August 31st is International Overdose Awareness Day. I did not know this was a thing until I saw a brief piece about it in this morning on TV. Later today while in the car I heard a song that I associate with the torment of addiction. I remember playing it for a large group I was leading when I worked in rehab. While in the car I began to sob, thinking about this illness and a few of the people I lost to overdose. The deadly drug Fentanyl is often to blame in many of these instances. They were all young and had so much life left to live.
When I was new to my career in my early twenties , I worked with people who had serious mental illness. Many of them struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, but this was not always obvious to those who worked with them. I recall two of my clients within a year or so died accidently due to substance abuse related causes. I was not aware they were abusing drugs or alcohol and I wondered what was I doing wrong. I realize now that this condition is both complex and systemic. Addicts often excel at hiding their usage, at least for awhile.
I don’t think I mentioned this on the blog before but the main reason I switched from working in mental health to addiction services in 2017 was to see if I could be part of the solution. A few years prior a young family member of mine was found dead of an apparent accidental opioid overdose. She was quite young and left behind a son. My brother in law helped his brother ( her father) identify her body. This decimated his family. While I was not a close relative of this young woman, I watched both her and her sister grow up over the years at holidays and at important occasions like weddings, the birth of a child, and funerals. I worry about my nieces who may have inherited the genes for addiction. It is quite heavy for children to lose a cousin in this way, not to mention this baby born to two young addicts who will have to live his life without his mother. Addiction is a family disease.
I still work with a few clients who recently relapsed and a few who grew up in families with addiction ( ACOA). I realized eventually that I am not really strong enough to work exclusively with this population. I am grateful that I had the courage to switch specialties late in life and do what I could to be of service. I learned so much and use many of these skills in my current practice. However, I don’t fare well when young people needlessly die.
If you or someone you love is abusing drugs and/or alcohol, please reach out for help. While our system in the US is flawed, there are many ways to get some support or treatment. Don’t wait until you have to go identify a body.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service), or TTY: 1-800-487-4889 is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.
This post is dedicated to Nick, Paul, and Maria, along with all the families who have lost someone to this disease and all the souls who could no longer find their way back to safety.