Being the mother of an addict thrust me into a world I never wanted to visit yet alone live in. This world was full of chaos, lies and feelings of both helplessness and hopelessness. I referred to this time as the roller coaster ride from hell. One day things are looking up, full of hope and promise, the next day life was spiraling out of control. Addiction was like that. Giving you the illusion of control. Controlling the addict. Controlling your reaction to the addiction. Controlling anything you could get your hands on.
During this time I received a front row seat, hands on education into the world of addiction. At first I bought into the mindset that addiction was a self inflicted condition. That if my son really wanted to stop he would. I never understood the assault being inflicted on his brain and body by the opioids he used daily until the day he decided to detox at home. It wasn't by choice. He blew through his monthly supply in two weeks and had no money to add to his supply. Being a nurse I wasn't afraid. I really was so naive and knew very little about what to expect.
The first day wasn't too bad. Some shakes, sweats, nausea and irritability. By the second day I was panicked. His body was raging war with itself. I was witnessing a medical nightmare. If I had any pills I would have demanded he take them to stop the madness. I learned from that experience that addiction was not self inflicted. Addicts must continue to use in order to live. If they don't the brain and nervous system wage a war the addict will never survive.
During this time I also learned that society's mindset is addicts are disposable people. That their lives just don't matter. After all they are a drain on the system. About 1 in 6 unemployed workers are substance abusers, and are perceived to be living on welfare and getting free health care. What the public doesn't see is the person behind the disease.
My son was a beautiful man. He worked, paid bills and taxes. A back injury led to surgery that led to chronic pain. That pain led him to become one of the many victims of a pain management practice in Delaware. These pill mill docs lined their pockets with cash while supplying a steady source of brain altering drugs. Knowing that as time went on their patients would become addicted to the poison they prescribed.
No one faults the prescribers, those who are licensed to push pills. It's easier to blame the victim, the addict. No one would dare think that a doctor would cause harm. Doctors are held in high esteem. The God complex. After all doctors are trained to save lives. Do no harm is their oath. What many people don't realize is that all doctors are not created equal. The problem with abuse isn't just from illicit use, but from the legitimate prescribing of Opioids. It's big business for drug companies and doctors.
So here we are again. Blaming the addict. The victims of a broken system. Victims caught in a trap that has no escape. Victims of a disease so powerful that it changes the physiology of the brain. The brain turns on the owner. As the opioid receptors multiply the brain forgets how to make natural endorphins. It becomes dependent on drugs to give the same effect that their body would be able to produce prior to addiction. In other words, addicts are screwed.
Not only do addicts battle a powerful brain-altering disease, they also have to battle the stigma and bias. Public perception of addiction is a big part of the problem. People believe addiction is self inflicted. Addicts chose to use. No one gets the fact that addiction is not a choice. It's not a lifestyle. It's a chronic, treatable disease, just like cancer. Except with cancer comes sympathy. With addiction comes stigma. No one likes an addict. They are disposable people. They chose their lifestyle. Who cares if they die.
This mindset historically has permeated through the medical community. What other disease is limited in a time frame of care and follow up? Addiction receives 30 days per year for allowable in-patient or out patient care. That means if the addict can't get completely detoxed, find a rehab and fly through the treatment plan in a mere 30 days they are dropped from the system and must wait until they overdose to receive any further life saving treatment. Yet, no one blames this broken system. A system that is set up to fail those suffering from addiction. The blame once again falls on the addicts.
Never before has the perception surrounding addiction been more in the limelight than recently. First responders verbalizing feelings when responding to the scene of a medical emergency. An overdose. People who never had to live through the hell of being an addict or ever felt the pain of loving an addict. Showing their ignorance regarding the value of human life. People trained to save but unable to see past the disease to the person suffering from it. To think that an addict is not worth saving or doesn't deserve to live. It's this mindset that continues to hurt the perception of addiction as a disease. To think that human beings could show such callousness toward one another.
Before passing judgement on an addict please imagine what it must be like to be one. To suffer from the most demoralizing, misunderstood, stigmatized disease. A disease that no one recognizes. A disease that carries the ugliest stereotype. To feel like a nobody. Unworthy of being loved. The world has given up on you and left you for dead.
Now imagine being the mother of an addict. A mother whose child grew up and became a victim of overprescribing physicians. A victim whose chronic pain changed him into one of the 44,000 people who overdosed and died in 2015. Imagine my pain and horror. My anger at those responsible for promoting the stigma that continues to fuel the idea that addicts are not worthy of comprehensive treatment to save their lives.
No one grows up with the goal to become an addict. Yet addicts come from all walks of life. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, and politicians all beautiful people falling prey to a disease that kills. Just like cancer or diabetes, addiction must be treated with respect and empathy. We must change the bias that fuels the stigma. Addicts are dying in record numbers. All worthy of being saved. Every life matters.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.