blessed with being surrounded by people in recovery, and the miracles that they have experienced while achieving their health and well-being are too numerous to mention. So, when I heard about these young people overdosing and relapsing, it made me wonder: why do some people more easily get better and find recovery while others do not? What’s the key? What would help? How can I help? 

My friends in recovery say that they are drug-free “by the grace of God,” or “I hit bottom, and then I knew.” These statements may be true for them, but they aren’t comforting or practical for my other friends who are trying to figure out what to do next to help their struggling loved ones. The road ahead for them is complicated and unique. I don’t know what I would do in their shoes, but I have learned some things about recovery:

  • No one-size-fits-all strategy exists or works for everyone to achieve recovery. So many different pathways to recovery are out there, and it’s important to be open to all of them.
  • Be kind as people are going through their personal addiction crises, about which we know nothing.
  • Just listen and don’t judge when people living with substance use challenges tell you their stories; sometimes that’s all anyone needs. Find out what the person and family want to do about their situation.
  • Pay attention when people say they need help with their substance use challenge, and treat it seriously.
  • Stop worrying about the addiction enablers. They already know that their decisions could be life-threatening to their loved ones with substance use challenges, and they have to live with their actions.

Opiates may be today’s focus, but we have seen surges of methamphetamine in 2005, and cocaine before that. Alcohol is considered socially acceptable, yet addiction to it has been ravaging people’s bodies for decades. Addiction kills people no matter its form.

Discrimination and the idea that it’s not your problem because it doesn’t directly affect you is wrong. These attitudes need to stop or nothing will change and no one will get better. For example, if someone needs medicine to manage their substance use challenge, accept that. Don’t judge people’s recovery journey or ostracize them from a support group or place to live because they need medication to fight their disease. Everyone can achieve recovery differently; who cares how people get there, as long as it works for them? If we start treating addiction like any other disease—caring for the people and families who struggle with it and showing them love and compassion in their time of need—more people may be open to seeking the treatment and support they need to regain their health.  

Michael Botticelli, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, repeatedly stresses the Obama administration’s first priority when it comes to addiction—keeping people alive. Sticking to this goal will give people a chance to achieve recovery. When addiction kills, that chance is gone.

Don Coyhis—Founder and President of White Bison, Inc., a charitable organization that facilitates a grassroots Wellbriety Movement, providing culturally based healing to American Indians and Alaska Natives with substance use challenges—shares the following story as a guiding principle of the Wellbriety Movement: “Suppose you have 100 acres full of sick trees who want to get well. If each sick tree leaves the forest to find wellness and then returns to the forest, they get sick again from the infection of the rest of the trees. The Elders taught us that to treat the sick trees, you must treat the whole forest—you must create a healing forest. If not, the trees will just keep getting sick again.”  

This type of community approach means, first, helping yourself and your family to be healthy. Then, care enough about your neighbors to help them and their families in the same way. Imagine living this philosophy. Each person and family can help one another achieve health and wellness—making their way through each neighborhood, then each community, and each state. Eventually, the entire country will have healthy communities that welcome people in need of addiction recovery support. This scenario is ideal in theory. Let’s make it reality. Together, we can stop the indiscriminate suffering and death caused by addiction, one neighbor at a time.

Here are a few resources to help you combat addiction and the opioid epidemic:


  1. Rudd, RA, Aleshire, N, Zibbell, JE, and Gladden, RM. Increases in Drug and Opioid Overdose Deaths – 2000-2014. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report. Jan. 1, 2016. 64(50);1378-82. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6450a3.htm?s_cid=mm6450a3_w.
  2. Jones et. al., Vital Signs: Demographic and Substance Use Trends Among Heroin Users—United States, 2002-2013, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (July 2015) 64(26); 719-725.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Multiple Cause of Death, 1999-2014 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released 2015. Extracted by ONDCP from http://wonder.cdc.gov/mcd-icd10.html on December 9, 2015. 

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