Death on Christmas Day

Joe and Charlene’s son Patrick would be 41 years old if he were alive today.  Patrick was a lovable, introverted, very bright young man whose warmth and sensitive spirit made him easy to befriend.  No one, not his parents, sister or neighbors would ever have predicted that he would die at age 24 of a heroin overdose on Christmas Day.  His mother found him laying face down in his bedroom. The unthinkable had occurred and like many families throughout Fairfield County facing similar tragedy–no one understood why.

Eighteen years later the pain in Joe and Charlene’s hearts for Patrick remains palpable as they fought off tears recalling the last day of his life as we shared lunch recently at a Norwalk restaurant. “We have thought of Patrick everyday since 1998 grappling with just how everything went so wrong.” said Charlene.

Nearly one Connecticut resident dies each day from opiate overdose and their families ask what happened.  Heroin and opiate addiction, once considered an issue for low income areas of major US cities is now be recognized as a problem for well off suburbanites. A record number of law enforcement drug busts and deaths of young people in Greenwich, Westport, Darien and Stamford seem to claim headlines in our local newspapers when two short years ago overdose deaths in these same communities would have been unheard — concealed to spare families the shame and embarrassment of failing to be perfect.  Most parents and family members feel just like Joe and Charlene when a loved becomes addicted to heroin or prescription narcotics – they simply do not know where to turn and what to do.

The good news is that narcotic addiction can and is successfully treated everyday. The best way to fight the problem and win is not a war of drugs, or stepped up law enforcement, or even a dose of Narcan. This may not be everyone’s problem, but everyone needs to be part of the solution. Here is what will work.

Refrain from assigning blame it only saps you and your loved one of the energy and brain power you will need to improve the situation. Addiction is blind to age, race and social-economic status—it is an equal opportunity destroyer.

Accept as a fact the addiction to alcohol and drugs is a chronic medical disease; many people initiate the use of substances but only 10 percent will become addicted and that is due to biology. Your genes play a significant role in your addiction risk factors. It takes more than willpower and good intentions to stop.

Understand that medication for opiate addiction works and is even better when combined with counseling services according to Dr. Mary Jane Kreek a legionary medical researcher at Rockefeller University NYC.  Counseling alone simply is not effective as 85 percent of narcotic addicted persons chronically relapse to illicit opiate use without medication. The use of medication to combat addiction may be temporary or long term depending on the individual, but it does work. A relapse and return to illicit drugs may lead to overdose death after abstinence.

Encourage your loved one to continue their medication regime even when they feel well.  Openly support the use of medication as an effective treatment. Failing to continue with medication treatment under the supervision of a doctor can have serious consequences.

Stay focused and remain resolute. Substance use disorders require a lifetime of vigilance. Solutions come by running a marathon and not a sprint.

These shouldn’t be hard things to do. If we care for those we love, if we care about others in our community – it’s worth a try.

This article appeared in the November 24, 2015 issue of the “Norwalk Hour”

By Alan Mathis

President and CEO of Liberation Programs