Over the past decade I have been a quiet observer of opiate-related data. I skimmed opiate-related headlines with one eye open, holding my breath, searching for information on fentanyl outbreaks or promising new treatments. The news was a matter of life and death: My brother was addicted to heroin.
When opiate use increased nationwide, I knew I wasn’t alone, even though I felt completely isolated. When trends shifted downward, I held hope that Matt might recover, and our family would find peace again.
While the first half of 2020 has seen a marked increase in drug overdoses, the headlines now only haunt me. In May, my brother, a 43-year-old attorney and father of five, became a statistic.
As a younger brother, Matt was lovable and goofy. He had a mop of thick strawberry hair and a face full of freckles. Our mother said that’s where the angels kissed his cheeks on the way in. Growing up in the late ’80s, he kept our family of five laughing by quoting entire movies. “Tommy Boy” was his go-to recitation. Matt was a lot like Chris Farley: They had the same enthusiastic, insecure, teddy-bear kind of charm. As a teen and throughout adulthood he joyfully followed the Grateful Dead, Phish and Widespread Panic.
Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as a child, Matt started taking Ritalin as a boy, then never stopped. He became an attorney, and departed for 12-hour days at the office with an amber prescription bottle clutched in his fist, openly celebrating the drug that allowed him to concentrate.
Following an emergency appendectomy in 2012, Matt, then 35, became hooked on painkillers. In a few short years he progressed from OxyContin to heroin. He chased them with benzodiazepines like Xanax and Klonopin. His athletic frame became bloated and heavy; his sunny disposition turned lethargic and mean.
When he was unable to maintain his law practice, clients left. Although he was admitted to the bar in four states, his licenses expired. His salary trickled down to nothing. The state came after him for back taxes. His wife eventually left, saying he was a liability to their children.
Our family life dissolved into a nightmarish cycle of rehabs and relapses. My parents finally cut off monetary support when they found him unconscious in their living room, fresh off his second stay in rehab. After three tries, Matt told us rehab didn’t work, and that he did drugs there, too. We sought therapists, psychiatrists and alternative treatments.
“You can’t change me,” he told us.
Soon Matt’s friends and colleagues moved on, embarrassed when he was high on the golf course or nodding off at lunch. He ripped a plastic bat from a child’s hands and smashed a piñata to bits at a family picnic. As the children plucked bits of candy from the grass, he sped down the driveway in his black sedan.
My husband insisted I seek counseling, since the pressure of constant worry was preventing me from enjoying my own young family. My therapist agreed with my brother: I couldn’t change him. I could only change my own behaviors in the predictable saga that surrounded me. She warned that Matt might die young, but I never imagined we would lose him in the isolation of a pandemic.
By March, Matt had cut off most communication with our family, including his ex-wife and his children. On the occasions when I talked with him on FaceTime, he seemed tired and bloated. Sometimes he slurred words. Due to travel restrictions, he was unable to fly to visit his kids, who lived in another state. He often said his children were his reason for living.
Finally, he was unable to rely on his one responsibility: his job. Although addiction made it impossible for him to work as an attorney, he found gratification as a shipping clerk at a memorabilia shop. He was well liked by his fellow employees. The job gave him a place to go each day, and an income. When COVID restrictions hit and the shop closed, he lost his place to go, and the income he used to pay for the room he rented in a shared townhouse.
When his ex-wife called me late at night on May 15, I knew something was wrong. Matt had been found unresponsive, locked in his room. He had accidentally overdosed on a cocktail of drugs that included heroin.
When my 68-year-old father succumbed to a terminal illness in 2016, we mourned according to our Christian traditions: relatives and friends attended a wake supper of tearful toasts, then packed shoulder-to-shoulder at a pipe-organ funeral in downtown Baltimore the next day. My brother’s death was different.
Due to social distancing restrictions and the stigma of addiction, there would be no celebratory supper. At a graveside internment, our tiny group of (masked, sanitized) immediate family kept six feet from the priest. Instead of late nights, rollicking stories, friends and a fridge full of deli platters, we were left with only the void of losing him. A stunned wondering: How did this happen to us?
In addition to opiate abuse, methamphetamine and cocaine are on the rise again. Fentanyl and synthetic opioids continue to infiltrate communities. One health care official labeled the 30-plus states with increased overdoses a map of despair.
I am worried for other addiction families facing situations like ours. I am worried for families that haven’t seen or heard from their loved ones, or can’t reach them because they can’t physically get to them. It’s easy for someone to hide during COVID. (I know this, because I am hiding in my grief. I stay housebound, and find it hard to communicate with friends and even family.)
People suffering from addiction face an increased risk of mortality due to the pandemic, robbed of socialization, routine and access to care. The supports have fallen away. For many people who live with addiction, there is an added element of shame.
For some people, a job or a meeting was their reason to get out of bed each day. Overnight, those incentives changed, or went away entirely. In their place: kids facing Zoom algebra, dwindling finances, nowhere to go and nothing to do.
Addicts who suffer a fatal overdose, like my brother, are now screened for COVID before any drug testing occurs. But feelings of despair, shame and lack of support due to the virus can’t be measured.
While society may dictate otherwise, I refuse to hide anymore, or feel ashamed that my brother suffered from heroin addiction. But between his isolation, and mine, I won’t call him a statistic of the opiate crisis. We are victims of two different kinds of crippling isolation, both brought on by the pandemic. His loneliness was cut short. But my grief will be eternal.
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Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.