Saturday, July 3, 2021

A Father's Grief: Shaken From Silence When Pandemic Diverts Attention From Addiction

In December of 2020 I had the following essay published in Addiction and Drug Abuse Weekly. I share the text below 

By Bill Williams

Eight years ago Dec. 2, William, Williams’ son, died from an overdose. What follows is his story, beautifully told for ADAW. But it’s much more than his story. It’s the story of how one bereaved parent has moved on to advocacy for public health.

In early March, as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted lives everywhere, but especially in New York City, my wife, Margot, and I fled our Manhattan apartment to our house in the rural Catskills. 

Spring dawdled and teased while we acclimated to seven lives — our children and grandchildren — covering a 75-year span under the same roof — eight lives counting Archie, the dog, who also made the trip from Chicago. 

Leaves finally budded. Archie patrolled the outdoors chasing after squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, deer, even treeing a mama bear while her cubs hid nearby. We dug potatoes in my garden, picked berries, cartwheeled, raced, and kicked balls on the lawn. We summered as a family, not always devoid of tension in close quarters, but safe, secure and often able to relish our time together. 

Out there, beyond us, COVID-19 continued to increase its toll, infecting victims and headlines in a world Zooms away. Blessedly, we all remained healthy.

COVID amnesia

For me, at least, caution and prudence stealthily seeded an unanticipated manifestation of the virus. Focusing heavily on COVID-19 invited a kind of amnesia, an intellectual and emotional disconnect from other important issues. Chief among them: the long-term drug epidemic besetting our nation.

My detachment began innocently enough with a cluster of precautions in early spring. A planned presentation to a group of doctors specializing in addiction medicine at a New York City hospital was sensibly changed from an in-person meeting to one online. An in-studio radio interview with a local Catskill station was postponed (no rescheduling as of this writing). Finally, the monthly program on addiction I hosted on a local public radio program was suspended in an effort (still continuing) to limit access to the station facility to a skeleton crew of paid staff. 

While on the surface sensible and benign, each adjustment resulted in less engagement with addiction issues: the exchange of ideas while not “on the air,” informal illuminating discussions and introductions to other valuable resources. There was no need to line up guests for a program that wasn’t airing. Practical, reasonable behavior centered on COVID-19 became a malaise of inattention when it came to addiction. 

Addiction’s presence

While my attention drifted away, addiction in America did not. Indeed, it persisted and found its way to my doorstep midsummer. It began with an online introduction to a man using theater to help spur on people in recovery — a man after my own heart. Even so, I was slow to follow up. Not being able to “find the right time” was a convenient excuse.

It took more direct contact to spur me on, to reinvigorate my spirit as an advocate. A friend asked if I’d be willing to talk to another father, a man grief-stricken that his son’s drug use might lead to imminent death. We talked on the phone several times. Mostly, I listened to a father terrified of losing his son — feeling helpless, feeling like he’d exhausted his resources both financially and emotionally, weeping unabashedly, seeking what comfort he might from a father who’d already lost his son. I told him how much I understood how he felt, what he was going through.  

What went unsaid, though we both knew it — my story had no happy ending to offer as consolation. 

An email late in September from a friend who is a long-standing, forceful advocate shook me. It shared the sudden loss of a family member who’d struggled with substance use for a long time. The circumstances were familiar: relapse after a period of sobriety, discovered at home but too late for Narcan or EMS to save. This was someone who gave the outward appearance of recovery but was sadly unable to resist the siren call of cravings. 

My son

Mid-October arrived, the annual reminder of the sequence of events that led to my son, William’s, fatal heroin use eight years ago. On a crisp, sunny fall morning, knowing his drug compulsion was endangering his life following numerous overdoses and hospitalizations, William packed a bag and went to the detox unit of a Manhattan hospital seeking admittance for inpatient detox. He detailed his injection of heroin, along with his use of benzodiazepines, marijuana and alcohol.  

Not much more than an hour after walking in the door, he was denied his request, his insurers determining that inpatient detox was “not medically necessary.” Four days later, William overdosed for the last time, lingering for six weeks, his brain irrevocably damaged before we removed him from life support.  

The media

Exactly on the anniversary of William’s denial, The Washington Post ran a headline — “The opioid crisis didn’t disappear amid the pandemic. It still calls for urgent action.” The article that followed was all too similar to articles I discovered before and after in The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, and The Daily Beast. They all chronicled dire circumstances, including the following in no particular order:

§  diversion of personnel and resources from addiction services;

§  a reduction in services and service capacity;

§  increased drug use in the population at large;

§  an increase in deaths from overdose;

§  trends in the number of drug deaths heading upward again;

§  isolation and quarantine making it hard for people to have important person-to-person contact, or even to venture from home to obtain services they need;

§  an increase in homelessness and people living on the streets; and

§  people of color continuing to bear a particular burden.

There are surely more stark details to be added to this list. Clearly, however, there is sad irony in the fact that the closeness and connection that aid harm reduction and recovery run counter to the separation and distancing necessary to combat COVID-19.

No more silence

At least in some states, laws have changed. Change and progress have been such that were William to go to a hospital these days, he would not immediately be denied treatment and turned away. Under ordinary circumstances. But COVID-19 has disrupted progress and at least temporarily set us back to a time when obtaining effective treatment is again a daunting task.

My advocacy and my attention to the addiction epidemic lapsed as I responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, in response to the pandemic, we’ve suffered a relapse in our ability to reach, treat and support people, wherever they may be on the road to recovery. My fear is that we might suffer a collapse of that road, that we’ll need to go back to rebuild infrastructure, to replenish resources, to reinforce personnel. I fear the road to recovery will become a toll road, a toll paid in the deaths of those unable or not allowed to even set foot on that road.

When I write, I often do so in the quiet at the beginning of my day — alone and removed from distraction, with hours sometimes passing before I speak to anyone. When interrupted by a phone call or a late riser in the house, I often find I have to clear my throat before I speak. Too much time has passed saying nothing. When it comes to the drug epidemic, it is time for me to clear my throat and speak up again — louder, and more often if need be. Time to get back in action. Time to find new ways to start a conversation.



Bill Williams is a teacher and freelance writer.  Since the heroin overdose death of his son, William, Bill has written and spoken frequently about addiction. Reach him at




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