(Photography: Kamelia Ani) Below is the speech Cook delivered to Morris Knolls High School in New Jersey. New Jersey is just one state of many where the heroin epidemic just isn't letting up. It is reported two people a day, on average, are overdosing. This, as well as her other efforts to combat the heroin epidemic and help families cope with addiction, will be featured in an upcoming PBS Documentary.
Heroin sucks. It really, really does. It sucks not just in the "man, that sucks" way but also in the literal way. It sucks the happiness out of homes. It sucks the trust out of relationships. It sucks the dreams from a peaceful night's sleep. It sucks the literal life out of those who use and those who watch those who use.
People still roll their eyes when I call addiction a disease. Yet, when I call it a FAMILY disease, I am not met with the same adversity. Something in the person breaks and they recognize, even but for a moment, that I am sick, physically and mentally ill, over what I watch unfold every day.
Maybe they can see it in my eyes. My very tired, dry, bloodshot eyes. Maybe they can feel it in my frail shoulder blades when they hug me and have no idea what to say other than "have you eaten today?" Maybe they can understand it when they hear me crying in the middle of the night even though I turned the shower and the sink on to kill the noise of my pain.
Yes, MY pain.
All because of a bag of powder that skulked into my life through the bloodstream of someone I love more than I can ever explain on paper.
I am never in denial. I know this drug. I know the statistics. I know the situation is dire. I know overdoses are killing more of us annually than automobile accidents. I know that one bag costs less than a meal at McDonalds. I know what Fentanyl, Subaxone, and Narcan are. I know why dealers stamp their wax folds. I know the third day of withdrawal is the worst. I know it costs $250 for a 45-minute session with a specialist who will just tell me everything I already know. "They need to want to save themselves."
I don't need to be an addict myself to know that it is poison. Each bag, a bullet. Each snort or injection, the spin of the cylinder. This is our generation's Russian Roulette.
(Photography: Kamelia Ani) Cook speaks to Morris Knolls High School in New Jersey about how heroin has affected her life as a picture of her and the cousin she lost to a heroin overdose projects on the screen behind her.
I am sad a lot of the time. A home where addiction is present is oftentimes a painful place to live. It is hard to watch someone you care about spiral out of control and become someone you have to squint at to recognize. Memories will flood your mind, as you scramble to latch on to one - just one -- happy reminiscence. It is difficult to see so clearly what their disease makes them so blind to: their own potential, their own worth, their own mortality.
I am angry a lot of the time. I used to feel guilty saying that. I've learned it's okay for me to say, even out loud, "I am the collateral damage in this. I didn't ask for this." I used to walk on eggshells and talk and act very deliberately. I was afraid that something I would say would push them to use, or even worse, give up on themselves. "You're dope sick? Well, I'm heart sick."
I am happy a lot of the time. Which is a really odd thing for me to say, right? Since I am also sad, angry, helpless, and confused most of the time too. If I learned anything from this, it is families are resilient. I am resilient. After a sleepless night of praying the phone won't ring, or praying it will, the sun will rise and another day of my life will begin. Dishes need to be washed, laundry needs to get done, birthdays need to be celebrated. Yes, some days I am mailing it in - the fears that come along with addiction are all consuming - but some days I do smile and mean it. "I have good days, and bad days, but never normal days."
To anyone going through this with a loved one -- I want you to know -- happy times can and will come again once you accept that you cannot "fix" your loved one. You simply (it's never simple) can't; but being helpless doesn't mean you help less. You can love them. You can support them. You can do everything in your power...everything but save them. I know as soon as I accepted this, I was able to let bits of joy enter my life again. This light didn't kill the darkness, but it brought with it moments of happiness and laughter nonetheless.
I beg you never abuse opioids like heroin, because that will be the first day of the end of your life. It is not a matter of "if" it will kill you, but "when." You are stronger than a lot of things, I am sure, but you are not stronger than this drug.
I pray that someone you love never tries it, for that is a pain I would not even wish on my worst enemy.
I used to hear "you can't let it get to you like this," or "just cut them out." Just cut them out -- as if they were nothing more than a one dimensional character on a poorly written crime drama. I am met with sympathy now, but more so, sadly, I am met with complete and utter understanding from people who can directly identify with my situation. As more and more families are affected by addiction, I hear less and less from the peanut galleries in both my real life and the comment sections of my articles. Perhaps they are too busy still thinking it could never happen to them. Or, more realistically, they are terrified that it can.
To read more of Cook's writings on addiction, check out her series, "The Other Side of Addiction." She is donating the proceeds from her latest book, Stuff I've Been Feeling Lately, to the Willow Tree Center in NJ to help families where addiction is present.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.