When Opioids Come For Your Kids
The New York Times yesterday published a gripping story about how opioid addiction afflicted the lives of an astonishing number of graduates of the high school Class of 2000 in a small Ohio town. I rag on the Times all the time for its liberal bias, but this is the kind of gut-wrenching journalism that justifies my subscription. Here’s a screengrab:
Folks like to think that these things only happen to Other People — that it’s possible to build a wall high enough to keep this stuff out. Well, is there a social wall higher than that built by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities of New York? Ha’aretz reports that opioid addiction is a significant probelm there. Excerpts:
Although Yehudah Benjamin understands the need for some families to shelter their children from being exposed to drugs, he points out that addiction does not stop at even “the most religious background.”
Looking back at her children’s experience with addiction, Sarah Benjamin believes that those who turn to drugs do so out of deep pain, often stemming from a sense of isolation or lack of connection. “When people are in pain, they do what they can to ease the pain,” she says. “You’d have to live in a cave not to know [drugs] exist.”
It is that same pain that drove Elana “Ellie” Forman to addiction, starting at her Orthodox high school in Teaneck, New Jersey. “A lot of it was fear,” the 25-year-old recalls. “I didn’t feel like I fit in, I didn’t feel connected to my peers at the time, so I was nervous about high school.”
Regular therapy sessions didn’t improve things, and at college she developed an eating disorder and started smoking weed, taking prescription pills and using cocaine. “Anything that anyone would offer me, if they told me it was going to make me feel better — I would take it,” she says.
Forman defines her state of mind at the time as a “spiritual void. I felt like I wasn’t pretty enough, or I wasn’t good enough, or I wasn’t going to achieve anything with my life. It’s a lack of spiritual connection to the universe, to other people, to a higher power. It’s just a disconnect.”
After a few years, Forman reached breaking point and decided to seek help. “I wasn’t functioning sober, I wasn’t functioning when I was high, and I was either going to get help or I was going to kill myself,” she recalls. “I just impulsively texted my parents and I was like, ‘I’m doing drugs, I need help.’”
It took about two months until she checked herself into rehab. But Forman’s parents, Lianne and Etiel, had immediately gone to work, trying to find other families in the same situation, professionals or “anybody who could give us an idea of what we were dealing with,” recounts Lianne.
“We kind of struggled to find anybody else who was dealing with this, and that’s when it occurred to us: People just don’t talk about this,” she says. “Obviously, given national statistics, there’s no way there weren’t other families dealing with the same issue.”
“Giving them the tools [to deal with refusing drugs],” Behrman says, “doesn’t mean they’re going to try it out.” However, he also argues that being an Orthodox Jew could contribute to prevention. The more an individual has strong roots in their community and doesn’t feel a sense of detachment, the lesser the chances of their turning to drugs, he believes.
“We have a great support system in the Orthodox community,” Behrman says. “We have large families, with uncles and aunts who can be supportive. But there is also a downside to that: When a kid [in a family] of 10 becomes addicted to drugs, he exposes nine siblings and 50 cousins to it.”
For Kasriel Benjamin, seeing other family members suffer from addiction may have been a key risk factor.
“Kasriel couldn’t have had more personal experience with drug use and what it does to a family,” his mother Sarah says. “He knew, and he still overdosed and died.”
What Behrman says about the strength of a close-knit, religious community strikes me as true, but, as he also says, there are downsides. I think, though, that the closeness and the religiosity doesn’t make any difference if people within the community are too ashamed to talk about it.
I dunno, the older I get, the more I see how common it is for people to create psychological and social barriers so they don’t have to confront serious problems. I think about how my late sister, who heroically fought cancer for 19 months, and her husband never once talked about the possibility that she might die — this, even though she was almost skeletal at the time of her sudden passing from a burst blood clot. This is the downside of her strength of character: they were both afraid that if they admitted the possibility she might die, that everything would fall apart. It has been almost ten years since her cancer diagnosis, and the more distance we travel between now and then, the more I recognize how much our family system had internalized the idea that if we followed the rules and stayed close to each other, really bad things wouldn’t happen to us. Cancer, of course, is not drug addiction, but I think that we were all living in a kind of fantasy world about being able to control the world.
Over the Thanksgiving break, I ran into a friend who was home for the holiday. She is a prosecutor in a rural county. I asked her how she liked her job, as I hadn’t seen her since she took it. She said it’s a real challenge. What has amazed her is coming face to face with the realities of poverty, the collapse of family structures, and addiction. She had not realized until taking this job the extent to which middle-class people wall off this reality. She told me the most difficult thing is seeing the little children of these wrecked people who show up in court for trial, and realizing that absent a miracle, there is no way that those kids are going to break free of the appalling gravity of their parents’ derelict culture.
The thing is, all it takes is a serious drug addiction to shatter the illusion of middle-class stability. And, as the Orthodox Jews in the Ha’aretz story say, being religious and conservative is no guarantee.
Has anything like this happened to you or to your family? If so, what do you wish you had done differently to deal with it? What did you do right? It has not hit my family, thank God, but it’s everywhere, and I want to know this stuff now, so that I can protect my family, and not sit complacently behind a wall of illusions.
UPDATE: From reader Anonymous:
I’ve been dealing with a methamphetamine addiction for about twenty years now. Raised Catholic, in a well-educated upper middle class family where a university education and professional career were both expected. Loving parents who are still together after almost fifty years.
I cannot quit this stuff. Fortunately, I am not a daily user. I don’t do it to feel normal. Instead I go on days long binges, followed by a week-long recovery period. When I am not using, I am prone to depression and anxiety, which I have learned through long experience to “manage” through diet and supplements. My depression usually maxes out at the “wishing I was dead” level but only very rarely rises to the point of actually making plans to make that happen, let alone acting on them.
I wish I could point to some trauma in my life that caused this, some event, some abuse, some violence. But there’s nothing for me to really sort through like that. My childhood was reasonably happy. We moved around a lot when I was young, so perhaps the experience of losing my friends three or four times contributed to it, but lots of kids experience that and end up more resilient. Maybe it was the constant feeling of having to live up to expectations; I feel a strong sense of what the psychologists call “socially prescribed perfectionism,” which means you hold yourself to very high standards not because you take joy in doing things well but because you feel you will be rejected if you don’t. But God knows that parents from my background these days are all pushing that on their kids and they don’t all turn out to be drug addicts. Or maybe a lot of them are, which might be a point of the article. Looking back on my teenage years, I can see a lot of behaviors that look like depression of some kind. Or maybe I was just an introverted kid who loved reading and computers a lot. So is it self-medication? Then there’s the whole “fitting in” thing, where, for a variety of good reasons, I’ve never felt as if I really belonged anywhere.
But I suspect that searching for reasons and causes and roots of my addiction are all beside the point for me. God knows I’ve had tons of counselling and therapy and rehabs and support groups and most of it hasn’t been worth a damn. Same goes for twelve step groups. It all seems to work for some people but not for me.
And then there’s religion. In spite of my Catholic upbringing, the only real faith I’ve ever had in my life was the trusting faith of a child. As soon as I became able to do any kind of reasoning, it all evaporated. Nothing I’ve done since then, including religiously oriented rehab, has ever been able to bring even the proverbial mustard seed back. And I’ve worked at it, hard and over long periods of time. I see it working in others and feel nothing of it in myself. I am deeply envious of those who have faith.
I am despairing of finding an answer to my addiction. Having tried everything I can think of, I despair of finding myself a way to stop. I’m still trying, even if the fight seems hopeless more often than not. In the meantime, I try to practice “harm reduction” when I can’t practice abstinence, but when life seems worthless, even reducing harm can be a challenge. And I have other chronic conditions that require maintenance work that falls by the wayside every time I binge. It all feels like a decades-long, drawn out suicide.
I have my achievements in that time, including multiple degrees. But none of that brings any sense of accomplishment or pride. They are just mile markers on a death march towards…what really? It sometimes surprises me how outwardly successful I have been over the years in spite of my addiction. But those thoughts lead me back to considering what I might have been had I lived up to my potential. “Potential”—the one truly dirty word in my vocabulary, that I have been hearing over and over again since elementary school.
The theory I’m currently looking at is that I refuse to stop because I enjoy it so very effing much. Yes, in spite of all the pain and heartache that comes as a result. This terrifies me: I once knew a very low level dealer who got into that line of work to have a regular supply of his own. He shot up every single day. He was unemployable otherwise. He was couch-surfing homeless. He had multiple untreated health problems. He told me once before it killed him that he would stop when the bad outweighed the good. Apparently even on his deathbed it was still worth doing.
I’m getting older now. Definitely middle aged. I’ve heard that age can sometimes lessen the need to use. That things that were so irresistible in youth lose something of their allure. That’s where a lot of my current hope lies right now, that I can still, somehow, grow out of this with the help of everything I’ve tried and done to stop over the years. It’s not much, but enough to keep me trying.
I have nothing much to offer in the way of advice. I can tell you that I am not prone at all to using other drugs, including nicotine and alcohol. In my twenties I had hubris enough to declare that I didn’t have an addictive personality. Perhaps this is a punishment for that youthful pride. So maybe that’s the lesson I can offer: do not judge the addict in your pride that you are free of addiction. I am proof that everyone, everyone is vulnerable, and that any one of you, no matter what your background, could be in my shoes. If you have avoided my fate, it is no virtue of your own, or your family’s, or your religion, community, or social status. It is nothing but blind chance, or the grace of God.