I have a friend who was once a heroin addict long before I knew him.
Even after he quit, he still remained friends with his fellow addicts, perhaps with the hope of helping them quit as well. Once, while discussing his past, he mentioned that during that time, the thing he dreaded most was the phone call. I didn’t understand what he meant, so I asked him to elaborate. He explained that the phone call was something you’d hope to never get, that your friends would stop using before it got to that point, but you’d always dread that day and, when the phone call came, it was always upsetting, but never a surprise. After years of knowing many addicts, the phone call would, in fact, come to be more expected than anything else.
Even though at that point in my life I didn’t really know any addicts, I held onto that concept. Something about it haunted me.
Russell Brand even referenced the dreaded phone call in an article on Amy Winehouse: “When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction you await the phone call. There will be a phone call. The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves, telling you they’ve had enough, that they’re ready to stop, ready to try something new. Of course though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or relative telling you it’s too late, she’s gone.”
Little did I know I was wading in similarly foreboding waters.
I had befriended a fellow writer during a particularly low point in my life. I had just come out of an extreme trauma and she helped raise me up and inspire me. It took me several years before I realized she was an addict.
There were telltale signs. She’d call and inexplicably ask for money. At the time, I was broke and didn’t have anywhere near the kind of funds she was seeking. I always thought it odd, too, that she was so desperate for cash. She was the daughter of a prolific, bestselling author and even had a slew of books in her own name. Between her inherited royalties and her own, she was making a decent amount of money per month. More than I’d ever made doing any job. I’d wonder, Where’d all her money go? When pressed, she always had crazy stories of scammers and family drama.
Other times, I’d show up at her place to visit her and it’d be fairly obvious she hadn’t showered or changed her clothes in days. I thought she was merely depressed, but would later learn that it was the drugs.
She had rheumatoid arthritis and her doctors prescribed her pretty heavy opioids. She also had several different doctors so if she ran out of her prescription early, she could get another doctor to write a new prescription. And because she was fairly wealthy, she could pay out of pocket and never worry about restrictions that insurance puts on how many pills one can get per month.
It took awhile for her to confide her habit to me and, when she finally did, she admitted she was ashamed of it. She told me all this while sucking on a morphine lollipop with her eyes rolling back in her head.
I wish I had understood what she was going through better. I wish I could have figured out a way to help her. The thing is, she was in legitimate pain because of her condition, but that condition was clearly compounded by her addiction.
I wish there was something she could have taken to ease the pain that wasn’t also highly addictive and dangerous.
She didn’t want to be an addict, but when she ran out of meds and money at the end of the month, she’d go into horrible withdrawal that left her unable to function. She’d be shaking and vomiting and wouldn’t leave her apartment for days. She’d disappear on me, not answering phone calls or email.
Then she’d pop up out of the blue, inviting me over for coffee like nothing had happened, telling me stories with a sparkle in her eyes and an infectious giggle. I’d know then that she’d gotten her next royalty check and a new bottle of pills or bag of pops.
I wanted to believe she could handle herself, her meds. I wanted to believe we’d be good friends until we were old and gray. She brought out the best in me and I hoped I did the same for her. We’d plot and scheme new ideas — some that we actually executed, others that we shelved after careful consideration. We’d laugh for hours and she’d regale me with stories of another time, another life. She was older than me and I looked up to her as a mentor.
I should have known it was a possibility. My old friend’s story about the phone call would pop up in my head, but I’d bat it away. My new friend wasn’t a junky. She didn’t shoot heroin. She only had a little problem with her prescription pills that she took for real, chronic pain. It wasn’t the same thing. Or so I told myself.
Then one day her boyfriend posted a cryptic message on Facebook that got me worried. It was something about finding the person you love unconscious and having to call 911. Immediately, I called my friend:
“Are you okay?”
“I read something odd on Facebook.”
A pause. “What did you read?”
I told her.
“Oh, that… I don’t want you to be alarmed, but I had an overdose. I’m fine now, though.”
I burst into tears.
“You know, you’re the only one of my friends who picked up on that message and called to check on me.”
“Please, be careful” was all I could say in reply.
We chatted some more. She reassured me that she’d be all right, that it wouldn’t happen again, that she’d be careful…
Before I hung up, I told her I loved her.
That was the last time I spoke to her.
The next phone call came a few weeks later. Her boyfriend called to say he’d found her unconscious on the floor again, but this time the paramedics couldn’t rouse her.
My husband had taken the call. After he hung up, he walked in from the porch and I instantly knew by the look on his face that something was terribly wrong.
Her name was all he muttered before he broke down.
“What?” I froze, my heart sinking and my stomach flipping. “What happened to her?”
“Gone where?” My brain had stopped functioning.
My friend had died.
I wasn’t surprised, but I was shocked.
I dropped to my knees, no longer able to stand on my own, and wept into my husband’s strong arms. All I could say was no, over and over again. I cried so hard, I couldn’t breathe, and began to hyperventilate. Then the strangest thing happened…
The air around me became electric, like the atmosphere before a thunderstorm. I felt a hand press softly on my shoulder, though there was no hand. My body instantly calmed at the unseen touch. I ceased crying and caught my breath.
A voice like a whisper in my ear said, “It’s okay, Melissa, I’m free now.”
To this day, I don’t know whether she actually visited me from beyond to bring me peace or if it was my subconscious kicking in to get me to breathe, but I do know she didn’t want to die. Yes, her pain was over, but she’d been full of life and her addiction had robbed this world of a beautiful mind with stories left to tell.
Currently, the rumor is that Prince was addicted to opioids and overdosed accidentally. We’ll have to wait and see the toxicology report before that becomes conclusion instead of speculation. Yet, if he did have a habit, was he ashamed? And could that shame have cost him his life? Too afraid to admit to anyone he had a problem…
And if it’s true, then it’s another example of the many lives lost to addiction, be it to street drugs or prescription pills. Family, friends, icons. Storytellers, musicians, sons, daughters. Lost to the clutches of indiscriminate addiction.
We have to do something as a society to cut back on the over-usage and dependence of opioids.
One path to examine is finding an alternative aid for pain.
Years ago, when I suffered chronic pain from ovarian cysts, before I figured out what caused them on my own, all my doctors did for me was prescribe Vicodin. I refused to take it. I didn’t want to put a pharmaceutical band-aid on my pain; I wanted to find the cause and prevent it.
It took me years of trial and error, but I figured it out — and I’m nowhere near being a doctor.
There must be someone out there — if not many people — far more qualified than me who can figure out the cause of (at the very least) the physical ailments oft met with opioid prescriptions. Or, if not that, then someone who can find a preventative cure for pain, or a substitute painkiller that is not highly addictive and deadly.
Another path to investigate further is what actually causes addiction. Why is it that one person can take Vicodin for a few days for, say, tooth pain, then cease usage without issue, while another person doing the exact same thing becomes addicted and seeks out more of the drug, or similar drugs, once the pill bottle runs out?
Johann Hari tackled this very dilemma in an article titled, “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think”, in which he referenced an advertisement from the 1980s wherein two different sets of caged rats were presented with water bottles. One of the water bottles was tainted with opioids, the other not. The rats with the drug water used so much that each rat ended up killing itself, every time. The ad was meant as a cautionary tale for drug use and how anyone using any kind of opioid even once could become an addict immediately, for no other reason than the drug itself was highly addictive:
“But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
“In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.
“The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.”
Thus, theoretically, those of us who are content with our lives and our environments are less likely to succumb to the evils of addiction than those of us who live less happy lives…
I know my friend was severely unhappy at times. She had lost both her parents, and with them, her once even more lavish lifestyle, marked by a doting father and co-authored NY Times best sellers. Long ago, she had also escaped an extremely controlling cult that left her a broken human. She had fallen in love with the cult leader, failing to realize he was a charlatan. Once ensnared in his clutches, she gave away much of her possessions and wealth, devoting her life to his, only to be bullied and shunned by his fellow followers. In her youth, she had been a multimillionaire with a mansion near San Francisco, yet after her dealings with the cult and the loss of her parents, she was left with her monthly royalties and a two-bedroom apartment in Los Feliz. It was around that time when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and began her ill-fated affair with prescription opioids.
Last October, President Obama announced a new plan to curb the heroin and prescription drug abuse epidemic currently plaguing the nation. During his speech, he said, “More Americans now die every year from drug overdoses than they do from motor vehicle crashes… The majority of these overdoses involve legal prescription drugs.”
One of those overdoses was my friend.
“Since 1999, sales of powerful pain medication have skyrocketed by 300 percent.”
Why? Has the actual need for such strong, highly addictive painkillers risen 300 percent in that time? Or is it more a matter of over-prescribing opioids?
“And as their use has increased, so has their misuse. Some folks are prescribed these medications for good reason, but they become addicted because they’re so powerful.”
Or because those who become addicted suffer from chemical or environmental depression. As stated in Johann Hari’s article, “At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was — at the same time as the Rat Park experiment — a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War. Time magazine reported using heroin was ‘as common as chewing gum’ among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.
“But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.
“Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.”
We have known since the 1970s — four decades ago — that (1) opioids are highly addictive and (2) the environment plays a huge role in whether or not one becomes addicted. Thus, in addition to controlling the amount of opioids prescribed, we should also address the causes of individual addiction. It is not simply those seeking to party or those suffering a disease we must be mindful toward, but, perhaps, those self-medicating their otherwise melancholy lives. Change the cage, heal the addict.
The Washington Post further pointed out that during a panel discussion on opioid abuse with President Obama “one West Virginia woman, Carey Dixon, gave an emotional account of what it was like being a family member of an addict, fearful of phone calls and the absence of phone calls.”
Her words struck a chord with me, echoing the words of my old friend and Russell Brand, as well as the actions — and absence thereof — of my addicted friend. The weeks that flew by never hearing from her, then the dreaded call that she was gone, having succumbed to an opioid overdose.
According to many articles found online, America leads the way in opioid use, with one site, www.allgov.com, stating that “studies have shown the United States, with less than 5% of the world’s population, uses 80% of the global supply of opioid drugs.”
Isn’t it time for a change? Isn’t it time to focus on preventative care?
Haven’t we lost enough lives?
Or do opioids generate so much profit for the pharmaceutical companies that the loss of life, to them, is worth what is gained?
Can we not make a difference?
I can’t get my friend back, but, maybe, if we all work together, we can prevent or, at the very least, lessen the number of future overdoses and dreaded phone calls.
I still miss my dear friend every day.
I would give anything to hear her laugh again.
Would give anything for her to be alive, and out of pain.
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