I continue to receive letters from parents whose children have been consumed in America’s opiate epidemic. Here is one:
Your book, Dreamland, does an excellent job of outlining how the convergence of the pharmaceutical environment with heroin trafficking from Mexico over the last two decades provided the avenue for the addiction that killed my son. I believe his story is the third leg of your book.
Sam was born in 1994. The next year, OxyContin was approved. Sam was a sweet toddler when Purdue began its aggressive and misleading marketing campaign for the drug. Meanwhile, Sam’s dad was writing a masters thesis on heroin production in Colombia — it was becoming so pure, he pointed out, that it could be snorted or smoked, avoiding the stigma of needles and making its way into the mainstream.
By 2000, when Sam was six and entering first grade, revenues from OxyContin had quadrupled. The initial 80 mg pill had given way to a 160 mg pill to account for increasing tolerance among patients. Purdue’s sales force had doubled and salespeople were receiving annual bonuses of $70,000 and above.
In 2001, when Sam was seven, Purdue was spending $200 million in marketing and had pinpointed doctors who tended to prescribe lots of pain medication for aggressive marketing campaigns. Sam began to face some bullying in school.
By 2002, Purdue knew of doctors who were recklessly prescribing its drug. Sam continued to struggle to fit in at school. It began to affect his mood and motivation.
Between 1999 and 2010 (the year Sam turned 16) Oxycontin prescriptions and overdose deaths quadrupled. Swapping pills became the new form of partying in the schools. Sam found a way to fit in and feel good all at once.
Meanwhile, heroin from Mexico had been making its way north, poised to fill the gap when opioid pharmaceuticals became harder and more expensive to obtain. Sam found his way to that solution.
My beautiful and beloved son, Samuel Logan Chappell, died of a heroin overdose in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 7, 2015.
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.
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 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 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
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.”
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.
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 student 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.
Another family has stepped up to acknowledge in an obituary that a child has died of a heroin overdose.
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.
As I’ve spent the last year-plus writing a book about the opiate abuse epidemic in America, I’ve come across some remarkable people in times of frightening stress.
Along the way I encountered one of the most poignant pages on FB. It’s called The Addict’s Mom, run by Barbara Theodosiou, a Florida PR consultant and mother of two addicts, one in recovery and one in jail. She set up the site a few years ago feeling that no one could understand her but another mother of an addict.
The site now has 12,000 members. They are American mothers who write in the rawest, most honest terms about the arguments, jail, kids who lie and steal from grandparents, prison, their children homeless, raising their children’s children, mortgaging all they own to send their kids to $40,000 rehabs, the joy of seeing a child 200 days clean, and the terror of the late-night phone call, or policeman’s knock on the door.
I hope to be quoting some of these posts, without names, simply because they, like poetry, evoke stories you can imagine in full. (Note: AS=Addicted Son.) Here’s one that I’ve broken out from the original prose into verse:
I have found myself planning my AS’s funeral in my mind.
Recently I have even found myself praying for God to at least take one of us because the pain is just too much.
And then I step back and ask myself what kind of mother could pray for death for one of her own children !?!
I feel horrible even putting these words on paper but i just need to let it out.
I am tired of fighting this fight.
I am tired of seeing my only son destroy himself.
I am tired of all the arguments with him.
I am tired of living with fear of getting that ‘phone call’.
I just don’t know how much longer he can survive at the rate he is using .