Thursday, September 3, 2015

Overdose Awareness Day - A Father's Story

The following post was written for Phoenix House for Overdose Awareness Day, August 31st, 2015.  It appeared originally on the Phoenix House website.  It was also broadcast that evening on WJFF - Public Radio, Jeffersonville, NY - 90.5  FM.

It has been more than two and a half years since my son, William, succumbed to a heroin overdose.  His last time in the emergency room was certainly not the only time his addiction had brought him there.  Like Russian Roulette, risk of death is inherent in any heroin use, at any time.  William knew this, but simply being aware was not enough to save his life. This time, his disease fatally overcame his awareness.   
Today is International Overdose Awareness Day. Its goals are laudable— to raise awareness of the risks of overdose and reduce the stigma of drug-related death. History has shown that public awareness toward stigmatized illnesses is an important step toward reducing fatalities.  And yet, when I asked several friends –mothers whose children have battled drug addiction, individuals in recovery – about their reaction to the day, some expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of dedicating one day to overdose awareness.    
As one person remarked “All these ‘days.’ … [Overdose] happens Every Single Day.”  She went on to tell me how she’d been brooding over New York City’s 12 unfortunate deaths from Legionnaire’s Disease—each one a tragic loss—and the intensity of the media coverage and the City’s response to the crisis. However appropriate the reaction was, when compared to the response to our opioid epidemic, which has claimed magnitudes more lives—“It speaks volumes, or rather shrieks volumes,” she said.

I share their skepticism of what a single day can do.  This is, for example, the third time Overdose Awareness Day has been recognized since William’s death, and I’ve never even known about the day, much less done anything about it, as active and aware as I consider myself to be.

To be sure, others I spoke with mentioned hope and the need to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction:  “Only when the uninformed public realizes that anyone can suffer with this disease, will the stigma lessen,” noted one.  Another wrote, “Fighting the stigma honors the memory of those who have died – but it also goes a long way in helping those who are still in the fight.  And fighting the stigma is a triumph even if one mind is changed.”

Yet another mother wrote:  “Of course, this is a time that we remember all the beautiful lives lost.  This day is also the perfect day to encourage those still struggling with the disease of addiction that there is hope, to celebrate those who have found recovery, to talk about recovery in general, and to share the good stories too, as they represent a huge source of hope, strength and support for so many.”

Those whose lives have been touched by addiction get it.  They understand how we need to confront addiction and how much work it will take. But what about our politicians?  What about our leaders?  Where are they?

I recently happened upon an essay by a high school classmate and good friend of mine, Professor Tom Van Nortwick.  Tom has just retired after a most distinguished career as a classics professor at Oberlin College.  In his essay, he mentions the plague of Athens in 429 B.C.  The Greek historian, Thucydides, a rare survivor of the illness, wrote about the sufferers.  As Tom translated in his essay:

Once stricken by the disease, victims lose all hope.  Those who go to take care of their friends are destroyed for their trouble; those left alone out of fear of infection die of neglect, desolate.  Wrapped in a cloak of illness, the social structure of Athens warps:  “For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would next happen to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or of law”(2.52).

Thucydides could just as easily have been writing about the suffering of our drug-afflicted and the disregard for them that has been the acceptable norm in our country for far too long, certainly both before and after the founding of Overdose Awareness Day.  When it comes to addiction, we as a country remain as ignorant, fearful, and reluctant to act as Athenians living in 429 B.C. were about the plague.

During that same year, Pericles, the great leader of Athens, spoke about the example of the democracy he led in Athens and of the power of the people to create change:
Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare than in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and to do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility.  (2.40-41)

Where is our Pericles?  Where is the leader, or leaders, who will ask more of us, as individuals, and most importantly, as a society?  Where is the leader who will lead us in our battle that requires “exceptional grace and exceptional versatility?”

For me the best way to honor the day, to honor the dead, to honor the recovered, is to sound the call for a leader, to demand more of our leaders.  This year cannot be soon enough to begin long necessary change.  We need someone to recognize that vast numbers are dying daily. Someone who will make International Overdose Awareness Day the day that begins the end of all the Every Single Days. A day that is not one more drop in the bucket, but truly turns the tide.