September 9, 2017

America’s Addiction to the War on Drugs: Stories from People who have Been There.

“Addiction is the only disease that makes you think you don’t have one.” ~ Lisa Cromwell, recovering drug addict

“Using substances is the only prison where the locks are inside. We guard the doors and hold the keys!” ~ Dawn Campbell, Substance Abuse Therapist and recovering drug addict 

“Being an addict is like finding out you went to school for 25 years and never had a pen. The bad news: You have to start again. The good news: You get to start again.” ~ Karen Schneider, 20-year sober recovering addict


The Text that Changed it All.

Sipping my morning coffee as I read the paper, my phone dinged. Reading the text, my heart sunk into the pit of my stomach. The sweet neighbor boy that grew up with my girls had passed from a drug overdose.

I could not imagine how his mother, father, brother, and sisters were coping with this tragedy. I could not imagine how a charming, good-looking young man with an excellent education, a bright future, a loving home, close relationships with his family, lots of friends, and numerous interests got involved with heroin.

We all know illegal drugs aren’t good for us (perhaps with the exception of recreational marijuana, in the states where it even remains illegal). Considering this, with every tear that fell from my eyes, I felt a stronger need to do something to help addicts, recovering addicts, and their loved ones, in honor of this caring young man who left this world behind too soon.

He was a teacher, so perhaps his death could serve as his last lesson to give to others.

A Brief Review of Drugs in the United States.

>> The War on Drugs was first declared by President Richard Nixon on June 18, 1971, and again by President Ronald Reagan on October 14, 1982. The stated goal of this campaign was to discourage the production, distribution, and consumption of many mind-altering substances through both domestic policies and foreign military aid and intervention.

>> Similar to what Prohibition did for alcohol, this “drugs are bad” approach created a substantial black market, in addition to numerous new jobs ranging from drug law enforcement to rehabilitation. Professions that are in some way connected to fighting the war on drugs include: police officers, D.E.A. agents, judges, lawyers, probation officers, prison guards, social workers, psychiatrists, counselors, and addiction therapists.

>> Following the money, the cost of alcohol abuse is more than $249 billion, the cost of illicit drugs is more than $193 billion, and the cost of prescription opiates is more than $78.5 billion, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

>> In 2015, the United States spent $325 billion on retail prescription drugs, which comprises 1.8 percent of our nation’s total G.D.P. and 10 percent of total national health expenditures. Illegal drugs were estimated to make up roughly 1 percent of the total global G.D.P in 2009.

>> Currently, the growing rehab center industry in the United States has over 14,000 facilities, grossing over $35 billion a year (as of 2015).

> Antonio Maria Costa, former head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said that “the only liquid investment capital” available to prevent banks from collapsing after the 2008 economic collapse was for banks to launder drug money to the tune of $352 billion, which was then filtered out into the economy.

The Human Implications of these Facts and Figures.

Joseph S. Michael, a Deputy Attorney for the State of Maryland, has some insight to share about what all of this means in real life. For all of us.

“I have been a prosecutor almost 25 years, and for many of those years, I worked pretty exclusively as a narcotics enforcement prosecutor. On the few occasions when I am pressed into service as a public speaker, I ask the question: ‘How many of your lives or the lives of your loved ones have been affected by opioid addiction?’ If every hand does not go up, I remind the crowd that those with their hands down are probably either mistaken or misleading themselves.

Five years ago, few hands would go up. Today, few hands stay down. Is this a product of the growth of opioid addiction, or the product of a growth of awareness? Probably both, this is hardly a scientific survey. The growth of awareness, however, is linked directly to the widespread spike in overdoses, and especially fatal overdoses. Opioid death cannot be re-tinted, no matter how rosy one’s glasses are. The stories are remarkably similar for most of the people that face prosecution: an injury; a doctor’s well-meaning over-prescription of narcotic opioid pain relievers; the unavailability of sufficient prescriptions to maintain addiction; a switch to cheaper heroin which is increasingly laced or substituted with inexpensive, lethal fentanyl—and then a body bag and an obituary for a young person describing that they ‘died peacefully at home.'”

All over this country, people are looking for a means of escaping physical pain, depression, anxiety, mental illness, pain, disappointment, boredom, stress, and loneliness. They feel beaten down by life and unfulfilled, and so taking drugs, especially when prescribed by a doctor, becomes an easy solution. Not knowing the full power of the drug at hand, people might assume an attitude of, “I will experience a high and f*ck the risk—I’m doing this to feel good now, and will cope better tomorrow.”

Genetics also play a key role, according to Dawn Campbell, a recovering addict and Substance Abuse Therapist, “If two people have a child and both are addicts, the child has a 50 percent chance to become one, and if one parent is an addict the chance is 40 percent.”

Drug War Facts states that during 2015, drug overdoses accounted for 52,404 deaths in the U.S. However, this number is probably significantly higher due to how death certificates are recorded, autopsy reports, tests performed and their circumstances, variations in reporting across states, how certain drugs metabolize in the body, and state-specific analyses of opioid deaths are restricted in 28 states.

In Search of a Better, more Compassionate Solution.

As Dr. Richard Meyer, a prominent orthopedic surgeon in Washington, D.C., said, “prevention and treatment, not incarceration” is the approach we need to fight a real war on the devastation of drugs.

Effective treatment methods for addiction are as varied as the paths to addiction itself. Some studies show there are many chemical causes of addiction at a cellular level, suggesting that addiction must be treated as a disease. Other studies suggest addiction is an adaptation to the environment of a chaotic world, suggesting the solution is the creation of a stable, happy, and connected life.

Some swear by the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, although Lance Dodes, a retired psychiatry professor of Harvard Medical School, has doubts. He wrote The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry. He examined the retention rates of Alcoholics Anonymous along with studies on sobriety and the number of A.A. members actively working the steps and consistently attending meetings to calculate the actual success rate of the program. He found this hovers somewhere between five and eight percent.

Others believe in approaches such as naltrexone or nalmefene, methadone with psychotherapy, or ayahuasca with a commitment to living with awareness.

Regardless of which of these approaches we prefer, of greater importance is the need for social recovery in our culture. We’ve all heard to “just say no,” yet the drug war is escalating—all while the rehab and pharmaceutical industries are booming.

Taking a close look at how drug and alcohol addiction is treated in our country, providing comprehensive medication management, making medical records of the insured and uninsured available at all pharmacies, and using more effective education and awareness strategies should all be top-priorities.

Wisdom from Those who have Been There.

Lisa Cromwell, a recovering addict who’s been clean for three years, gave this advice for someone actively using or beginning recovery.

“Life can improve, and you can live a better life without drugs or alcohol or mind-altering things. The solution to a problem within ourselves—like shame, guilt, self-hatred, not being comfortable in your own skin, feeling like you don’t fit-in—is within you. I couldn’t deal with life on life’s terms. Now, I feel like I have self-worth and nothing is so horrible that I can’t get through it without getting f*cked up.

Help someone else. When you are trying to help someone else that is struggling, it helps you stay clean and sober. I don’t think about my sh*t if I am trying to help someone else. If anyone asks you to make a commitment to speak or help at a meeting, don’t say no. Nothing will keep you sober more than helping another addict. Don’t try to do it alone or you will fail. It is almost impossible to do it on your own self-will.

The first thing you have to do is surrender and admit that you are powerless to drugs and alcohol. I put getting high before myself, my kids, my family, everything. I gave up a million dollar home to get away from my family and leave the state to go live in a small, crappy apartment so I wouldn’t get shit from my family for using. Usually, within two days of getting out of treatment I would be getting high. I had to surrender and go through a lot of psychotherapy, inpatient treatment, and continued with outpatient treatment.

At 50 years old, I went to live in a half-way house. It sucked, but it was a safe environment to be in. I couldn’t go back to where I left because everyone I knew was getting high. A lot of alcoholics and drug addicts grew up in abusive or dysfunctional homes with high stress, intense anxiety and probable depression. Believe in yourself and push past your fear.”

Joclyn Yarnall, who woke up one morning to find her beloved dead on the floor from a heroin overdose said her advice is simply:

“Learn positive coping mechanisms. Everyone has an addiction. We are not healthy without being mindful, cultivating the positive, as the negative is so easy to walk into with the escapism in our society. Find something that brings you joy and can lead you forward in a positive way, realizing it is not easy. Making those little choices are what helps everyone move forward. Instead of opening up a bottle of wine after work, do 20 minutes of yoga or play with your cat. Find the little moments of joy in a positive way.

I have a real problem with 12 step programs and believe we should empower the individual instead. Nothing is constant. We have to believe in the power of change. We are stronger than anything, and we need to know resiliency. Just keep going forward—no matter how little or big your step.” 

Dawn Campbell, a recovering addict and Drug Abuse Therapist now getting her Ph.D shared her story, too:

“Building my life, I kept searching to figure out who I am and how long I was gonna be here on Earth—what my purpose was. I wanted to create a life I didn’t need a vacation from. I didn’t know how to do that—let alone not knowing who I was other than when I did drugs. I fit in and felt normal under the influence.

One day at a time, I became stronger because I got on my knees for the first time in my life. I asked God to take me out of the world or get me sober. I felt this peace come over me like I never felt in my whole life and the obsession was removed! I no longer feel the craving or compulsion to use! 

Using isn’t about fear or sadness; it is hopelessness meeting despair. Willpower has nothing to do with using! If that were, true Substance Abuse Therapists would be out of jobs. No one chose to be an addict. It is not about control; control is an illusion! Addicts are not afraid of death; they welcome it. Genetics is only part of it; nature and nurture cannot be separated. Who their friends are, where they live, one parent or two parents, where they go to school, rich, poor, substances being common in the house, siblings using, age, gender, culture, ethnicity are all influencing factors.

When people say recovery, you typically think of returning to how you were before. But there is no going back. You do not merely recover, but reinvent yourself. You become something completely different from what you were before.”

Karen Schneider, a recovering addict who’s been sober 20 years, gave the following advice for an active addict:

“When suffering from addiction becomes so hard to bear, we think we’ll never come back. It’s those moments when we can’t avoid looking at ourselves that surrender is possible. It takes just one breath to give in to not being able to help ourselves. Take the risk, reach out, and tell someone. We can let it go, ask for help and get relief.”

To recovering addicts, she says:

“Sharing experiences, strength, and hope never gets old. It’s the modern day medicine for addiction. Never stop shedding light on where you’re at.”

Finally, she offers some wisdom for family members:

“The person that you love is still there. They just need to relearn everything they know. You may need to do the same. Be patient, we are all just beginners at this thing called recovery.”

For those that have lost a loved one, groups like GRASP and The Compassionate Friends are good resources of providing support to process, better understand, and finally begin healing.

“Accept what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what can be.” ~ Anonymous



Author: Janine Schoonover
Image: Wikimedia
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

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