The Heroin Holocaust
The idea to make curing cancer America’s next “moonshot” first came from Vice President Joe Biden. If Joe Biden’s son were a heroin addict, then he would have been as disappointed as I was when, for the first time in 8 years, The President of the United States declared addiction a disease in his final State of the Union address. Seizing upon the frightening upwards trend of opioid abuse and heroin use overdose deaths, President Obama stated that preventing opioid abuse and heroin use was a major priority for his final year in office. https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/02/01/preventing-epidemic-opioid-abuse-and-heroin-use
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, commonly referred to as the CDC, has declared heroin use an epidemic http://time.com/4204268/president-obama-heroin-epidemic/. The CDC defines “epidemic” as “[t]he occurrence of more cases of disease than expected in a given area or among a specific group of people over a particular period of time.” The study of epidemiology is the study of how diseases spread, and the categorization of heroin use under this field of study was decades long overdue. Epidemics create researchers and require the heroic selflessness of dedicated groups of individuals like Doctors Without Borders http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/ as they almost single-handedly prevented the worst epidemic in recent history—the Ebola epidemic–from destroying millions of lives in under a year on the west coast of Africa http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/pushed-limit-and-beyond. The American scientific community, with the support of government agencies, has proven time and again that they have the fortitude to face down epidemics and manage the devastation wreaked upon at-risk populations. Most importantly, they know how to do so without needlessly imprisoning over 2 million people, an incarcerated percentage of our citizenry which practically defies hyperbole http://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/. However, if an analogous example is needed, consider this: America, that shining beacon of freedom, currently has a higher percentage of its populace behind bars than Soviet Russia at the height of the Stalinist purges and its notorious gulag archipelago. The idea that we cannot remove this ignominious blemish from the face of our national character is preposterous. However, knowing how to do it and possessing the national will to do it are two different things.
My two heroes are my father (http://www.shellowandshellow.com/history.shtml) and Jonas Salk. My mother, Gilda B. Shellow, was a Polio survivor. There are two things I remember about lumbar punctures, the first is that when my mother was sick they would put an ether mask over her nose and mouth to silence the screams, a memory which resides in a tearful reserve of my psyche. The next thing I remember about lumbar punctures is the voice of my mother saying to the nurse, “I had a cup of sweat in my brassiere.” I have no recollection of the lumbar puncture itself, but I can remember my awkward childish embarrassment at my mother using the word brassiere. Though I never saw the needle go in, I knew it was there and the effects of it were clear. It is from her survivor spirit that I get my passion to help families where addiction has come like a thief in the night and stolen their child. As a country, we can no longer leave the room or silence the screams of so many of our national family who have been left to face the needle alone. Call it what you want, but the willful ignorance of those in power has had a hand in killing America’s sons and daughters just as if they had stuck in the poison needle themselves. They know or at least have read about epidemics, wars, diseases, the plague, and are presumably smart enough to see the parallels with the crisis amongst opioid addiction and heroin deaths currently ravaging the country. However, there is a qualitative difference between understanding a crisis through statistics on paper and experiencing the problem firsthand. Inasmuch, I must excuse and grieve with Vice President Joe Biden for being among the earliest and most vocal politicians to address the issue of opioid addiction. Vice President Biden gets it, he knows the pain of losing a child to cancer, and while in the senate fought as a lone-wolf alongside Families Against Mandatory Minimums to reduce the sentences of low-level dealers and users, as they disproportionately impact African-American men http://famm.org/sentencing-101/.
Our Vice president is what I call “heart smart”. Vice President Biden knows, as Judge Kevin S. Burke wrote upon the passing of Senator George McGovern in reference to the Senator’s long-suffering alcoholic daughter, that “If heaven has a special place for fathers and daughters, Sen. George McGovern is now with his daughter Terry. Hopefully an eternity of happiness and joy lie ahead.” https://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2012/10/mcgovern-and-his-daughter-terry-what-we-can-learn. Vice President Biden also knew a family named Kennedy and wept when Boston Globe columnist and Kennedy friend, Ellen Goodman, wrote a column on the death of David Kennedy. She said if I could invent a pill that I could give to every parent who has ever felt the abandonment of leaving their son or daughter at a treatment center, sat in the back of a courtroom or accompanied a parent to a grave site, I would do so and give up my day job. If she didn’t use those exact words, please grant me a plenary indulgence, as she owns those words. Much like Ms. Goodman, every time I meet the parent of a heroin addict, I too want to be the inventor of that vaccine or pill and would gladly give up my day job. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1984/04/28/david-kennedy-the-mystery/18bbc62e-48c5-43c4-951c-a5aebf3963dd/. And for those amongst us who reach for our credit cards during a pledge drive for PBS, Fighting Joe is one of many who opened his wallet and his heart during the pledge drives on www.pbs.org when we remembered the courage and love it took a great father and journalist named Bill Moyers to tell the story of his son’s addiction. http://billmoyers.com/series/moyers-on-addiction-close-to-home-1998/
Regrettably, I find myself embarrassed and angry that our first African-American president has done nothing to relieve the suffering of so many. Perhaps while in middle school, or at the University of Chicago, maybe he didn’t read the book Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. www.racematters.org/manchildinthepromisedland.htm Had he read the book, he would know that the epidemic which has brought overwhelming grief to so many of our doorsteps lives in his house too. Whether we call it a disease, a war, an epidemic or the plague, we are experiencing a veritable heroin holocaust. From the cities to the suburbs and back again, so many gave chosen to ignore it, and will continue to do so, until it knocks upon their door.
Our brains have a cord running to an electrical outlet called Opiates. Once the circuit breaker is flipped and the outlet becomes live, opiates travel the entirety of our brains on mini streetcars called neuro-transmitters. Opioid users have electrical impulses that are ignited in their brain stems. Residing in our brain stems are the fight or flight response that dictates that when the mountain lion is at our door to either run to call the DNR or shoot the mountain lion. When the switch has been activated, the signal from our hearts to our brains is 50 times stronger than our brains to our heart. Our limbic system goes into over drive and our feelings replace our thoughts. Our hearts start pounding. The familiar feeling of panic steps in and, whether it is the craving for food that keeps us all alive or thirst, our brain is on survival mode and all systems but one receive the emergency 911 call. The only part of our brain that is not alerted to this emergency 911 call is called the neo-cortex. The neo-cortex was developed after the brain stem that controls those very basic pre-mammalian instincts. It is new to homo sapiens and, as we evolved into tool-using creatures and cognitive processes competed with lower brain stem and limbic system railways, the neo-cortex evolved and became the last to alert us about danger and hunger and thirst and pain. We have all had the experience of stepping into a hot bath and our neo-cortex, or what we now call executive functioning, takes the longest to get our foot out of the water. That is because scientists have discovered that the same kinds of cells that are activated when the mountain lion is at the door and creates that heart pounding fear also reside in the chambers of our heart. However, the reaction from our heart to our brain is 50 times more powerful than from our brain to our heart. So once the circuit breaker is flipped on and opiates are introduced, God helps us. The result is we act without thinking, whether you are a doctor whose brain says “feed me another opiate pill” or a kid robbing a gas station to pay for heroin, the part of the brain that says “let me weigh the consequences” receives the information after it is too late. Using addicts experience remorse and shame, but those complex and slow-developing feelings don’t stand a chance when pitted in a race against the supercharged, lightning fast craving impulses of the opioid addicted brain. It’s like putting a sensible and environment-conscious Prius up against a flashy, high-revving Formula One race car at the Indy 500. Sure, shame and remorse will make it around the track and we will all dutifully clap politely, but only after watching heroin lap the Prius a dozen times over.
Let me be the first to go on record saying it is not because the medicine cabinet of their baby boom parents contain more drugs than they used too. People have been stealing drugs from medicine chests at posh parties for decades. Quaaludes, anyone? It has been said that 24 percent of adults who are invited to social gatherings take a quick gander through the host’s medicine chests between the pot stickers, sushi and mini-Reubens served by the hostesses of every engagement soiree, political fund raiser and symphony benefit Martha’s Vineyard to Marin County. It may be true that the Robern medicine chests (http://www.robern.com/products/medicine-cabinets/) have a greater assortment, but often the food supplements are 10 to 1 greater than the mind altering drugs. So, the bad news is that, unlike the attempts to bomb the train lines to the death camps of WWII, even with the pinpoint-accurate, drone-operated smart bombs of today, the United States can’t bomb its way out of this enemy. We have met the enemy, and he is our sons and daughters, our aunts and uncles, our friends and neighbors. If we try to bomb these train lines, we all die of thirst, hunger and the mountain lion walks right in and snatches yet another child. Like a thief in the night.
On Wednesday, I will be posting the second part of this series about addiction and the law. A good clinical outcome helps determine a good criminal justice outcome. Yes, the mountain lion can be kept at bay. Don’t throw your opioid-addicted or heroin-abusing loved ones to the mountain lion. Help is on the way.
Part Two coming this week. SUBSCRIBE NOW so you don’t miss it.