Katrina New Orleans

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Ten years ago, hurricanes whomped through southern Louisiana and the levies broke and everything flooded.

Six months later, I spent six weeks in New Orleans covering reconstruction for the LA Times before and after the first Mardi Gras following the disaster.

Photos here are from that time.

While there, I told the story of the Latino workers who had shown up – a quiet cavalry to the rescue – just as everyone was fleeing the city in the weeks following the flood.

The workers I interviewed described an amazing image that took place three weeks after the flood, in the days when residents were briefly allowed back in the city. They  came then left quickly as the city was unlivable. On one side of the freeway, heading out of town, were their cars and trucks packed with every belonging a family could salvage. On the opposite side, leading into New Orleans, were quietly coming cars filled with these guys — Latino immigrant workers, each with no more than a backpack and a few tools, who heard there was work. Armies of Mexicans and Salvadorans, mostly, who lived in the Martian landscape, coated with the grey sludge of disintegrated dry wall, that the city had become in the weeks after the hurricane and put up those blue tarps of the roofs of thousands of houses.

Many of them stayed for the day labor they could find, hanging out at Lee’s Circle. A lot of them didn’t get paid – usually stiffed by Latino immigrant contractors, who also descended on the city. When I met these workers months later, many swore they never would work again for a Latino contractor. It was a Wild West of labor law, and was still when I was there.

The hurricane did a lot, but to me what it did most graphically was to show how ill the city had been before the levies broke. I’d been to NOLA several times for the music and food and never seen the pathology.

When I arrived to cover it as a reporter, I learned about it more deeply. It was a city that had the same population in 2005 that it had in 1930 – unlike many Southern cities, which had grown vibrant in those years. It relied mostly on tourism jobs, which paid poorly.

Before the hurricane, almost no Mexicans lived in NOLA – which is a bad thing because Mexicans are usually found where an economy is growing and jobs abound. Mexicans are a pretty faithful barometer of economic vibrancy, or the lack of it. They came after the flood.

I remember the city funded its public defenders from traffic fines and had seven property assessors for 164,000 properties, which is why the city also had so little property tax revenue. (LA County has one assessor for 2.4 million properties). One assessor, from a small district the size of a large neighborhood, had had the job for 15 years or so. Someone with his last name – an uncle and his father – had had the job since the 1920s.

Municipal governance was arthritic. Everywhere – in the hospital, the schools – the signs of decay were present long before the hurricane showed up. Katrina didn’t cause the illness; it laid it bare.

Six months later, as these photos attest, the mud and grime was gone, but reconstruction seemed almost nil.

Still, it is one of our greatest cities, and I love it, in part for how it mixes folks up, throws everyone together, a big raucous America.

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The Good, the Bad and the #100Days100Nights

Twitter is abuzz with word from South Central Los Angeles that either 1) a gang, angered at the shooting of a member is planning on killing a hundred people in a hundred days or 2) that two gangs have a bet to see which can kill the most people first.

I don’t know if either story is right. I suspect no one else does, either.

There certainly have been serious spates of shootings in areas in which these gangs operate.

But to me, this seems the downside to an otherwise very positive development in our SoCal gang world. Street gangs have moved off the street. This is a radical development, for our street gangs grew from the streets, took their names from streets, developed reputations based on how well they “defended” street they deemed “theirs.”IMG_9366

Now, in neighborhood after neighborhood, corner after corner, they are absent. Cudahy, Hawaiian Gardens, Highland Park, Compton – ancient gang towns or neighborhoods. Not any more, it seems from traveling their streets. To be sure, the phenomenon is less well felt in the black neighborhoods of South Central. But even there it’s nothing like it ever was at its worst, or even a few years after its worst.

Doesn’t mean gangs don’t feud. Doesn’t mean they’re not up to no good. It just means they aren’t as public, aren’t as much out on the street, in the parks, on the street corners – which is good, for  it allows those neighborhoods some room to breathe. That’s why property values in many of these neighborhoods are rising. Northeast LA is one very good example of that.

IMG_1780On the flipside, those who remain bonafide members, or maybe more likely those who aren’t, spend time prattling on, threatening others and boasting on social media – Facebook is full of them; so is Twitter. But going on social media requires a whole lot less dedication to the gang cause than staking out territory at a park or liquor store where your rivals know where to find you.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that gangs on social media is a benign thing.

Take the #100days100nights hashtag. Could be there’s truth to this hashtag. Could be there isn’t. Could be that people believe there is and act accordingly, by staying away from the areas where these gangs operate (Imperial to Florence, around Western). But it grows from the new space that gangs here have occupied, which is the virtual space. From there, the supposition is, it has spilled out onto the streets.

Whatever the truths, it bears mention that myths and misunderstandings have long fueled gang life in L.A. The Mexican Mafia, in an attempt to stop drive-by shootings, which it viewed as harmful to its drug business, said a member’s child had been killed in a drive-by. Latino gangs took that seriously.

IMG_0569Among the Florencia 13 gang (one of the largest Latino gangs in SoCal) rumor circulated that blacks had hijacked a load of dope that belonged to the Mexican Mafia member from Florencia.

True? Who knows?

But Florencia then went on a multi-year campaign (2004-07 more or less) to shoot black men – crimes well documented in a federal trial a few years later.

So this hashtag is part of a tradition, just amplified by the power of, and lack of accountability inherent in, social media.

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Filed under Gangs, Los Angeles, Southern California

Heroin & Hyperconsumption – A Poem

Ever since beginning work on my book, Dreamland, I’ve been struck by the way opiates isolate those addicted to them.

As I wrote and researched, they grew into a metaphor for modern American life.

Opiate addiction, seems to me, is some kind of final expression of our own destruction of community, our lack of connection across the country – both in poor communities and wealthy ones. cropped-Virgin-of-Guadalupe-dec-12-2012-La-Placita-11.jpg

We exalt consumption and the individual over community and have for a long time now.

These drugs seem to fit that; they turn everyone who abuses them into self-absorbed, lonely hyper-consumers.

The poem below was written by Andrew Smith, one of the thousands of Americans who died in 2014 of a heroin overdose. He was 24.

His mother, Margie Borth, discovered it after his death.

“There were several writings, this one is about scoring heroin and the lonely world that became his life,” she wrote, sending me the poem. “His brilliance still shines in his dark, sad words. His best friend described this as `hauntingly beautiful.’  I knew nothing of his addiction until just five weeks before he died. I was in a blur of grief when I first read it.  But now I do see the beauty of his writing.  I miss him so much, just like the thousands of other parents who are thrown into this nightmare. “

Simulate the Static

by Andrew Smith

____

The waiting, oh god

The waiting

The parking lots, the bathrooms, the empty parks that close after dark

The driveways, the bus stops, the car backseats

The posh bank lobbies, flea bag motel rooms, gas station pumps

Oak trees, palms, and retention ponds meant to beautify

The ditches, the swamps, and one off dead roads that lead to nowhere

And the loneliness of that trap.

The broken windows,

The made for TV dinners

The busted speakers blaring bass on a burner cell phone

The children going hungry, ignored in the corner

Staring at a broken television; simulating static.

The characters

The hangers-on, the worn out, the washed up

The good, the bad, the ugly

and the pretty young white girls with the blank eyes

Staring in awe at this newfound world.

The sun is setting and it’s starting to rain

My eyes are closed and I’m wishing I’m somewhere else.

When I hear a tap on my passenger window

Within 30 seconds, he’s gone

And the wait seems like a thousand centuries ago.

                  In this moment, I rest my eyes a second

Breathe a sigh of relief and know that all is right with the world

At least for these brief few hours.

The rain falls and my windows are up

It casts shadows across the dashboard

And the radio plays a news story

From a country whose language I do not speak

And a land I do not know.

                  Life is a quest

And we all search for something:

Money, fame, power, an identity.

For most they never find it;

And like a mirage in the desert,

it wavers in allure on their weary walk forward.

For others, they do.

And what’s worse,

They’re left in the emptiness of what it means.

But in this moment a fleeting comfort comes to me

And I know I’m not alone.

(Feb 2014)

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Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland, Uncategorized, Writing

El Corrido Del Chapo (the first) – copyright mine!

The news today that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from Mexico’s maximum security prison either makes you El Chapo Public Enemy 1laugh or cry – both.

His capture in 2014 was greeted as a sign that the country had turned away from its history of shoddy, corrupt criminal justice, and toward something more modern. President Enrique Pena Nieto got his picture on the cover of Time Magazine.

So Guzman’s escape is all the more dismal. This was his second – the first coming in 2001 in a prison laundry basket.

This time, he used a tunnel that ran from an out building under construction a mile from the prison to exactly under his cell. Talk about precision! (Watch this video for more amazing detail of the tunnel. Begins about 1:30 into the presentation.)

All  you can do is make jokes about it. With my long interest in the corrido, I offer this, the first (post-escape) Corrido to Chapo Guzman.

EL CORRIDO DEL CHAPO

Voy a cantarles un corrido

De un hombre muy chaparro

Pero con amigos altos y eternos

que prefieren el despilfarro.

___

Lo habian agarrado en Sinaloa

En el mes de Febrero.

Dijo, al ver su celda,

Este un solo un hotel de paso.

___

No querian extraditarlo

Segun por interes de nacion

Aunque dijeron voces

Que fue por otra razon.

___

Los del gobierno y los mediosJoaquín_Guzmán_Loera,_aka_El_Chapo_Guzmán

Se sintieron muy complacidos.

Hasta los gringos en el norte

Se dijeron muy agradecidos.

___

Pero en una celda Altiplano

El hombre se comentaba

`Prefiero los mariscos de Sinaloa

Y las chicas bien estructuradas.’

___

A pesar de su estatura

Su celda no le cabia.

Necesito metralleta y mis mujeres

Asi que busco otra alternativa.

 ___

Les agradezco su hospitalidad

Pero ya tengo que volar

Por un tunel de mi amigos

Muy conveniente su ayudar.

___

Vuela, vuela Chaparrito

Al avion que va a esperar

Por un tunel iluminado

En el cual un hombre se puede parar.

___

Al entrar en el tunel

Que aparecio de milagro

Se topa con una motocicleta

Que alguien habia dejado.

___

O, que suerte, dice El Chapo

Voy hacia mi destino.

Dios y los angeles me cantan

Tambien los pajaros en los pinos.

___

Pronto el prende la moto

Y con pluma en la mano

Escribe a sus altos amigos

Mi libertad no sera en vano.

___

Deja atras un libro

De los mejores, segun opiniones,

Que habla de Malverde y Chalino

Escrito por Samuel Quinones.

___

Este Quinones si tiene talento,

En el libro de Malverde y Chalino

Inscribe El Chapo muy cuidadito,

Lee bien lo dice este gringo.

___

Dice el senor al salir

Busquemos otro panorama

Faltaba aire condicionado

Aunque si me gustaba banar.

___

Amigo de los amigos

Altos y guapos, al parecer.

El Chapo si salio fuera

No se sabe donde va a amanecer.

___

Vuela vuela chaparrito

Aunque por segunda vez

A ver si nos vemos mas tarde

Ahi donde comen el pez.

___

Aqui termino mi corrido

De la historia de un hombre

Y sus amigos importantes

Que por cortesia lo dejaron libre.

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`Two are better than one’ … Why heroin now?

“Two are better than one … for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up.” King Solomon

Those who know me will find it strange to read me quoting the Bible. IMG_0927

But these words, which I just read for the first time, talk about what we’ve lost and what has tenderized the country for widespread heroin and pain-pill addiction described by the CDC/DEA in my blogpost below.

We are an enormous country too often isolated, siloed in our rooms/phones/cars alone.

The magnificent ethos of self-reliance that began this country has decayed into one that holds that the individual is always superior to community – though self-reliance was only made possible by assets the community provides.

It holds that the private sector is efficient and government cloddish. It holds the free market as a kind of God, infallible.

It holds that every tax dollar will be wasted by government, so we starve it and make sure it cannot provide the basis for community that is its natural role. Yet mediocrity in business is to be rewarded with towering compensation, and part of that is that we’ll look the other way as it destroys jobs that sustain our communities.

And this reigning ethos further insists that consumption, and by extension the avoidance of discomfort and the eternal search for convenience, is our point on earth.

In such a world, naturally legions of people dose themselves on substances that numb pain – drugs that turn everyone addicted to them into hyperconsumers, self-absorbed and alone, and with no one to help them when they fall.

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DEA: Heroin now increasing everywhere in America

The DEA today issued a press release that begins like this: “Heroin use has increased across the United States among men and women, most age groups, and all income levels. The greatest increases have occurred in groups with historically lower rates of heroin use, including women and people with private insurance and higher incomes.”cropped-IMG_4841.jpg

The release discusses a new report by the FDA and CDC about heroin’s use across the country.

The only fact it appears to leave out is that almost all the new addicts are white.

Still, for a long time, heroin has seemed to me a way of talking about America.

One reason for that is what the DEA expresses – that heroin is so widespread and in areas and populations that never knew it.

But heroin is also a way of talking about our loss of community and publicly shared assets – streets, parks, etc. Of a retreat indoors, figuratively and literally.

I believe heroin is the final expression, the final extension of our multi-decade exaltation of the free market, the individual and consumption. How else to view a drug that turns everyone addicted to it into self-absorbed hyperconsumers?

That’s why I wrote Dreamland and didn’t have one addict shooting up. To do so would have been to distract from the larger point, that this drug thrives in areas without much community feel, community anchor – the area could be poor, could be wealthy. What they share is a lack of community and public interaction and encounter.

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Filed under Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

What’s left to say about mass murder

In my reporting career, I have covered seven American mass murders – one in 1989 in Stockton, and the rest in the last decade.

One was a guy parking his SUV in front of a commuter train (25 dead). The rest were committed with guns, usually by dylann-roofderanged drifting people – all men, five of them white – who had remarkably easy access to high-powered guns.

I don’t know what more there is to say about these events. Seriously. They’re now so common that they have devolved into babble-fodder for our politico-cultural wars on the toxic battlefield of 24-hour cable news. Such a network, I suspect, could plan its profitability around the certainty of a boost in viewership from a couple of these events every year.

Somehow, despite all the talk, we never get around to doing anything about it.

We talked a lot but did nothing meaningful after Tucson and Aurora. Then 26 kids were shot to death at an elementary school and we did nothing. We did talk a lot, though.

People nowadays fall into rote after these events, saying profound things that have devolved into cliches from overuse.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out …” That’s a deep, poetic thing to say – that my thoughts and prayers I’m sending out in hopes they will soothe you and bind your wounds, that I am feeling for you and hope that in doing so it will lessen your pain. Yet it sounds trite any more.

I used to think that seven mass murders was a large number of mass murders to have covered in one’s reporting career.

Now another lost and drifting lunatic kills nine people in a church. A guy who by 21 is going nowhere, who apparently at one point had been abusing Suboxone (a heroin-addiction treatment). This time the guy has a racial animus.

Terrorist? I guess. Probably. Who knows?

“He looks bored,” one little girl I know said, upon seeing his mugshot. That’s sounds about right. His dad, bugging him to get a job, may have given him a gun for a 21st birthday present. Who does that? And why? To give him some direction in life? I don’t have the slightest idea why someone would do that.

(NOTE: It was later reported that Dylann Roof had, in fact, purchased the gun himself that he used in the church.)

I don’t know what to say any more about people who do these killings, or legislators who won’t do anything about these events, or 24-hour cable news babble, or dads who give their lost sons guns for presents, or a country that so easily moves on.

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That NY Heroin

I was interested in knowing more about that huge heroin bust in New York City last week.
The seizure totaled 154 pounds  (and $2 million in cash), the largest ever in that city – larger even than the legendary French Connection bust of the 1970s (100+ pounds). Which is saying something, as New York was the U.S. heroin hub for most of the last century.heroin20n-1-web

I was surprised to see the traffickers were from Mexico.  Virtually all the heroin coming into NYC and New England has been, since the 1980s, from Colombia – that’s what I understood.

So I reached out to a law enforcement source in the NYC metro region who works heroin. The source said that while the traffickers were Mexicans, the heroin was from Colombia: “Colombians have almost totally removed themselves from the distribution directly in the US.”

This is because:

“1. Colombian communities have matured and the criminal elements have for the large part been killed, jailed or been deported.
2. The Colombian drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) can make money still selling it to other DTO’s in Colombia and/or in Mexico and parts nearby without the fear of the long arms of US authorities. Example: If they sell to Mex DTO they make $5,000 with minimal exposure. If they sell in US directly they make $10,000, but with possible major problems.
3. For Colombians, they can make major profits if they can get it to Western Africa and/or Europe with less exposure.
4. In today’s world, post 09/11, the Achilles Heel entry point into the US is over the southwest border. That area is within the realm of the Mex DTO’s. The Colombians feel they have more control if they conduct business in their area of operation and have less problems.”
All of which is to say that what happened to cocaine in the late 1980s – Mexican DTOs took over the trade from Colombians and, fueled by those profits, began the growth into the organizations they are today – is now happening with heroin as well.
If that’s so, it’s likely there’ll be more busts like this one, given the nationwide demand nowadays for the drug generated by widespread addiction to opiate painkillers.
LINKS:                                                    #Dreamland
Photo: DEA

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Filed under Border, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland, Uncategorized

Hillary Clinton, Heroin, and the Time to be Heard

Three weeks ago, Hillary Clinton’s health-policy advisor called me to discuss the opiate epidemic, its causes and what could be done about it.feed-image-1

The advisor said she was reading my book, Dreamland, and that Mrs. Clinton had read my NY Times op-ed column of April 19 about the issue.

The advisor told me Mrs. Clinton had been hearing a lot of very passionate comments from parents with addicted children as she campaigned in Iowa and New Hampshire.

We spent an hour on the phone, talking about policy, about pain pills, pill mills, Mexican heroin trafficking, and about the quiet surrounding this epidemic that had allowed it to spread.

So I’m glad to see that Mrs. Clinton is now coming up with policy proposals to address it, one of which is to begin talking about it and end the stigma and silence surrounding addiction.

This epidemic is neither a red nor a blue issue. Thus I hope candidates from both parties will respond as well. I’ll be happy to chat with them, if they want to call.

I’d hope, moreover, they would focus not only on heroin, but on the broader problem of overprescribing of opiate painkillers, which so often provide the gateway to heroin. (Pain pills have their legitimate role in medicine, but too often are massively and unnecessarily prescribed.)

But there’s another important point in this. I believe parents of addicted children need to use this approaching presidential campaign as a way of magnifying their voices.

As a longtime journalist, I know that the most poignant stories are the ones that can have the most impact. Sadly, many parents up to now have kept silent, ashamed or simply worn out by their children’s addiction.

That is changing. More are stepping forward, as Mrs. Clinton was hearing on the campaign. Some are mentioning heroin overdose as a cause of death in their children’s obituaries – an act of enormous, and necessary, courage.

But these stories are still not being heard the way they need to be.

During past drug scourges, public violence aroused public ire. The crack years, for example, saw drive-by shootings and carjackings. I was a crime reporter during those years and saw this first hand.

None of that public violence has happened during this epidemic. So the job of arousing public attention falls almost entirely to parents.

I believe this presidential campaign offers an opportunity to be heard, to magnify voices. Make opiate abuse (pain pills and heroin) and overprescribing a point of presidential debate.

To do that, parents in particular need to step forward and tell their stories the way no one else can.

Photo: Hillary For President website

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William Zinsser Dies

William Zinsser, who wrote On Writing Well, has died. He was 92, according to his NY Times obituary.51gR+4G5mJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

His book influenced me enormously. We learn to write by writing, but if there’s one book to read on writing in English, it’s his. I read it probably eight times, though I’ve lost count. Some parts of it, more than that.

His approach to writing is the correct one – that writing involves rewriting and more rewriting, each time with an eye to cutting words that don’t need to be there.

That through rewriting we achieve greater clarity, and come to know what we think.

He didn’t mean that all sentences should be short. Rather, that all sentences contain only words that are necessary. Same goes for sentences in a paragraph and paragraphs in a text.

He also said that if you pare down your prose to only what’s necessary and do this over and over, through a lifetime, you develop your own voice. That idea hit me as strange at first, but I know now that he was right.

His point, too, that writing is not to be done when you have inspiration, but treated as a job, something you get up and do every day – that was a revelation to me, as well. The anecdote with which he opens the book, about speaking on a writing panel with a doctor, is fabulous.

On Writing Well went through many editions, but the core of it – the first six or so chapters – remains always clear and relevant.

His essay on Clutter in language is probably more on point today than ever.

I wrote to him twice – once after my first book came out and the second time after we published the first Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles volume. Each time, he was kind enough to write back.

A good guy who changed English – by making those who write it do it more clearly.

Many thanks, Mr. Zinsser.

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Filed under Books, Storytelling, Tell Your True Tale, Uncategorized, Writing

Remembering Dreamland: One woman’s story

 Some people think that my use of Dreamland as the title to my book refers to the euphoria addicts are seeking.Dreamland-HCBig
    In reality, the title refers to an enormous pool that existed years ago in Portsmouth, Ohio, a town mightily afflicted by opiate addiction. Dreamland was the town square, in a sense. Life revolved around it. Kids grew up in public, under the watchful eye of hundreds of parents. It was a place where everyone was equal in bathing suits. The pool embodied the feel of community.
    I’m still awed by the letters I continue to get in response to the book. Here’s another …

____


    I grew up in Portsmouth, born in 1952.  It was a safe blessed time in post war America.  I had 6 cousins in my Catholic school class, picnics with the families on weekends, a perfect childhood of Dreamland every summer day, walking home from school with friends each fall, enduring the brief winter to count the days until Dreamland reopened.
     I left after high school and did college at Ohio Wesleyan where my husband and I met. We moved to PA and I did law school as my husband served the United Methodist churches of Central PA.  We made semi-annual trips to Portsmouth with our three children to see family.  Each time we went, the town was more depressing.  Family members became drug addicts.  We were stolen from at my mothers funeral.  I rescued my dad from a nursing home where the facility clearly had users on staff.  This was in 2013.  He was not safe in his own home due to a family member selling drugs right under my IMG_4147dad’s nose.
     He died in 2014, in PA, after having lived 92 years in Portsmouth.  He knew Branch Rickey, Rocky Nelson, and the great years of Portsmouth.  4 of his six brothers served our country; my dad was deferred due to problems after having polio and rheumatic fever.  I have Ohio River blood in my veins.
    Thank you for making me understand a bit more that the addictions which decimated my family were not totally their fault.  I worked 35 years as an attorney in health care law and  I knew the power of the pharmaceutical companies and the collision of profit in healthcare.
    If you would like to take on another pharmaceutical issue in the future, let me suggest Lyrica. It was presented as the holy grail for nerve pain.  I am no longer practicing law as I had to quit due to seizures after using Lyrica.    Facebook even has a Lyrica survivors page of which I am a member.  It is another sad tail of “big pharma” all over again.
    Thank you again for your wonderful work of Dreamland.
Barbara G. Graybill

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Filed under Books, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

Dreamland: A Mother’s Story

I’ve been getting amazing, intense email letters in the two weeks since Dreamland was released. I hope to be adding some of them to my blog. Here’s one.

____

I almost lost my beloved 23-year-old son (he is now 26) to heroin addiction, which had progressed from OxyContin to black tar heroin.  We are a family of hard working professionals in a university town.

Like most families, we cherish our kids and do everything we can to help then live an honest successful life. When this happened, my son was a pre-med college student. I was and am very close to him, and he had always been a very good Dreamland-HCBigstudent and loving son and brother. He was kind, funny, highly gifted, devoted to music and passionate about becoming a doctor.   He was also prone to depression at times.

When I found out, he was in his 4th year of college, and getting As and Bs in hard science courses such as organic chemistry, but could not seem to manage on his college budget. He kept running out of money.  He started having vague physical symptoms, like constipation, malaise and abdominal discomfort. His grades in his last year of college started to slip.  At Christmas, we visited my sister’s family in Midwestern farm country. Later, my sister, bless her heart, confided in me that her Oxy pills that had been prescribed for shingles had disappeared from her medicine cabinet when we were staying with her. She was reluctant to tell me as she did not want to make anyone uncomfortable or blame anyone. I am so very grateful that she told me this.

I immediately put together that my son had stolen the pills and had a life-threatening problem. I knew it in my gut to be true beyond any doubt. Perhaps because I am a child of the 60s and knew too many friends who were lost to drug addiction: classmates who were drafted and came back from Vietnam addicted to heroin, and 2 college roommates who went to federal prison for smuggling cocaine as an airline stewardesses.  We also have a family history of alcohol abuse and addiction, which my mom told me way too many times.

I freaked out! I knew that he had to be addicted to do something so desperate as steal my sister’s pills. This explained everything – his money problems, dropping grades, and vague feelings of being sick.  I could not sleep for fear he would soon be dead. I confronted him in tears and said I knew he had stolen the Oxy. He of course denied it, but finally admitted he had stolen the pills. He admitted he was addicted to Oxy pills, which he had started using after being given a script for narcotic pills after a foot laceration.

I immediately called an addiction doctor I know and, in tears and panicking, offered to pay her anything if she could please help save my son.  She drove in from out of town and (at a high hourly rate) met with him and helped him realize he was an addict. She personally went with him to an NA meeting (she is a former cocaine addict and involved in NA). I would have paid anything for any chance to save him.

He went to the NA meeting and started to see addiction therapists, which we paid for, but he remained in denial. He kept saying it wasn’t a big deal and he could kick the habit. He went to some NA sessions, but over the course of 18 months he relapsed 3 times, each time worse than the last. During one of the relapses, he called his father to say goodbye after injecting what he thought was a fatal suicidal dose of black tar heroin in his arm. He had started getting the heroin from a “friend” – a former college football player who had been selling him Oxy and was now selling him heroin once he could no longer afford the street price of Oxy.

His father found him in his apartment unresponsive, but he survived.  He was so ashamed that he could not defeat the problem that he said he couldn’t live with the shame and did not find life worth living. We did family interventions and told him we would not give up on him and brought him to more therapists.

He almost died three more times. After the first relapse, I demanded to know his dealer’s name as I wanted to kill him.  I traced his phone calls (I was paying for his cell phone) and had repetitive thoughts about killing the demon who sold him the drugs and taught him to inject heroin.  I wasn’t sure how I could go on living if I lost him.

When using, he would not see me as he knew that I would know if he was using. So he moved to LA and declined rapidly.  His father went to see him and told me that I should go visit him, as he would not be alive long.  I did. He looked like a skeleton. He was taking Suboxone, as well as additional narcotics and probably other drugs.   I kept saying that I would pay for any addiction therapy he could find, but would never give up on him and not give a penny to his habit. My life was hell.

Thank God, he found an addiction therapist in LA (a former Vietnam vet heroin addict) who he really connected with. He started seeing this therapist while still using.  I got a “call” (God how we fear those calls!), but it was not that he had died. It was that he had voluntarily decided to go into “long term” drug rehab.  We found an inpatient facility in Utah that the addiction specialist recommended. I knew the enslaving power of heroin addiction and how statistically unlikely it was that he would voluntarily say goodbye to heroin.

I don’t know how he had the strength, but he got on the plane, flew to the University of Utah hospital where he admitted himself into the psych unit for several days of detox. He then voluntarily admitted himself into a Utah inpatient facility for 30 days, then into 90 days sober living, and then underwent 18 more months of therapy and voluntary monitored UAs.

My son is now 35 months completely clean, and is in medical school. He keeps track of every single day he is sober. He says that every day remains hard work. BUT, he has done the work and gotten his life back. He started exercising, working and studying steadily. He took premed courses and passed grueling medical school exams.

My son is now successfully finishing his first year of medical school.  He wants to be an addiction doctor and find a way to help others survive this hell.

I still worry about him every day.  But we cannot talk about this, as most people do not feel comfortable with the topic. I also need to not jeopardize my son’s career. He tells some people and is doing an internship this summer at rehabilitation clinic. He was open with them when he applied for the position.  He answers all questions honestly, but does not bring the topic up with others unless they are very close friends.

I have read every book about addiction that I can get my hands on, and some are excellent, such as “Beautiful Boy.”  But no other book so skillfully and adeptly addresses this huge crisis like yours, nor does any other book touch me in terms of what I have lived with like your book.

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Xalisco Boys – now in northern Ohio

In case anyone thought the Xalisco Boys – the heroin traffickers from Xalisco, Nayarit, which I write about in Dreamland — were an old Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 3.33.02 PMstory, there’s this recent bust from the Cleveland and northern Ohio areas.

The interesting part of this story is that they have apparently moved into the Cleveland market. I know they’re in Columbus, Nashville and Memphis, Indianapolis and elsewhere.

Until recently, apparently, they hadn’t made a move into northern Ohio, which seemed too close to Detroit, another heroin hotspot.

But things change in the underworld, particularly as the Xalisco Boys (delivering black-tar heroin like pizza with drivers and operators standing by) work like a lot of corporations in that they’re always competing with each other and seeking new sales territories.

Never ceases to amaze me how this system evolved and spread like a fast-food franchise – gaining special momentum after it arrived in 1998 in midwestern and Appalachian areas where pain pills were just then being massively over-prescribed.

That was the first example of a heroin distribution system discovering the market inherent in pain-pill overprescribing.

Here goes some of the above cited newspaper story:

“This group utilized numerous men to act as couriers to deliver the heroin to customers. Many of these couriers were brought illegally to the United States from the Nayarit/Tepic area of Mexico to the Painesville area with the promise of working on a farm or in an automobile garage. Once in Ohio, these individuals became couriers for the drug trafficking group, according to court documents and the FBI.”

Tepic is the capital of the state of Nayarit, which is on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Tepic is a few miles from Xalisco, where this system started and where the guys who started the system are from.

Dreamland-HCBig

 

 

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Another Family Steps Up – D.J. Wolanski RIP

Another family has stepped up to acknowledge in an obituary that a child has died of a heroin overdose.4318752_300x300_1

Daniel Joseph “DJ” Wolanski, of Mahoning County in Ohio, died April 20. Read his obituary.

It must be so difficult for this family to come forward and say this publicly. But this scourge has spread because so many people before them have kept quiet, allowing the rest of us to imagine that the problem really isn’t as bad as it has become.

So it’s important to acknowledge the courage of those who do step up, speak publicly.

The obituary reads….

“Over the course of DJ’s life, he made many bad decisions including experimenting with drugs. Unfortunately, his five year addiction and battle with heroin took over. His family and friends truly loved him and tried everything from being supportive to tough love as he struggled with his own inner demons and heroin. …

“DJ often talked about the growing number of friends that he had lost to this destructive drug and how it destroyed families. They used to say it takes a community to raise a child. Today, we need to say that it takes a community to battle addiction. Someone you know is battling addiction; if your “gut instinct” says something is wrong, it most likely is. Get involved. Do everything within your power to provide help. Don’t believe the logical sounding reasons of where their money is going or why they act so different. Don’t believe them when they say they’re clean.”

Profound words – the way to attack a drug that turns every addict into a silo, a loner wrapped in a cocoon – is through community.

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Why Pain Pill Addiction? One Nurse’s View

I’m on tour to promote Dreamland, and along the way I’ve have had conversations with parents of addicts, doctors, public health employees, and the public in general.

Often the conversation revolves around why this is a problem, and why it continues to be — if we see that massive Dreamland-HCBigprescribing of pain medication has clearly led to heroin addiction.

This letter from a nurse practitioner at a chronic-pain clinic in a  mid-sized town in the western United States helps explain.

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The clinic I work at has a reputation for liberal opioid/opiate prescribing and there is a culture of  dependency and codependency that has been instilled by the owner. Prior to coming to this clinic I worked in a psych and drug rehab hospital in a rural part of the United States for five years. I saw all the patients that became addicted first by pain medication or other means. It is a struggle for me everyday to know that I now contribute to this problem.

Every day I try to have the conversation with patients on what it would be like to get off the medication. Most patients tell me no one has ever had that conversation with them. It makes it that more difficult because then I look like the jerk that wants them off their meds when every provider before me told them they would be on pain medication their entire life.

I have developed a reputation as being a terrible provider by many of the clinic’s patients. The front desk asks my medical assistants what it is like working with me since all they hear is terrible things about me.

Many people talk about going after to the doctors to stop this opioid epidemic. The problems I see are patients with terrible insurance that doesn’t cover comprehensive pain management. What I am stuck with is a person with limited resources and a 20-minute appointment and sometimes all I have left is medication. Most of my patients get upset with me, and laugh when I give them breathing exercises to perform.

I don’t start many people on pain medication but I have kept many people on medications that I sometimes don’t feel comfortable prescribing. I go out of my way to try to find alternatives to pain medication for my patients. My hope is that one day pain management is taken out of primary care completely. Pain is too complex to dealt with in a 20-minute appointment.

The other issue is patient satisfaction. That is a huge issue in emergency departments. I have spoken with many ER docs and it seems a lot of the care is driven by customer satisfaction. Doctors fear bad reviews from patients. I think this drives a lot of the pain medication prescriptions in EDs. Because of this, I have seen some of my patients get opioid/opiate prescriptions for relatively minor medical issues.

I have found some positives. Most patients I discharge for multiple violations of their medication agreements never come back. The ones that do often turn out to be my favorite patients. When I don’t worry about prescribing controlled substances with patients then we often get to work on lifestyle changes like better management of their chronic conditions or quitting smoking.

Anyways… I probably have a lot more to say but that seems like enough. Thank you for your time.

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